Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Steve Kline Christmas

A conversation with Steve Kline is like a conversation with a flying cow. Even if you don't learn anything, it's going to be memorable.

Kline, who played eleven seasons in the big leagues, began his coaching career last year as the pitching coach of the Augusta GreenJackets, the Low A affiliate of the SF Giants. The guys loved him.

I was a little leery about Kline's coaching abilities. Let's face it, just because the guy could made left-handed batters look as foolish as a fattie in a Speedo doesn't mean he'll be able to teach the skill. And he always seemed so goofy. Soon, however, I was hearing stories from other guys claiming he was the best thing for pitching since Eddie Cicotte invented the knuckleball. Two months into the season, teammate (and great guy) Dan Runzler proclaimed him his savior. My doubts were allayed.

While I haven't ever had Kline as a pitching coach, I've talked to him a time or two. Yes he's goofy. And yes, he has a shaggy haircut. But he also knows a lot about pitching.

Recently I talked to him while working on a story. The story didn't pan out, but I asked Kline about some of his favorite Holiday memories. First I asked about his childhood memories, and he claimed he didn't have any good ones. He said he was the youngest of a bunch of brothers and simply got beat up all the time. Then I asked about some of his favorite holiday memories as a player.

"In St. Louis I always met up with Tim Forneris (the grounds crew member who caught Mark McGwire’s 62nd homerun ball and immediately returned it). We’d always do charity work all over the city," Kline said. "We would go to shelters and hospitals and hand out gifts. We’d get a list of kids and moms of needy families from a social worker, and I’d just go to Walmart. I’d buy anything from video games to clothes and jackets. And then we’d always go and buy Honeybacked Hams and pass them out to them. That’s something I really liked to do for the Holidays."

I loved his response, and so I wanted to share it. He said he still does charity work around his hometown in Pennsylvania throughout the Holidays, often working with a group called Women in Transition. He doesn't do it to get attention. He does it because he thinks its the right thing to do, and that's the best part of it. He's sincere in his intentions. You can tell it in his eyes.

Kline looks like such a simple person, but there's a lot more depth to him. While he'd probably take no joy in approaching a calculus problem or analyzing a work of art, he takes a lot of joy in helping others. There's a lot to be said for that.

On that note, I want to wish everyone a wonderful holiday season, filled with good health, a warm home, tasty food to eat, and plenty of love. Perhaps I should do more to spread this love. Maybe next year I'll try to have a Steve Kline Christmas.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Some bully stole my meal money

I've written before that it's difficult to eat healthy in the minor leagues. Minor leaguers are constantly on the road, fighting a losing battle with Domino's and KFC (oh, but it's grilled now--with the help of beef fat). Players only receive $20 per day for meal money (over half of which goes to clubhouse dues sometimes), and frankly, some players are just idiots when it comes to food.

Some teams are beginning to take steps towards changing things for the better. While at the Winter Meetings, I heard one official claim that an increase in minor league per diem was being discussed. I almost took off my shirt and ran around Indy half-naked, but I've been unable to confirm this (other people I spoke with said they hadn't heard a darn word about it). I'm hoping it was at least informally introduced. I'll keep working on it.

One thing that seems more concrete comes via Blue Jays' GM Alex Anthopoulos. In a fan chat, he recently talked specifically about minor league per diem:

We addressed improving the nutrition at the big league level last year and I've talked to our Minor League trainers and strength coaches about doing so in the Minor Leagues. MLB rules dictate that club pay their players $20 a day for meal money, we've already instituted a policy to increase that to $25 a day in addition to having our strength coaches work with clubhouse people to provide nutritional and healthier options for our players.

This is a very sound policy. The minor league players are the future of major league organizations. Yes, only a small percentage of them eventually make significant contributions, but they are the future nonetheless. Wouldn't it make sense for the players to eat healthy?

One good thing about Anthopoulos' statement is that the strength coaches are going to work with the clubhouse people to ensure that better options are available. With around one half of daily calories consumed at the clubhouse, this is an easy fix. Teams can throw all the meal money they want at players, but if crappy food is all that is on the pre-game and post-game spread, then they're going to eat crappy food.

