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Adam Gardner Blogs About Life in the Minor Leagues

The Summer Read:

Life in the Minor Leagues

In his light-hearted baseball blog, Adam Gardner '04 gives an inside look at  dugout slang, surviving long bus trips, clubhouse etiquette and much more.

Some graduates take a year off to see the world before launching their careers. Adam Gardner '04 spent three immersed in a different side of American life, taking part in the national pastime as a minor-league baseball player.

A standout pitcher during his four years on the Pomona-Pitzer team, he was signed on by the San Francisco Giants organization after graduating as a politics major. His first season sent him to the Salem-Keizer (Ore.) Volcanoes as a relief pitcher, then he joined the Augusta Greenjackets for 2005 and, finally the Class A San Jose Giants for his last season.

Today Gardner is working as a consultant for the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington, D.C. In the fall, he's off to USC for his master's in public administration. He plans to go into public service, maybe run for office.

Wherever he winds up, Gardner will bring a duffel bag full of memories of his time chasing his big league dreams on $20 a day's pay. For his last season, Gardner kept a blog of his adventures, which we've reprinted in abridged form below. From the bus trips to the bullpen lingo, from the thrill of pitching at AT&T Park to the peculiar scent of the clubhouse, Gardner offers fun and poignant insights into minor league life. Batter up?

 

Friday | March 03, 2006

Welcome to Giants Spring Training

SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA -- Well, it's finally here ... the San Francisco Giants 2006 Minor League Spring Training Camp is underway. The grass is greener, the clubhouse is smaller, and the players are all ... bigger?

When seeing old acquaintances from teams in years past, we must spend at least a minute or two talking about each other's frame -- 'you've gotten a little bigger, man' or 'hey bud, you're getting pretty lean.' Then conversation moves to other topics: jobs in off-season, girlfriends, the new Scottsdale Days Inn wireless internet (blazing fast), video game skills, or how big any other Giants farmhand has gotten in the off-season.

We all have the same anxious/nervous/confident/awestruck mindset. In no other job does a company ask all its employees to come together for four weeks in sunny Arizona to practice their craft. H&R Block doesn't gather everyone up in mid-December to psyche them up for the tax season and see who can rip through a worksheet in under 5 minutes. We are about to be evaluated, conditioned, hurt, healed, lectured, taught the new new drug policy (emphasis on the second 'new'), hurt again, healed again, and sent packing for some random city we've never been to (hopefully) -- all in four weeks. Everyone in the Giants organization is here, and wondering where we'll be calling our girlfriends from in a month.

So here we all are, re-learning to subsist on $20 a day living next to a huge luxury shopping mall. We are here living every young boy's dream--playing on meticulously manicured green grass, pitching off perfectly shaped mounds, sliding into dirt watered down each morning specifically for us to...slide on.

Tuesday | March 07, 2006

Jargon and Close Calls

Baseball has its own jargon—like any other profession, pastime, or hobby. Yesterday I was a “ball magnet.”

I was waiting to throw a bullpen, kneeling in foul territory down the left field line of our practice field during BP (battling practice) when I heard someone yell “heads up!” Usually when this happens, everyone gives an obligatory look to the sky, and then continues about his business. I looked toward the field, didn’t see anything, and then turned around. Then things got weird. I saw about 15 faces alternating between me and some point in the sky with increasing rapidity, and growing more concerned. Then, another “heads up, Gardner!” I still couldn’t see anything, so I figured the ball had landed somewhere else, feeling relieved. Looking back towards the practice mounds, I heard someone running up behind me and then the smacking sound of a glove stopping a baseball about six inches from my right ear. Another pitcher had correctly guessed the ball’s trajectory (as it screamed toward my ear), run over, and pretty much saved my spring training. He looked at me, I looked back, nobody said anything, and then our left fielder said, “Hey, Gardner, looks like you’re a ball magnet today, huh?” Cue the 4th grade laughing, back slapping, and pointing.

Once I was proclaimed the “ball magnet,” I knew I had to be on guard the rest of the day, or face certain pain and suffering.

