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Monday, July 11, 2005

A Minor Leaguer's Odyssey (Baseball)

Great article in today's USA Today about Ryan Zimmerman, the (high) first-round pick of the Nationals, and how he's making the adjustment from being an all-American at UVA to playing in the minors.

You might recall Jim Bouton's line from Ball Four -- "the minor leagues are very minor." He had a point.

The college kids go from a relatively pampered college experience -- flying to games and staying in nice hotels -- to a situation where they have to mesh with 25 guys who are new to them, live in cramped quarters, not make (at least for most of them) a ton of money and have to adjust quickly to a higher level of talent. It's not easy, and the Darwinism that goes on here proves that it's not just talent that wins out, it's also the ability to act maturely and cope.

One of the best points Buzz Bissinger makes in Three Nights in August is about former Cardinal (and Orioles' and Phillies') pitcher Garrett Stephenson. Stephenson frustrated Cards' skipper Tony LaRussa because he really hadn't figured out how to pitch. Instead, he relied way too much on his fastball, usually with bad results. The reason was simple, really. While Stephenson could get away with blowing his fastball by hitters in high school, his fastball just wasn't good enough to accomplish the same results in the majors. And Stephenson, of course, is far from the sole example of this phenomenon. In fact, it's the rare Major Leaguer who doesn't have to make adjustments constantly as he climbs the ladder to the big leagues. What worked in HS doesn't necessarily work in college, and what worked in college doesn't necessarily work in the pros. You not only have to work hard -- you have to get better.

The adjustments start in two major ways. First, living-wise, you're on your own. I recall phone calls from one of my closest friends while he was pitching in Rookie-League ball in the Appalachian League years ago. He called at dusk while sitting on a milk crate at a pay phone from a parking lot at the local supermarket (there had been a day game that day). He lived in a trailer with another player, and he had an old Toyota that barely got him around. And he didn't complain. At all. He loved what he was doing, and he knew he was paying his dues. Some of the kids straight out of HS didn't fare so well. This was their first time away from home, they came from small towns, they didn't know how to deal with failure well, and they ultimately didn't make it.

The guys who adapt are the ones who make it. It doesn't matter whether they're staying at a 4 Seasons or Super 8 or in between (which, yes, might be a Motel 6). All that matters is that they have a shot at their dream, they're playing a kids' game, and they are getting a chance to do what they've always done.

The second adjustment is to the game itself. Put simply, everyone is better. Even if you just played at national champion Texas, you'll find that not everyone on your team is professional material and, also, that the guys you're playing against are very good and very hungry (sometimes literally, depending on where they're from and whether they got a good signing bonus). The starting pitchers might be a little wild, but they can bring it. The hitters can get around on fastballs. The fielders have more range.

For some players, the adjustment takes a little while (not to mention the adjustment to wooden bats). Some never adjust at all. They can't get used to be awaying from their support network, they don't get used to the better pitching (or hitters if they're pitchers), and they can't get used to the accommodations. There are lots of HS and college heroes in every state, but many of those kids aren't multi-dimensional enough or adaptive enough to make it. What works well at home simply doesn't turn into an outstanding road act.

Those who make it are testimony to making the most out of the everyday and not to worrying about what the press writes or what the front office says. Front offices make mistakes, and opposing teams are all eager to pounce upon them. If young players let themselves get defined early, they'll fall victims to the gravity pull of criticism and fail. If young players let the commentary serve as a challenge to show the world that they can do that the critics say they can't, they'll have a shot.

And those players are, in fact, special kids. Because some people don't get it -- the ability to stay calm in the cockpit and be honest in their assessments of themselves (and eager to receive coaching and constructive criticism) -- until they're in their thirties and forties. Baseball players, of course, have to get it in their twenties (with the possible exception of lefty pitchers, who might be able to mature when they're in their early 30's) and get it fast.

Because there's always some player coming up to take their jobs away. Every day, every year.

There's the old saying that "it's the journey," and my bet is that those who focus on the journey and making the most of it fare better than those who lock and load on the destination and fail by doing so, because with each at bat they put pressure on themselves to make the majors. By contrast, those who focus on the journey simply want to have a 2-4 night with an RBI and an extra-base hit in Altoona. And you don't get to play in The Show without having those nights in the Altoonas, Readings and Trentons of the world.

Read the article, read Steve Fireovid's "The 26th Man" and other books about journeys through the minors, because that's where the stars are made and where the stars themselves earn their reputations.

And check out a minor-league game every now and then. It's a good time.


Blogger Robert Lindsay said...

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4:48 PM  

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