A little more should be done to educate players as well. Let's face it, most of us are 22 or 23 year-old guys. Guys don't always think about fruits and vegetables. Some teammates are just clueless when it comes to food. More knowledge on the subject couldn't hurt.

The increase in per diem for Jays' players is great news. Meal money has been at $20 a day as long as most in the minor leagues can remember (some former minor leaguers claim it was at that level in the mid-90s, others disagree). When you eat as much as a young male athlete, this isn't nearly enough.

A quick assessment of the cost to the Blue Jays reveals the following:

Extra $5 per day for around 70 games played on the road=$350 per player.

Around 26 players on each minor league roster= $9100 per team

Four full-length teams= $36,400

Two short-season teams= around an additional $9100

Total cost (not including spring training, extended spring training, etc.)= $45,500

This is slightly less than the amount the BlueJays paid to Lyle Overbay each game in 2009 ($49,074--and seven cents per game).

I think teams can afford an extra $5 in meal money. Hopefully more teams follow in the birdsteps of the Jays.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Off-season work

I recently wrote a story about St. Louis area minor leaguers. I described some of their offseason jobs: some were painting wrought iron fences, some were giving pitching lessons, most were working a couple of jobs to pay the bills.

I've talked to buddies around the country and have heard of guys working at Lowes, at Mexican restaurants, delivering pizzas, and doing handyman jobs. In a piece last year, I even talked about a buddy who delivered Jimmy John sandwiches using a bike with no breaks.

Applying for these jobs is always odd. You go in, ask for an application, and have to write down "San Francisco Giants" for your previous employer. If you're lucky enough to get an interview, the manager will ask why the hell you need a job if you're a professional ballplayer. But that's only if you're lucky enough to get an interview. Some won't even consider hiring you. They assume you'll want too much money, you have no job skills, or you won't really want the job. And then of course you have to tell them you'll only be able to work for three or four months.

A couple of friends get around this by not even saying they're ballplayers. They tell employers they're college students seeking part-time employment. They claim it makes life a lot easier for them.

What am I doing this off-season? A number of things besides writing this drivel. I've begun giving pitching lessons (a minor league staple), but lessons have been slow. I've also been selling a few pieces of writing (thanks Baseball America), but as others will attest, it's much easier to get published than to get paid. After getting fingerprints taken, paying for a background check, obtaining a TB test, requesting transcripts, and making numerous phone calls, I'm on the sublist at three different school districts, but I've only been called to sub four times in two months. (This is better than a teammate in California, who spent $300 getting certified to sub and still hasn't been called.)

I need to buy a few more Christmas presents, but funds are limited. I could always crawl to my wife and beg for money, but I feel so useless doing that. In fact I already purchased a couple of items for her, but it simply reminded me of a line from "Rounders" (where KGB tells Mike that he's paying him with his money.)

Maybe I'll just make some Christmas gifts. I went down to the basement a few days ago and found old catching gear, cardboard boxes, a few pieces of plywood, and an old microwave. I'm in the process of making a radioactive cardboard catcher. I'm not sure who I'm giving it to, but I think someone will appreciate it.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Links from Winter Meetings

I've made a few "Suitcase Chronicles" entries from the Winter Meetings. Here are a couple of links:

"It's Raining Men" (my initial impression of the Meetings--a caucasian bratwurst fest):

"Willie Wonka's Baseball Factory" (Thoughts of wandering around baseball's trade show):

And lastly, this isn't from the Winter Meetings, but it's an article written by Matt Nestor of the Columbia Daily Tribune. Matt's a great writer and is always fun to talk to:

I should have one more article regarding the Winter Meetings (sitting through the Rule 5 draft), and then I promise to diversify a bit. See you soon!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Expectations for the Winter Meetings

Oh, the Winter Meetings.