Sure enough, I had my next close call during bunting practice. Our hitting cages at the complex have breaks in the nets where players enter and exit. The machines are set up in the back, and pitch toward the front, where the entrances are, and people wait their turn (in order to eliminate any unnecessary walking—an extra 60 feet would really be too much.). So anyway, I was patiently waiting to bunt, passing the time explaining to someone where Pomona College is (not actually IN Pomona, CA) and why I went there (it’s actually a four-year, accredited college—“Really? Cool.”)— a daily speech I’m now fairly comfortable giving off the cuff. Then, a white flash tore across my field of vision, less than a foot from my face. When a baseball goes by you, it is less a visual sensation and more of an aural experience. The ball sizzles by you—then slams into something else, and about five seconds later you realize that it was close to ruining your day/month/career. And of course, the “ball magnet” jokes fire back up again and I felt lucky, ashamed, and still hunted.

Thursday | March 09, 2006

Consistency

We’ve heard the consistency speech over and over again. “We need you to demonstrate consistency on the mound,” they say, “and you’ll move up.” Today I finally came around and now believe it’s the truth. Those who perform are good at baseball—those who perform consistently will make lots of money playing baseball.

I think they’re right—the major difference between the minor and major leagues is not what guys can do, it’s how regularly they do it. I can go out and throw a curveball that could probably get major league hitters out (ok maybe, not probably). It would take me, however, probably 15 pitches to find it. Barry Zito (Oakland A’s) goes out and throws 95 percent of his curveballs right on the money. Lots of guys in minor league camp have put up great numbers on the radar guns…even three digit ones…but they don’t do it consistently. What you do on Thursday doesn’t matter as much as what you did in July, or how your 2005 was.

It’s the macro view versus the micro view. Taking this perspective is especially difficult when you’re only two years old in pro ball years. Every time I throw, the stakes are high for me, and every pitch counts, because I’m being evaluated. Every time Roger Clemens pitches, he has years of consistent performance to fall back on if things don’t go well. Consistency begets consistency.

Anyway, that’s what I came to realize today standing out the outfield during batting practice…which, coincidentally, was almost two hours long. We pitchers run around, selflessly ‘shagging’ balls for the hitters, demonstrating altruism in baseball, and they just take hacks, work on their swings, and spit and stuff. Who gets paid more? The hitters—that’s how you know it’s an offense-based game. Enough griping, though.

Wednesday | March 22, 2006

What's it like...

Today I was trying to think of what I’d want to know about professional baseball when I was like 9 or 10. I would probably first wonder about the free stuff.

When we signed, we got spikes, a jacket, a fleece, shorts, hats, a glove, pants, a few shirts, a cool duffel bag, and a plane ticket out to Scottsdale for mini-camp. Since then, the free stuff has tailed off. The perception of pro ballplayers that get everything for free is blown a little out of proportion. I had a guy ask me for my baseball bag at a game in Salem. I thought, “Um, yea, I’ll trade it for your briefcase and we’ll call it even?”

Next, I’d wonder what the whole deal with baseball cards was. When do you get one? When do you get a real one made by Topps or Donruss or Fleer or something.

I had a card made in Salem, my first year, then last year in Augusta as well. They’re cool because it’s a picture of me with my name on a baseball card, but not done by Topps or anything. That will happen when you’re invited to big league training camp, get called up in mid-season, or when someone at Topps thinks you’re going to be good enough to merit a baseball card. Each year, we all sign “contracts” with Topps—the rep comes into the clubhouse, and cuts us $10 dollar checks. He explains that this means Topps can make baseball cards of us without telling us. We think this is cool. We sign the papers. He leaves. We wonder when our card will come out. For most, probably never. But it’s cool to officially be under contract with the Topps Company. The checks are fun, too.

Finally, every young kid asks for a ball. I think kids’ fascination with the ball, and rightly so, is that all the balls you grow up throwing around are ratty, nasty, water-logged, boring leather rags. The balls that we play catch with at camp are white, dry, new, crisp ‘pearls,’ we call them. They smell leathery—and the organization will break out cartons of new ones every week.

