Things are starting to heat up down here in Winter Haven as we approach the unofficial halfway point. Until recently, spring training had been light and cordial, full of “get to know you” meetings and explanations of what was to be expected.
Now, it’s no longer the 80-degree days that are making players sweat but the fact that team rosters are starting to take shape while careers come to an end.
Last Friday was the first indication of where one stands within the organization when Indians personnel were tentatively arranged into teams for the upcoming season. In minor league baseball placement is everything. The only thing worse then getting stuck on the team you played for the year before is being dropped down a level. Situations like that have recently prompted the first wave of players to “hang ‘em up”.
I will never forget the expression on a recent retiree’s face when he returned to the clubhouse following his annual one-on-one meeting with Indians top brass. As he shook hands with the young men he has called teammates for the six previous seasons, there seemed to be a look of both shock and uncertainty on his face: a mix between “is this really happening?” and “someone please convince me this is a bad decision.”
Another teammate recounted the details of a meeting in which he was told he may be placed on the fast track to the Class High A Kinston Indians or else there was a “very real possibility” that he could be released. It’s a lot of pressure when you consider that your performance in one short month could make or break your childhood dreams of playing in the big leagues. However, at the age of 24 a player is on the downside of a minor league career. And one way or another, a decision will have to be made on his future within the organization.
The truth of the matter is that the life of a minor leaguer is accelerated, highly competitive, and often short-lived. For example, I would venture to say that half the players in the Indians minor league system over the age of 23 are already married or engaged. Many of them also have kids they have to support.
This is especially bizarre when one considers where my fellow ’06 classmates will be at the age of 24. Perhaps they will be finishing up law school or two-year analyst positions at investment banks. Surely most will not be making the kinds of decisions that affect whole families. Unfortunately, over the past few days I have seen this kind of pressure placed upon many of my teammates.
For many players the game of baseball and the lifestyle associated with it is all they have ever known. Nearly half of my teammates went immediately from their high school graduations to the minor leagues. They have grown accustomed to riding in buses for eight hours, staying in hotels, and playing the game they love in front of thousands of fans. The reality is America’s pastime is a business and one with a very low success rate. But hey, you gotta give it a shot.
—Frank Herrmann can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His diary appears every Wednesday.