Yes, I’m attending (hopefully writing something for Basebll America). Indianapolis is only a few hours from St. Louis, so I’m riding over with my agent (Nick Brockmeyer). Since I’ve never been to the Winter Meetings, I’m not sure what to expect, but here are a few thoughts:

Everyone tells me that the Winter Meetings are a circus. Since people are generally honest, I take them at their word. So instead of a hotel convention center, I’m expecting a giant tent for the entire event. (Probably the same tent used for the State Dinner Party, only this time I will be the one crashing it.) Mr. Selig will arrive riding an Indian elephant—perhaps sporting a flowing robe and giant turban, riding atop the elephant with back straight and arms crossed. Scantily clad, masked dancers will accompany him, and bongo drums and rhythmic chants will scream in the background. He’ll slide down the elephant’s tail, be fed grapes from the hand of a dancer, and pronounce the beginning of the games. All the while I’ll be eating a corndog.

Mr. Boras will play the part of a lion tamer. Journalists will watch his every move as he grapples with one GM after another (the lions). They’ll emote “oohs” and “aahs” as he lures the cats closer. They’ll wait for that inevitable false move, where the cats will pounce upon him and eat his intestines like the velociraptors in Jurassic Park. Yet the mistake will never come. He’ll defeat every one of them, step on their heads, and then gloatingly answer questions while the cats purr in the background.

After I exit the main event, I’ll dodge knife throwers, sword swallowers, unicyclists, jugglers, and fire-breathers. These will be ex-players mixed with people who have never touched a baseball, all of whom will attempt to parlay their circus tricks into jobs. Some will be dressed like accountants; others will be dressed like people who spent the last 10 years on a baseball field. All will be looking for that “glamorous” job that pays little and asks for 70 hours a week—the much sought after “foot in the door” that allows them to pass around a business card with a baseball on it. All the while I’ll be eating a funnel cake.

I’ll step outside of the job fair and will immediately find people hawking beads and lotions, which they claim will heal every pain that I have never had. They will be made of titanium or tellurium or some other magical metal or metalloid, and I will be told that if I don’t immediately pay $20, I’ll probably break a leg while dodging a unicyclist. This will be the trade show, and I will find twelve lords leaping, eleven ladies dancing, ten pipers piping, nine drummers drumming, eight maids milking, seven swans swimming, six geese laying, FIVE GOLDEN RINGS…sorry got off track (listening to too much Christmas music already). Anyways, I’ll be talked into buying some sort of magic oil and will throw down my funnel cake and drink the entire bottle at once. I will immediately transform into some version of the Incredible Hulk (the Lou Ferrigno version, not Edward Norton version), pick up a baseball, and hurl it approximately 332 miles per hour. Two seconds later I will die with said funnel cake at my side.

And that is how my trip to the circus will end.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Sadowski signs with the Astros

I apologize for not writing in a while. I'm trying to actually make a little money right now, substitute teaching and giving pitching lessons, so my wife stops yelling at me. (Just kidding about the yelling. Well, sort of.)

So, Ryan Sadowski. Briefly known to Giants fans as "The Dude" or "The Big Sadowski." Always known to me as "Dow" or "Best friend in the organization." He came out of nowhere to start his career with 13 scoreless innings. Then groundballs started finding holes, a few walks crossed the plate, and a Ben Hur chariot race rounded the bases.

Giants' brass, and fans, quickly dismissed him. In a whirlwind of a season, he was promoted to the big leagues, experienced success, experienced setbacks, was demoted to the minor leagues, taken off the 40 man, cleared waivers, and became a free agent. I'm exhausted just typing all of that.

After entering free agency, he drew interest from several teams. He decided to sign with the Houston Astros. The deal is a minor league contract with an invite to spring training.

It's no surprise the Astros were interested in him. After all, he dominated their lineup in his second start. In writing about it in a "Suitcase Chronicles" entry I said the following:

I watched as he threw sinker after sinker, plowing through the Astros lineup, making guys like Berkman, Tejada, and Carlos Lee look as if they belonged on the South African WBC team instead of an MLB team.

I have no doubt that Dow can pitch again in the big leagues. I'm obviously a bit biased since he's such a great friend, but the guy has the stuff. When he's healthy, I'd pit him against any back of the rotation starter in the big leagues. He's probably not as good as his first two starts, but he's definitely not as bad as his last couple. The truth is somewhere in between. Now he's entering a phase of his career where he is likely to become a journeyman. And this can be difficult.