So every once in a while at a game, you’ll hear a 10-year-old behind you, with his glove on his head, half a sno-cone spread all over his little league jersey, whining “Can I please have a ball? Please?” And then you take the ball out of your pocket, and before even winding up to throw it across the fence to him, his eyes get huge, the glove comes off the head, knees bent, and he’s ready to play third for the Yankees. You toss it to him, he catches it, and then looks at it just like you did when you were 11 and caught one. We all lie and say that we never did it. But still, part of you knows that you made a kid’s night.

Saturday | March 25, 2006

Baseball Glossary

Today I thought I would offer a beginner’s guide to baseball terminology. So many words used on the diamond make no sense in real life. In case you find yourself in the middle of a baseball dugout anytime soon, keep this guide handy and use it well. Spanish translations appear in italics.

Gas, Cheddar, Fire (fuego), Chunder, Thunder, Bringing it, Fuel (Gasolina), Petrol (or any other flammable liquids or gases) – A pitch thrown at a high velocity. Example: “Dude, Whit was throwing absolute thunder yesterday. He broke two bats. I wish I could bring it like that.”

Bomb, Bam, Laser, ‘Jumping ship,’ ‘Leaving the building,’ ‘Saying you will,’ ‘Leaving the yard,’ ‘Losing one,’ ‘Going yard,’ ‘Dropping Head’ – Home run, or the act of hitting a home run. Example: “I left a curveball up in the zone, and he hit a laser over the left field wall. First bomb I’ve let up this year. That guy drops head.”

Hack, Cut – A swing. Ex. “I was over taking hacks in the cage with the other pitchers—man, we’re really athletic.” …or… “Hey, they let the pitchers take cuts yesterday—wow, they were just flailing at the ball.” You pick.

The Yips – A pitcher has ‘the yips’ when he suddenly becomes unable to throw strikes. Many times this just happens out of the blue, and he will miss the catcher entirely. Also used when describing some pitchers who cannot throw to bases during routine plays in the field.

 

Monday | April 10, 2006

The First Outing

So not only have we started the season off, but I actually got in the game the other night…and got a win. Being a reliever, this is a rare occurrence. It also calls for another baseball glossary term: to vulture a win. Vulturing wins is a fine art. Many do it without realizing it; others have it down to a perfected science. I fall into the former category.

We were playing a seven inning game because it was a doubleheader from a rainout the night before. Our starting pitcher went a strong four innings, and came out when the team was ahead 5-4. The rule is, if you pitch through four innings in a seven-inning game, and you leave the game when your team is ahead, you are in position to get the win. OK. Starter leaves, Adam comes in. Now is when the vulture starts circling, smelling a potential victim. I (stupidly) give up an (unearned) run (not that we’re keeping track, but it was unearned…), and the score is tied. Because we’re no longer ahead, the decision becomes mine, not the starter’s. Now Adam is in position to get the decision. I finish two innings, and after my second inning (the 6th in the game), we score the go-ahead run. Now, I am the pitcher of record because there was a lead change in the game while I was pitching. Our closer comes in, gets the save, and I come out with a win for throwing two very average innings. So there it is: A "vultured" win.

Anyway, it was an OK outing—honestly it’s weird pitching anywhere for the first time, for a new team. You think to yourself—the plate is still 60.5 feet away, and the catcher looks the same, and the mound is the same, but still, things feel different. The funny thing is that being nervous on the mound feels exactly the same as it did 10 years ago pitching on my high school varsity team as a freshman. I was smaller than most of the hitters (still true), I wasn’t thinking enough about baseball, and was instead focused on how awesome and scary it was that I was pitching in a varsity game (read: professional game), and finally, I wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. I have yet to master the art of being relaxed on the mound. It’s even harder to do as a reliever, because rarely are you pitching in a mellow situation. You’re always throwing late in the game, cleaning up someone else’s (or, your own) mess, trying to slam the door and win the thing.

 

Thursday | May 11, 2006

Not these Giants, those Giants

Yesterday the pitching coach came up to me as soon as I arrived at the park, and said “You know you’re going up to San Francisco tomorrow, right?” After an awkward pause, I shook my head, laughed, and waited for the punch line. Nothing. “Yea, you’re going up to throw live to (Giants infielder Ray) Durham who’s coming off the DL.” Whoa.

