BALLPARK FRANK: Looking for Big League Answer

Editor’s note: Former Harvard hurler Frank Herrmann ’06, a prospect with the Cleveland Indians, reported to camp in Winter Haven, Fla., in early March. This is his diary.

As spring training draws to an end and the regular season approaches, one thought repeatedly resonates in my mind: “What does it take to be a major leaguer?”

What do I have to do to play in front of 40,000 people a night? How do I get my hands on the MLB league minimum of $327,000 or, even better, reach the league average salary of $2.5 million per season? How can I get my mug on a Topps baseball card? These represent just a fraction of the perks that athletes who reach the pinnacle of the baseball world receive each year.

When I was young, becoming a major league baseball player seemed like a sure thing. I told anyone willing to listen that I was going to be the next Mike Piazza or Roger Clemens. It was not an unusual dream, and one I am sure I shared with any kid who ever played catch in the backyard with his father. But right around the age of 14, reality sank in: the trek to the big leagues seemed like an insurmountable mountain.

I can remember the beginning of my freshmen year of high school, when I went to my first practice and tried to compete against juniors and seniors. They seemed infinitely stronger than I was and a heck of a lot more talented. But as time went on, I saw it was a matter of maturation that set me apart from these men.

Eventually I made the varsity team and set my sights on that elusive Division I scholarship. And the feeling of being overmatched and out of place sank in again.

My one month in professional baseball has been no different. Even as the competition has narrowed and I find myself one step away—albeit, a large step—from realizing my dream of playing in the major leagues, the necessary adjustment period must be conquered. I am now at the point where I am trying to balance the initial shock of brushing shoulders with my former idols and convincing myself that I belong.

Each day I‘ve been here, I’ve had that moment of realization when I say to myself, “What am I doing here?” Most of us experienced that feeling when we walked into the stately confines of Annenberg or saw our name alongside “Harvard University” on a letterhead.

I sometimes find myself staring at these guys and hoping they’ll tip me off to some super-secret inside tip about what I need to do to play at the next level. Two days ago, while I was sitting at the Indians’ preseason finale against the Cincinnati Reds, I again found my mind drifting to the oft-asked topic of what separates the big leaguers from those who are destined to toil and fizzle out in the minors.

This would be a much easier concept to pin down if all major leaguers were 6’7 and carved out of stone—but this is not the case. To be completely honest, most of these players truly look like regular guys, with five fingers a hand, five toes a foot (except for Antonio Alfonseca of the Texas Rangers, who was born with twelve toes and twelve fingers). Of course there are some exceptions to the rule (see a chemically altered Barry Bonds, et al.).

But even as I walk around the weight room and mix in sets with many of the major leaguers, I find that none possess superhuman strength. They are essentially normal. If their faces were not constantly displayed on ESPN they would be hard to distinguish from anyone else; this is especially true for many of the pitchers, who tend to be on the flabby side. One player in particular, thirteen-year veteran and Indians closer Bob Wickman (6’1 240 lbs.), could easily pass for a regular local patron at the Hong Kong, perched on a bar stool next to Touchdown Tom.

So again I struggle with the question, “What does it take to make the Bigs?”

I don’t have a working theory of my own yet, but over the last month I have come to understand why it is that so many players like myself are willing to put up with the $1100 per month salary and the never-ending bus rides of the minor leagues.

Because as long as you are here the dream is alive.

—Frank Herrmann can be reached at fherrman@fas.harvard.edu. His diary will be on hiatus as he works towards the minors in extended spring training.

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