Journeymen are usually not loyal men. They are mercenaries earning a paycheck. They travel from team to team, sometimes playing for several organizations within a single season. They might spend a few months in Korea or Japan, maybe even make an appearance or two in Mexico, before again traversing the United States. They make few great friends in the game, instead making a plethora of acquaintances.

I played with such a fellow this year by the name of Josh Phelps. Signed by the Giants in the offseason to add depth to the first base position, he was sidelined most of the year when one of his rotator cuff muscles decided to stop working in spring training (you can't trust a nerve). He's a great guy, even if he's a mercenary. In the last six years, he's played with Toronto, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Detroit, New York (Yankees), Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and San Francisco. That's eight organizations in six years.

Each year he has to learn a new set of teammates and coaches. He enters spring training knowing not a single soul. New to the organization, he competes for a spot. His contract isn't guaranteed, and he could be released at any moment. When this happens, h searches for a new team and new set of teammates. It's a recurring process.

But Josh is a great guy. He's laid back yet serious, works hard but doesn't push the limits too far. He enjoys the game but views it in a realistic way. He shows little emotion. He no longer enters the clubhouse with the fervor of a redneck at his first rodeo, but he earns a decent living by hitting a baseball, and he appreciates that. He has played parts of 8 seasons in the big leagues, appearing in a total of 465 games. Each year he grinds away part of the season in the minors, hoping to put up enough numbers to appear in a few more major league games.

This is the lifestyle that Dow is entering. Simply by gaining a bit of big league time, his prospects have improved. He will now be earning a decent wage even as a minor leaguer. Hopefully he'll earn another chance at the big leagues, and Korea and Japan are still possibilities. His future is still less than certain, but it looks brighter than it did a year ago.

Dow is about to go through another change. He's getting married in a couple of weeks, and I can't wait to see him.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A few links--health care and Darren Ford robbed

First, here's an excerpt from an Op-Ed I wrote for USA Today:

If baseball and health care were thrust into a formal logic argument, it might look like this:

All those who are rich have health insurance. All professional baseball players are rich. Therefore, all professional players have health insurance.

The above argument might be valid, but it's not true. The majority of professional baseball players are minor leaguers, and we certainly aren't rich. More important, hundreds of players lost their insurance earlier this month.

Some will love me for this article; some will hate me. Hopefully it's worth a read.

Also, continuing on health care, here's an article a teammate emailed me about the head coach of SIU-Carbondale's baseball program. He's undergoing various cancer treatments. It serves two purposes. First, it is a warning to other players, as it shows what can happen when a person abuses smokeless tobacco for their entire life. I touched on players using tobacco waaay too much in a previous Baseball America mailbag. Second, it shows the difficulties that some people have in obtaining needed cancer treatments in today's health care system.

Lastly, one of my teammates was robbed recently!! Apparently Darren Ford, who was just added to the Giants' 40 man after a great season, was working at his offseason job at a Chevy dealership (ironic that Chevy even hired a guy with the last name of Ford). He drove to make a deposit and was robbed at gunpoint. D-Ford is a good dude. He's lightning fast and a great center-fielder. I'm trying to reach him to get his thoughts and make sure that everything is okay.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Pizza and Fried Chicken: Minor league staples

"Tough to eat healthy when your post-game meal is fried chicken every night."

The quote is from one my teammates. We were recently talking about the difficulties of eating healthy in the minor leagues. We often have this discussion, but we had a specific prompt this time: Pictures of our personable teammate, Pablo "Kung Fu Panda" Sandoval, working out.

I first saw the pictures on Facebook. Pablo doing abs with a med ball. Pablo on a treadmill. Pablo grimacing on a leg press machine. Pablo chopping wood, running through snow, and doing pullups in a barn. (Wait, that's Rocky). Then came the story by the SF Chronicle regarding "Camp Panda." More of the same pictures, and details of Pablo running up mountains--Camelback specifically--in a single bound.

My anonymous teammate sent me the link to the Chronicle's article. We both agreed that we loved seeing Pablo work like this. He's an impact player. His energy is contagious, he loves the game, and he can flat out hit.