Another righty on the team and I were told to be at ‘the field’ (AT&T Park, in the middle of San Francisco) at 1 o’clock this afternoon. We showed up, parked in the players’ parking lot, and walked in the back entrance of the field. I could see into the stadium through a little slit in the fence, and it would’ve been a great slow-motion movie sequence: Light glinting across the rich green grass, crisp white lines, and brilliant yellow foul poles.

We walked down a little ways, right to the clubhouse. It was the first clubhouse I’ve ever been in that smelled good. You walk in, and first notice that the old gym stools in front of lockers have been upgraded to leather executive’s chairs with the SF logo embroidered on them. Dark wood lockers, TVs mounted on the walls all over the place, and a stereo played mellow music as the clubbys walked around hanging laundry up in random lockers. We were actually given our own lockers for the afternoon, and I just plopped my bag down and tried to convince myself that I was there to do a job, not sightsee.

We dressed out, and walked down to the field. We were slated to throw a simulated game—about 20 to 25 pitches each, so that Durham could see pitches from both a righty and lefty. Again, I felt like I was in a movie. You walk down the tunnel, turn right, past a few cages and hitting equipment, and then another left, up some stairs, and there’s the field. You walk up the stairs, and splayed out in front of you is the stadium. The first thing I noticed was how it went up. Most of the time when you play catch at a field, you see trees, the sky, maybe a building in the distance as your background. Here, all you saw were seats—everywhere. The upper deck is literally on top of you. I can’t imagine what it would be like to play there when the place is packed. Awesome.

I ran a couple sprints in the outfield, and my legs felt amazing since my adrenaline was pumping so hard. We started playing catch, and again, my arm felt great. You try not to smile, try to pretend like you’re used to playing in a multi-million dollar stadium in the middle of a huge city, but every once in a while you just shake your head and laugh at it all.

Pitching was somewhat of a blur. Durham stepped in, the first pitch the catcher called was an inside fastball, and my first thought was don’t hit the guy. I put one over the plate and he slapped it to second base…I think. Everything went pretty well—Durham got hold of one to left center, but then again I pretty much served it up right down the middle. He’s a good hitter—waits until the ball is really deep in the zone, then slaps it the other way. I threw all fastballs and changeups—no curves.

About halfway through the outing, I looked over to the visitor’s bullpen, where it looked like a smaller righty from the Cubs was throwing a pen. I didn’t focus on it until the next time I looked, and realized that the guy throwing was Greg Maddux. Great—first time pitching in a big league stadium, to a big league hitter, and I have a 300-game winner throwing a pen behind me. Stay focused?

Anyway, it was a great time, and afterwards the bullpen coach came out and we worked on some stuff together, still on the game mound. Basic stuff, like keeping my weight back when I come set. Coincidentally, we have the same last name. He seemed pretty positive about my pitching, so that felt good too. I wasn’t as receptive to coaching as I could have been, since I was still trying to steal glances at Maddux over my shoulder. Nuts.

All in all, it seems like the afternoon went by in about a second and a half, but it was awesome—definitely something I’ll remember my whole life.

Thursday | June 01, 2006

The Magic Bus

I think one day I’ll look back on bus rides as one of my favorite parts of playing baseball. During the day, you put on your iPod and just listen to music and watch America fly by on the freeways, and at night, sit and watch a movie before dozing off. We’ve been playing Stockton these last few days, and because it’s only an hour and a half away, we bus there and back each day.

In the first 10 minutes of each bus ride, friendships are ruined and seniority rules, because everyone’s trying to get his own seat. It might seem trivial, but having two chairs to yourself on a tour bus is a world away from being holed up with another guy, possibly drooling all over you for a torturous journey back home. There are a few surefire ways to get your own seat on the bus.

