Reporting Ken Carman
If you’re a baseball fan, you’ve probably seen Bull Durham. Most can recite lines, even entire scenes from the movie. The film’s director, Ron Shelton, got a lot of ideas for it from his own minor league experience as a player. While it may be technically fictional, I can tell you right here, right now, that a lot of it is fact.
Spring training is a special time for me. I pay attention to the normal players that every Indians fan pays attention to. I want to make sure Asdrubal can turn spring training fast balls, that Josh Tomlin will stay healthy and throw through March, and that the fielding knocks off the rust and returns to form (they’ve committed two errors in the first inning of Sunday’s games as I type this sentence). I also check other names. Names of guys I’ve written down in scorebooks over the last few years. Names of guys you’ve never heard of or will never hear of.
Before coming to The Fan, I was the play-by-play broadcaster of The Akron Aeros for two seasons. What I saw and heard was hilarious, frustrating, heart-wrenching, and informative all at the same time. It also made me much better at my job now, as I’ve gotten to see what it takes to get to the majors, both off the field and on, what it’s like to be one of the up-and-coming prospects, and what it’s like just trying to keep from having to go home for the summer.
So here are the top 7 things you should know about Minor League Baseball:
1. If you are reading this, you probably make more than a lot of the players do
Some players are on Major League contracts with big signing bonuses, but a lot are not. Most players at the AA level, make around $1,500 a month during the season. Single-A players make just over $1k a month while players in rookie ball or short season single-A make around $800 (and have local host families take them in for the season). Only in AAA will you find some players that are making larger sums of money ($100k and up) and most of those guys are former major leaguers or guys who are on the 40-man roster who get called up in a pinch. $100k is nothing to sneeze at, but a lot of guys won’t make it to AAA ball to see that kind of pay-day.
The minor leagues are also riddled with guys who have done what a lot of very young men do- overspent. All players get some sort of signing bonus, and what they do with it is up to them. In different player lots you may see a myriad of of shiny, expensive cars. For a lot of those guys, that’s all they have. And if they don’t make it in baseball, that’s all they’re ever going to have.
2. It’s a game, but it’s a job like anything else
Before going to the Aeros, I was a college football and basketball broadcaster. With high school and college teams, everything is regimented. Practice, training, treatment, film, study. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack time is all at the same time with mandatory attendance. Professional baseball is an eye opener. For example: two times, two different seasons, in Reading, Pennsylvania I had to get a taxi to the ballpark because the bus had left without me. Bus times to the ballpark changes, work out times change, and just like a Monday morning creative meeting, it’s your responsibility to be there. If not, they find someone who will. The only team stuff might be at the hotel, or in the clubhouse. In mostly everything else, you are responsible for you. Some guys come in early to get more work or to get more treatment. Others may stumble in a bit late because it’s a get-away day, and they could have it off. I have to admit, the first trip I ever took with a pro team was eye opening.
3. A lot of guys are nice, some aren’t
Over my time in the minors I stayed extremely quiet. To get the opportunity was something I took seriously and I was warned very early by top brass not to “get in the way” of what the players were setting out to accomplish. But if you spend that much time on a bus, walking around a hotel and ballparks, you’re going to at least say hi to a few guys.
I can say this, Indians fans shouldn’t have anything to worry about if their son or daughter meets one of the Tribe this season. Every Indians Organization player I came in contact with was nice. Every guy has as a bad day, but none of them ever took it out on fans. That wasn’t the same for a couple instances I saw with a couple other organizations.
4. “Autograph Sharks” are the worst
Fans are great, and for any minor league player, it’s a dream for them to have a kid shyly hold out a hat with a sharpie and muster enough voice to ask a player for an autograph. It’s the ones who profit from the autographs who take it too far.
Every city has Autograph Sharks. Autograph Sharks are grown men who push past dads and kids who are waiting to get one single autograph from the guy who just became a 6-year old’s favorite player because he hit a homerun, to make sure the same player signs a full sheet in 8″x11″ his binder, to ensure he’ll make some extra money if the player ever gets to the majors. Most of these guys won’t buy tickets to the game. Instead choosing to show up to wait for the players bus at 1:30, and then come back to the ballpark after the game.