We delved further into the situation. Specifically, my teammate asked me a question: Why did they wait until he was an established star to worry about his weight? Why didn't they worry about it years ago, when he was already at 240 pounds but short of 270? Why don't they do more to help minor minor leaguers improve their diets? (Okay, that was more than one question.)

I tried giving an answer. They want to save money? They don't care about players until they reach the major leagues? They weren't good answers.

In my upcoming Baseball America story on salaries (yes it does exist--crossing fingers--should be out in 2 weeks), I touch on this subject, but I'd like to expound upon it here. It's not easy to eat healthy in the minor leagues. Often choices are limited. And often budgetary resources are limited.

There is a fairly easy solution to this problem. Most guys arrive to the field each day around 2 pm. They eat a snack. They eat a full meal around 5:30 after BP. They eat again after the game. This is over half of their daily caloric intake. It's probably close to two-thirds. Why not ensure that these calories are good calories?

A slight effort is made by most teams. Nutritionists give a 15 minute talk in spring training, and guidelines are given for clubbies. But these clubbies are operating on a budget. Players pay dues for the "spread," and an effort is made to keep these dues low. With little money to spend and rushed for time, the result is often quick, easy, and cheap food. The junk food brims with the normal trifecta--fat, sugar, and sodium.

I have to admit I like eating Doritos once in a while. And who doesn't like the occasional corndog? But these shouldn't be staples of pre-game meals. We're playing baseball, not watching a tractor pull at a state fair.

Post-game meals are often no better. Again operating on a short budget, fried chicken and Stouffer's lasagna prevail at the upper levels of the minors. In the lower levels, many teams don't even have post-game spreads to reduce the cost of dues. Instead, players are left to find food themselves. On the road, late-night options near the hotel are limited to McDonald's or trail mix from the local gas station. Some players simply order Domino's Pizza night after night.

Certain teams are beginning to take steps to remedy this. The RedSox, for instance, pay for meals after home games for their "A ball" players. The meals are fresher and more nutritious than the normal post-game meal. It cost them around $5 per player--around $150 per night. With 70 home games, it amounts to $10,500. It's not a small expense, but when these players are the future of your organization--not to mention that teams have spent a lot of money on their top picks--it would seem to be a good investment.

Along with a lack of options, the low meal money allotted players complicates matters. Per diem, provided when the team is on the road, has remains at $20. It hasn't increased since McDonald's introduced the Big Mac. (I actually can't verify that.) For a Double A player, over half of this goes to clubhouse dues. Around seven or eight dollars is left for both breakfast and lunch.

In a story I wrote last off-season, I talked about an effort made to raise per diem. General managers wanted to do it. It just needed a vote by owners. Commissioner Selig didn't even raise the issue at the winter meetings.

Minor leaguers recognize that our situation is better than many in the world. We have food while many go hungry. But we're trying to play at our fullest potential, and it's tough to do so when eating junk food.

Players aren't expecting to eat filet mignon every night. They don't want to gorge themselves on crab legs (too difficult and messy, but man they taste good). They just want to have a healthy meal once in a while. Right now that's a wish that's hard to fulfill.

We'll just keep eating fried chicken and pizza. A few of us will actually reach the big leagues. They'll care about us then.

Update: I've had mixed reports on whether or not the Giants give money for post-game meals in the form of reimbursements. Hopefully more teams begin using the method of the RedSox, where they just pay for decent meals! As of now, I've only heard of a few teams doing this. Hopefully the idea spreads.

I also don't want to come across as criticizing the clubhouse managers. Those guys work their butts off! They don't get the credit, or the pay, that they deserve.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Villalona: paying off a family?

I've been in enough seafood restaurants to know when something smells fishy. Tonight I just read something smelling so fishy I would've walked out of the restaurant's door and never looked back.

According to Andrew Baggarly's blog, which cites an AP report Angel Villalona is out of jail. Normally I'd be jumping for joy. A teammate who had been accused of something walked out of jail. I should be happy, right?

Well, I'm not jumping for joy. The judge has apparently accepted a request by the family of the victim to drop the charges. Baggarly states that according to rumor, Villalona "paid $150,000 to the family of the slain man."