  1. Be older than everyone else. The older veterans, we’re talking like over 26 years old, always get their own seats. Because they’re so old, however, they usually get there early and stake out their area. We’ve got a few on our team. Not to be messed with in the ‘awkward time,’ they can trump anyone’s argument for a seat simply by saying ‘I’m way older than you are,’ and everyone else agrees.
  2. Arrive early, set up camp. This strategy requires significant material possession and the effective positioning of one’s personal property. If you can get seated and spread everything you could possibly need for the trip all over your two seats, people are less likely to request to seat next to you. Popular items are fully booted laptop computers, half-eaten meals, blankets, etc.
  3. Arrive early, go to sleep. If you’re able to fall asleep after claiming a seat and setting up shop, you’re probably in the clear. Bring a pillow, get under a blanket, and just zonk out. Nobody will mess with you. I have, however, seen the ultimate awkward interaction, where at one point one guy sat down next to an already slumbering teammate, only to be ruthlessly booted from the seat after sleeping beauty woke up and pulled the seniority card. Some guys will call bluffs, however, if they don’t think a teammate is really sleeping. You’ve got to be totally out for this strategy to pay off.
  4. Set up camp ‘for two.’ Also called "The Gardner," I will frequently place belongings in both seats, so as to create the appearance of two people already claiming the same two-seat area. I’ll get there early, put my backpack and maybe a Gatorade on one seat, and then my laptop back with another (carefully selected) beverage on the other seat. Guys walk up, see two drinks and two bags, and continue down the aisle. I’ve patented the move and it works most of the time.

 

Monday | July 03, 2006

Getting an 'F' in Baseball

It’s fun to write funny stories about minor league baseball and its players, fans, and coaches, but this time I want to describe one aspect of baseball that isn’t fun—failure.

In a game where the greatest hitters get out 70 percent of the time, dealing with failure on the baseball field is a vital part of learning the game. I think this is even more important in the minor leagues, where players who have dominated their whole careers may start to struggle against better competition as they move up the professional ladder.

One major way that great players stand out from all the others is the way they handle failure in the game. If you have a .300 batting average, 7 out of 10 of your at-bats will end in failure, and you’ll walk back to the dugout unhappy with your performance. Some guys try to focus on the positives (I hit a breaking ball behind in the count hard, it was just right at somebody…), focus on the past (I’ve already got one hit tonight, so I’m ok…), or focus on the future (forget it, I’ll have three more at-bats tonight). Other guys accept at the outset that they will fail, and expect it when it comes, so they aren’t disappointed. And still others flip out, throw stuff, and expand the vocabulary of young kids sitting within earshot of the dugout during games.

When I was 12 years old, I popped out to left field in a little league all-star practice. A practice! I was so mad at myself that I kicked first base hard enough to break a toe in my foot, and I couldn’t pitch until later in our tournament. In some ways I guess I’ve learned to better deal with failure since then, but now and then that same 12 year old comes back and I lose it over this game—because it seems so easy, and messing up sucks!

Tonight I threw one inning, walked two guys, made a fielding error, and let three runs score in a close game. When I walked off the field, I wanted to put my head through the cement dugout wall.

Tomorrow though, I’ll show up, put my cleats on, and start the process all over again.

 

Saturday | July 08, 2006

Way back when ... and an ambush

Sitting on the bus with my iPod on to drain out the sound of other players talking on their cell phones, flipping through a magazine and half paying attention to the DVD playing in the background, I have to wonder what it must have been like to play on a team 30 years ago when none of this stuff existed. Well, except magazines…

Were the teams closer-knit as a result of their having to interact with each other on long road trips? At no other time is our team physically closer to one another than when we’re on the bus, but I think it’s when we speak to each other the least. Those who aren’t attached to their ipods are talking on the phone, and anyone else is watching the DVD playing on the bus’s entertainment system.

On the way back from our last trip to Southern California, the bus was having issues, so our driver turned the movie off, came on the loudspeaker and said, “Well boys, headquarters told me that we need to turn off all the extra electronic equipment in the bus if we’re gonna make it home, so night-night!” All the running lights turned off, and we were in the middle of I-5, doing 75 mph with nothing to do. Someone started a game of categories, which got old, because that’s what we do during games, not after them.