A lot of players can’t stand Autograph Sharks.Fair warning to them, I’ve seen players take to the bus mic and have an impromptu roast of the sharks as they stand outside the bus waiting for anyone to go in or come out. It’s extremely embarrassing for the sharks, and extremely funny for everyone else.
5. A good manager is worth his weight in gold
It’s not just situational baseball that managers have to deal with. A minor league manager is in charge of protecting players on the field and off. He does his absolute best to make sure a top 100 prospect is doing what he needs to do to get to the next level. He’ll make sure he protects a player’s confidence (making sure a power hitting prospect stays in the clean up spot) and he’ll make make sure he protects arms.
In fact twice in two years, two different managers pulled pitchers heading into the 8th innings with no-hitters (both decisions were received with a chorus of boos). If the organization only wants a pitcher pitching “x” amount of pitches, he’ll stay right there. A no hitter in the minor leagues means nothing to the organization except only for more wear and tear on arms, and it may mean only a little more to fans. Maybe a dozen or so Indians fans would recall that Jeanmar Gomez actually threw a perfect game in Akron in 2009. No hitters, and especially perfect games are celebrated in the majors. They are only a nice memory for those who might have been there in the minors.
6. It can wreak havoc on a player’s personal life
While some players are bachelors in every sense of the word, a lot of guys are in serious relationships or even married…and baseball can be hell on a relationship.
Nearly every night going to get ice in the hotel hallway, or outside a clubhouse, you can hear at least one player getting into a huge argument with a girlfriend or spouse who lives thousands of miles away. In the majors, wives live with their husbands in the city they play, or if he is making enough money, can fly to where ever the team goes if they really want to stay close. The minors do not have that luxury. Most players are from Texas, Florida, or California, and all of those states are a LONG way away from any city in the Eastern League.
As with a lot of sports, some players might have…trust issues. Yeah, trust issues is a good one. It would be amazing to see teams leaving Akron on their bus, with three or four cars with girlfriends who would be trailing behind the bus. I’ll say some of it is just young love (something we can all get behind), but some of it is just young couples, who may not trust each other 100%.
Personally, I was dating my wife when I was in baseball. Suddenly instead of being gone for a weekend here and there, there are now week long road trips, and eventually a month where the schedule has you on the road for three and a half weeks out of four. If you’re the most Western team in the league (which we were) it’s a long bus ride to pretty much everywhere (16 hours to Portland, Maine). The distance can take it’s toll. And I was lucky enough to live with my spouse in my home city. For players, even the home city can be thousands of miles away from “home”
7.It can be heart breaking
Before I stated that I was one of the lucky guys to be around a group of good players, who were good guys too. Which made trades, and cuts hurt more. There was one instance where a player was special. Good to everyone in the organization. Who went out of his way to great every usher he saw. Who trotted out to the parking lot in uniform to walk his elderly grandfather to his seat, then walk him back to the parking lot with his family every night. And it would kill you to know that he’ll never see a big league stadium in a big league uniform.
It’s reasons like that guy, that I’ll always pay attention to the “other names” in the spring training box score.
Extra: The best and worst that I’ve seen of the minors
Best Stadium- First Energy Stadium. Reading, Pa (Reading Phillies) Players hate it.
But to baseball fans, it’s a step back in time.
Worst Stadium- NYSEG Stadium. Binghamton, NY (Binghamton Mets…Bull would have to agree)
Best Road City- Annapolis, MD (Bowie Baysox)
Worst Road City- Altoona, PA (Altoona Curve) The stadium is excellent. The hotel they put you up in is a dump.
But there is a King’s Restaurant across the street.
Best Road Food- A small Chinese Restaurant next to the Double Tree in Trenton, NJ. Can’t remember the name.
Worst Road Food- Portland, ME. I couldn’t find a lobster place other than Red Lobster both times I was there.
Best Fans- Reading Phillies. Place was packed every night. The New Britain Rock Cats are a close second.
Best Mascot- I’m partial to Orbit in Akron. A close second is Slugger The Sea Dog in Portland, ME.
Worst Mascot- Steamer in Altoona, PA. Funny. But just kind of weird.