I went to the website of Diario Libre, the main paper in the DR, to get more information. They're now reporting that instead of 5 million pesos, Villalona actually paid the family 2 million pesons. They cite the mother of the victim as the source, so it seems pretty solid.

So how much is a peso? Well, I did an online search for an exchange rate and it's around 36.68 pesos per dollar. So at 5 million pesos, the amount would've been $136,314. At 2 million pesos? Try $54,524.

I hate believing rumors, but if this is true, then Villalona just paid off a family for a little over $50,000.

Upon Villalona's arrest a month ago, I posted on this blog about it. Here's an excerpt:

Again, I hope that Villalona didn’t commit this murder, but if he did, justice needs to be served. The thought still reigns as almost incomprehensible, but I have to remember that my teammates don’t grow up in cushy little suburbs in the United States, playing 60 games a year for traveling Little League teams that extort $5,000 for the “opportunity” to play. Instead, they come from a still developing country with a high crime rate, where $5,000 represents more than half of the average household income.

Most of the things I stated in that paragraph remain true. I hope he didn't commit this murder. The guy was/is a teammate, and I got along with him more than well. Not only a huge kid but also a huge prospect, a tremendous amount of pressure had been placed on his broad shoulders. He went through times where he displayed a broad smile and he went through times where he was frustrated. I'd consider him a friend.

But I also believe that justice needs to be served. And how can justice be served if the family is paid off?

The prosecutor states that he wants to continue to pursue this case. Obviously I'm no expert in Dominican law, but without a judge behind him, I'm wondering if he'll be able to bring anything to trial.

I wanted to believe my teammate was innocent. I wanted something to come forward to exonerate him. I wanted to see him walk out of prison a free man. But not like this. This just smells like rotten sushi, and nobody likes rotten sushi.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Latest "Suitcase Chronicles:" An e-mailbag

Here's an excerpt from my latest "Suitcase Chronicles" entry on Baseball America:

But am I tired of pitching? No. Spontaneous thoughts still creep into my head like a snake in the night. Often it's the feeling of a perfect change-up: Feeling it roll off the finger tips at full arm speed, knowing the end-result upon release, seeing the hitter begin the swing too soon, watching the ball harmlessly pound the mitt. Will I ever be without these thoughts? Or will this phantom pitch syndrome haunt me forever?

It's part of a response to the question of whether I am tired of baseball. Since that might be too serious for some, I also answer the question of why baseball players spit so much, and why I am so atrocious at RBI Baseball. (Yes, I'm as horrible as a Britney Spears song.) Hope you enjoy.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Office Cleaning

There's crap piled everywhere in my office. Files here, papers there, a pile of CDs tossed in a corner, and books everywhere.

I decided to rummage through it today. I started making piles: junk, recycling, shredding, and to be filed. Slowly I made progress. A spot of wood appeared on the left corner of the desk, and soon even the dust seemed to be scattering.

Nearing the end, I opened up a blue folder. It was a folder that I always kept with me while traveling for baseball and in which I kept various receipts. I invaded it, finding receipts young and old, and tossed out the irrelevant material. At the back of the folder I found something: the stub from my first paycheck.

Slightly faded and with corners slightly worn, I inspected it. The name on the front, in characteristic fashion, had been misspelled. The "u" and "i" had been misplaced in what is always a common mistake. The address was my parents' address, as at that time I still used it as my permanent address.

Other than these things, it looked remarkably similar to my current pay stubs. The pay amount is less than the current checks, but just barely: $368.33. I looked at the dates displayed:
Hire date: 06/18/04
Period Start: 06/16/04
Period End: 06/30/04
Pay Date: 06/30/04

Five and a half years of my life have passed since I received this first paycheck. So many things have taken place. I entered the game a naive, idealistic young man fresh out of college. Now I'm married, older, and realism has entered my life. I'm not sure if I've changed for the better or worse, but I've definitely changed.

Okay, back to fall cleaning. Hopefully I'll find an uncashed check.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A future slot-system? Where does the money go?

Almost everyone agrees that the current draft system is a mess. Almost nobody agrees on how to fix it.

Bud Selig recently voiced strongly his opinion that a strict slotting system is needed.