Then, someone suggested that since the lights were off, we make a covert excursion to the back of the bus. Why not? Well, we couldn’t just go back there, we had to make it like we were Navy SEALS and have call signs and everything. One guy started army-crawling rearwards, trying to scare a fellow player sitting in the back, and was taken prisoner by the back of the bus ‘rebels.’ Five minutes later, all hell broke loose. We were in full ‘manhunt’ mode. They launched a counter attack, and we snagged one of their guys. Thankfully, our man who’d been taken prisoner was an athletic center-fielder, and he hopped over about ten bus seats back to safety. Meanwhile, we’d bribed our own captive with magazines and candy, and he didn’t want to go back.

These weird episodes where we all lapse back into childhood make it fun, and keep the mood light. Nobody’s making money, few are moving up, but we’re winning games and every once in awhile get to act like we’re 10 years old again.

 

Thursday | July 13, 2006

If you were a fly on the wall...

This is what most people would be surprised by if they were a ‘fly on the wall’ in a minor league clubhouse:

TOP TEN MINOR LEAGUE CLUBHOUSE SURPRISES

  1. Most people would be absolutely appalled at the showers. Ours is small, cramped, with the same non-slip flooring that we have in the dugout—I don’t know if it’s ever been cleaned. Strange things grow in the corners, and simply wearing shower shoes doesn’t seem like a sufficient barrier. For some reason, though, after the first week of the season, nobody really notices it anymore.
  2. There is random stuff everywhere. We basically live in this place for six months. If we get back from a road trip really late, some guys will just sleep there—you have toiletries, a shower, and clean clothes. There are piles of luggage from guys who have been called up or down, random lost items, and in our case, a rotisserie chicken cooker that someone bought in April. Weird.
  3. Clothing is optional. We’re all guys, and before the game, it’s pretty warm in there, and so walking around in underwear (or less) is perfectly acceptable. This, however, is a habit that requires breaking after the season ends…
  4. Pre-game naps. As the season wears on and the days become hotter, pre-game naps become an essential part of the routine. It’s not odd to see no less than 8 players asleep on the clubhouse floor between BP and the national anthem. As long as they get out to their positions by the first pitch, they’re fine. Hey, we play every night…
  5. Baseball players are obsessed with their shoes. Our clubhouse manager has two cans of “Scrubbing Bubbles,” a fancy name for bathroom cleaner, that when applied to leather cleats, makes them look brand new. Seriously, try it. Before the game, everyone has to clean his cleats. Some players do this with astounding intensity—think MacBeth—“out, out damn spot,” etc. (double points for a Shakespeare reference in a minor league baseball blog…count it.) Even the starting pitchers who know they aren’t playing will clean theirs. Some guys say that they play better with clean cleats, others say that it’s just a good habit to get into. I like doing it because I look at my feet a lot—sitting in the bullpen.
  6. A clubhouse is actually that—a club’s house—so most of them have at least one TV and a couple couches. I don’t know, but I was surprised by this when I showed up in Salem, it was kind of cool sitting there before work outs, watching ESPN, and then going out and playing baseball in a stadium. We’ve got a sort of separate sitting room area with a TV up on a stand and a few couches—not really clean couches, but they still work.
  7. The smell. Each clubhouse has it’s own, distinct smell. Even visiting clubhouses smell unique. Salem’s clubhouse was the best-smelling, I think because the clubby sprayed the carpet with Febreze, thus masking it’s true stench/odor. Augusta’s was a cooler, damp smell, not mildew, but getting there. In San Jose, we’re definitely near mildew, and heading towards a combination between bleach and old shoes. I guess you could call it the "clubhouse cocktail" smell …
  8. Pants stretching. These days the cool thing is having long baseball pants that go all the way down to your cleats. In order to get this ‘look,’ you have to stretch the bottoms of your pants, so that you can put them over the tongue of your cleats, stuck there with spray adhesive available in the training room. To get your pants longer and ‘stretchier,’ you have to put them on, then cuff them up all the way above your knee, and then walk around for a while. Then you’ll get the perfect fit. Just watch a major league game and you’ll see the new ‘over the cleats’ style of pants.
  9. The mirror. I have a locker close to our mirror, and I have to dress early, because as game time nears, the mirror area is overrun. You’re not done dressing until you’ve checked out the look you have going—hat straight, eye black perfect, jersey tucked in correctly (wrinkles in the back, like a dress shirt), pants over the cleats, and shiny spikes.
  10. One cool thing we do is play the same song in the clubhouse after every win. I don’t even know what song it is, but we put it on really loud on the clubhouse stereo when everyone’s coming in after the game. It’s like a 5 minute post-game party, then the song ends, you dress back into your ‘civvy’ clothes, and go home to get ready to do it all over again tomorrow, including the shoes …