"That's one that there is no debate in my mind," Selig said while speaking on ESPN's "Mike and Mike Show." "We need an international draft, and we need slotting."

For those not privy to the situation, the MLB currently provides slot "recommendations" for each pick in the top rounds of the draft, but teams are free to exceed these recommendations. The teams that have the most monopoly money often do so.

To use an example from the real world, this is sort of like having recommended speed limits for our highways. Law enforcement officials would be unable to enforce these limits. You think a 17 year old with a fast car is going to obey these recommendations? Of course not, and the same thing applies to the current draft system. Some owners think they're driving on the autobahn, while others exercise more restraint.

Prior to drafting prospects, teams try to assess a player's signability. A large part of this equation is how much money a kid wants. Many kids will say they will sign for slot, but some top prospects throw out exorbitant numbers. This places them at prices that small-market teams can't afford. The argument can then be made that teams with more money are able to acquire more talented players on a more regular basis.

If equity in the game is a goal, and I'm not completely sure that is the goal, then a strict slotting system needs to be instituted. A system not unlike the NBA's draft is envisioned, in which hard numbers are in place for each pick.

I'm not a huge proponent of this system, but I'm also not completely opposed to it. I think huge signing bonuses can be dangerous. It sets up a system in which some players, because of the money invested in them, are too big to fail, just like some of our banks. Instead of the best players with the best numbers reaching the big leagues, it sets up a situation in which the players with the most money invested in them reach the big leagues. They get bailed out time after time and are virtually guaranteed a call-up.

The main question I have regarding this system is this: What happens to the money saved? Does it go to the owner's pocketbook? Does it go to adding on another $1 million to the big league payroll? Or does it get invested back in the minor leagues?

This would seem like a simple solution to improving conditions for minor league players. Any money saved on reigning in bonuses could be allocated to a small salary increase for minor leaguers, or simply for paying the rent of minor leaguers. Maybe even, heaven forbid, they could pay the players during spring training or instructional leagues.

Despite Selig's wishes, the likelihood of a strict slotting system still seems fairly low. The owners will no doubt push for this in the next CBA, which ends in 2011, but there will be resistance from the MLBPA. One thing is for sure. The likelihood of a slotting system is certainly higher than the likelihood of minor league salaries actually increasing.

Friday, October 23, 2009

NCAA: Unprofessional baseball salaries?

A quickie via an email from an anonymous minor leaguer:

I came across this article and found one of the quotes kinda interesting. It talks about how NCAA athletes can ruin their eligibility by playing on a team where other players are being paid some money. Anyways, a women’s volleyball player was playing on a team where 2 of her teammates made $10,000 dollars and the NCAA ruled her ineligible. The interesting quote is this, which is about the girl who was ruled ineligible:

"Gijsbertsen received housing and $4,700 to defray expenses, not a sum that qualified as a professional salary...”

Just thought it was wierd that the salaries that some guys make in short season or extended spring training aren't even considered large enough for the NCAA to qualify it as a professional salary.

This is very interesting on a couple of levels. First of all, some NCAA rules are as absurd as elephant painting, but that is a lengthier discussion.

If the NCAA soon establishes amounts that they deem to be "professional levels of salary," as the article claims, then our anonymous player is correct. Some minor leaguers will not earn enough to qualify as professional players.

The question is this: If a player receives a tiny signing bonus and never makes it out of short-season professional baseball, could he then maintain amateur status? This thought is as absurd as the current salary structure.

Let the elephant painting begin.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Mailbag spillover

Not all of the questions fit in the small mailbag I'm using for my "Suitcase Chronicles" column on Baseball America, so here are some spillover questions:

Have you always been a major **##****#?
From Mike, in an undisclosed location in Missouri

This question's from a college buddy. Since he's a buddy, he can ask such a personal question. Answer: Yes, I've always been a major **##****#.

As a pitcher, are you watching these playoff closer meltdowns with horror or the sense "Shoot, I could do better than THAT!!" or both?
From Janice, in California

Answer: Shock and empathy.

I'm definitely not going to say I could do better. These are some of the best pitchers in the game. They also happen to be facing some of the best hitters in the game, and once in a while they're going to blow a game.