 

Thursday | August 17, 2006

Bakersfield and Quarters for a Ball

I’m sitting in the hotel lobby in Bakersfield, CA. As is the usual routine for final days on road trips, we must check out of our hotel rooms by noon, leaving our entire team homeless until the bus leaves for the field around 4 p.m. There are about 10 baseball players using the lobby’s wireless internet right now—the place looks like an internet café.

Bakersfield gets extra points for a nice gym, good food options close to the hotel, and a fairly decent hotel. The drawback is that the stadium might edge out the field from the movie ‘The Sandlot’ for the worst baseball field of the century award. When we came a month ago, there was no grass. I mean it: no grass. Apparently they accidentally sprayed herbicide all over the outfield grass instead of fertilizer, and the entire outfield turned brown. While the grass is growing back in, the field is still pretty rough looking, and the stadium doesn’t make things better.

When you stand at home plate and look toward the mound, you face directly into the setting sun. This means that no game can start until the sun set below the outfield fence, which is a 40 foot wall (smartly) built up so games can begin before 8 pm in late June. Attendance struggles also.had maybe 50 people at the last game. Ah, late summer minor league baseball

We had a great time down in Lake Elsinore, also. Someone in the bullpen had a great idea to calm the 30 or 40 little kids screaming for baseballs down the right field line right above our heads. We set up a plastic cup about 10 feet out into the warning track down the line, and told all the kids that if they made a quarter in the cup, they would get a free baseball. Within 5 minutes it was like Las Vegas on a Saturday night. Quarters flying in, we were making change with mothers, and kids were having a great time trying to score a baseball for 25 cents. We ended up making $50 dollars in two games. Since we were staying at the Lake Elsinore Hotel and Casino, we doubled down with our money, and turned that 50 into an even 100, all for throwing a cup on the field and giving away a few extra foul balls.

 

Wednesday | August 23, 2006

Signs it’s late August in the San Jose Giants clubhouse:

  1. People start talking more about fantasy football than baseball. By this point in the season, baseball ceases to be an acceptable discussion topic. For one, we’ve played a lot of games and are sick of it. Secondly, we’ve probably exhausted most of what you can say about baseball anyway, so there’s no point in seeking a novel topic. Fantasy football is where off-season bragging rights are won and lost, and how a lot of guys keep in touch. Our 12-member league is on Yahoo. We held the draft in a conference room at the hotel in Bakersfield, and although my team is very Redskins-heavy, I think we should be a force to be reckoned with this year.
  2. The pre-BP stretch routine has completely deteriorated. During spring training, our stretch routine would have impressed a drill sergeant—not a single player out of sync, choreographed form running, and all players giving their full effort. Now, our team’s stretch routine more resembles sheep grazing in the outfield. Most guys know what they need to stretch, and others simply figure that it’s hot enough they’re already loose…I guess?
  3. The Countdown Begins … No matter how well a team is playing, everyone knows the number of games left in the season when that number dips below 20. Anyone on our team could tell you we’re at 12, after tonight. Sample conversation: “Man, this is brutal, it’s really hot. When will BP end?” “Yeah, I know, only 12 to go, dude. Then playoffs. Then we’re done.”
  4. Our hats look like science projects. I try to keep mine clean, but some of the guys’ hats on our team are so sweat-stained that they’re not even black anymore. Some think it’s bad luck to clean the crusty, white, salty residue from the hat, so they just let it grow. Hats that started out jet-black are now an odd off-brown color, and so brittle they could double as batting helmets.
  5. The Little League World Series is on TV all the time in the clubhouse. We’re totally obsessed with it. These kids are in so many ways the opposite of us— playing their guts out trying to win each game, totally nervous on the field, and basking in the spotlight of a national TV audience. We watch it because it’s so real—the kids cry when they lose, the coaches yell, and anxious parents watch from the stands. I think we all miss parts of that (as well as the shorter 6 inning games…), so we’re big time fans of the LLWS.

Wednesday | August 30, 2006

 

A quick observation before I go to bed

 

Baseball owes it’s longevity as a sport to its perfection. Most of the time, games evolve to root out asymmetry—to make both halves equal, to put all players on equal standing, or to make the field totally square.

Baseball is uneven. It’s lopsided—sometimes really lopsided. If one team can’t get three outs in the bottom of the seventh, they might have to finish the game the next day because of it. Keep in mind, however, that even though there are no time limits on games, they almost all end after 2 ½ or 3 hours.

A hitter has three strikes, but a pitcher has four balls? Why is that? That doesn’t seem fair. Why not give a hitter four strikes, because it’s obviously harder to hit than pitch (remember good hitters fail 7 out of 10 times…)?

Those who know baseball revel in its asymmetry. They laugh when people ask why there is no halftime, or why no left-handers play anything but first base or outfield. Once the pattern of the game is learned, everything else makes sense. It’s like this elite club where people who "get it" can delve deeper into the details of this crazy game that for some reason, works out. Read Moneyball.

Or the fact that at any point in time, only two players from opposing teams actually face one another. But still, there’s this one guy who faces the opposite way of his own team on the field…and gets special gear, too. Games like football or soccer are directional—everyone’s going for this goal or that one. The baseball field is a shared commodity—you guys try your luck at it, then if you don’t, our team will give it a shot in the bottom half of the inning, using the same field.

Baseball is easily romanticized because of how crazy it seems to an outsider, but everything eventually works out and the game actually makes pretty good sense. Most of the time.

 

Monday | September 18, 2006

It's All Over...

Our season ended four days ago and it feels like I haven’t picked up a baseball in three years. Playing every day blurs time and skews one’s perception of how days, weeks, and months pass by. The last six months have been tedious but quick, difficult but simple, and both boring and exciting—all at the same time.

No other job could combine feelings of boredom and excitement. After your first few extra-inning games, you’re just rooting for offense—from either team—so you can get back home or to the hotel and go to sleep. I’m convinced that when I was on the mound pitching innings 12 through 14 at Stockton two weeks ago, the team wasn’t necessarily rooting for me, they were hoping for something else—resolution. It could be a vital part of the game—men in scoring position, two outs, and a struggling pitcher on the mound, but because you’re there every day, and see those moments every day, you’re not really moved by it. We’re not necessarily jaded, we just play a lot of games…

I’ve always been a competitive player, intense on the mound—sometimes too intense, and willing to grit it out in tough situations. This year, though, really tested that. After a few bad outings in a row, with nothing else to take my mind off of baseball, it was really hard to keep it all together. I can’t imagine the added pressure that some guys have on them in the big leagues—contracts, media scrutiny, or crazy fans—and yet they still slump, break out, and streak over and over again, season after season. What comforted me the most after bad games was not that "the game didn’t matter" because we had so many more, or that I was on a winning team and they would pick me up, it was that I had other things I could do with my life. I could walk away from baseball and still be OK. Not everyone could. Knowing that I could get a good job or go back to school helped me keep a level head when I wanted to ram it into something after giving up back to back home runs…

So we’re all done. Nobody will hound us for autographs, ask for balls, or care what we’re doing every night from 7 to 10 pm. Until we all come back next March, we fade back into lives of normalcy. Like the old timers who all came back and played on the ‘Field of Dreams’ in that great movie, at the end we all sort of walk into the cornfield, slapping each other on the back, laughing and thinking about next year. Because in everyone’s mind, next year means “I’ll hit .350 with 100 RBIs and move up to Fresno.” Or “Next year they want me to be a closer so I’ll do well and get a September call-up to the big leagues.” Next year is all that matters.