So no, I can't do better than the closers, but I do at times feel that I could do better than some of the middle relievers.

The horrifying thing to me is the that the entire game is blamed on these individuals. After Huston Street blew the save in game 4 of the NLCS, every headline across America said "Street Blows the Save." Sportscenter displayed the Denver Post headline 14 times before I finally lost count.

Street will bounce back, but I know he's currently enduring some sleepless nights. I feel for him.

Do you remember the time that you got out of the car and walked home because Travis was playing G-Bop (Kenny G) as loud as he could with the windows down?
From Mike again

Answer: yes, I do, and I stand by my actions.

What are your thoughts on the move to Richmond, and the Flying Squirrels mascot?
From a couple of different people. Please raise your hands to be recognized.

P.C. response: Connecticut was a great place to play. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, as did all of my Giants' teammates.

Glad I got that out of the way.

The situation in CT was less than ideal. Foul weather plagued the team each year, and all of the Californians and Latinos hated the cold. Additionally, the attendance was poor, and many guys weren't accustomed to the small town lifestyle.

I actually found things that I really enjoyed. There's great trout fishing, and you're less than an hour from great beaches. On the rare off-day, players can take day-trips to NYC or Boston.

Richmond is supposed to be a better market, and the weather should be better. From what I hear, the stadium needs improvements, and this might actually be a downgrade from CT, where the facilities were pretty good.

As for the mascot, I kind of like the Flying Squirrels. Who wouldn't like seeing Rocky and Bullwinkle as mascots? And think of the promotion possibilities. Squirrel on a stick in the concession stand? Bring your squirrel to the ballpark day? We'll see what uniforms and hats they come up with. They might be atrocious.

Have you ever chased a car down the street after a hit and run?
Another Mike question (thanks for bringing back memories)

Answer: Yes. Stupid guy was drunk. Hit Travis's car while it was parked in front of the apartment. Totaled it. We got out the video camera once the cops got there. Traumatic night.

Lastly, the comment of the week, which followed my last post:

I play a baseball simulation game on the computer called Out of the Park Baseball. It's ridiculously realistic in most areas, except minor league contracts are for $0. So now I know that's pretty close to realistic, too. :)

That came from Mark. Thanks for making me laugh Mark. (And for making me depressed.)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Rock Band: Manchester Orchestra

Athletes often whine and complain. They usually do so because they're selfish, egomaniacal, self-absorbed, opportunistic prima-donnas, so far removed from reality that Barbara Streisand looks down to earth in comparison. (Whew, that was a mouthful.) Most have as much reason to whine as my rottenly spoiled dog.

But every once in a while, there is reason behind the madness. Every once in a while there is something going on that isn't quite right. (Ex: see MLB during 1985 off-season, when it was found that owners really were colluding after only 4 free agents switched teams.)

Minor league baseball players love the game. We're grateful for every opportunity that we're given. We understand how fortunate we are to be in the position that we are in, and we know that our job is better than many. But there is something going on in this game that isn't quite right.

Again, I've been working on a longer story on this, so I won't go into a lot of the numbers, but I want to expound upon one of the problems by using an analogy. (Via a friend. His name is Chris and he works at Anheuser Busch. Please find him on Facebook and ask for free beer.)

Chris commented on my last post, comparing our careers to those of musicians, and how we have to weigh the risks and rewards. This seemed to make as much sense as eating breakfast before lunch, so let's take the analogy farther.

You could say that there are three levels of musicians. The first level are the local pubbers and clubbers. They've yet to sign a record deal, make pennies for each performance, and still drink Natural Lite. This level is equivalent to most independent teams in baseball. (A few ind. leagues would be exempt, such as the Atlantic League. These would be the equivalent of the indie rock scene in Brooklyn.) Most pubbers and clubbers will never play beyond these small settings.

The middle level are those already signed to a decent record label. Those in the industry have recognized their talent. They might have an album, and probably have a song playing on a few radio stations. They've begun to receive a following, and routinely play in front of a few thousand people, drinking slightly classier, yet still blue-collar Jack and Coke. The hardcore fans in the mosh-pit know their names and their lyrics, but except for hardcore fans, they remain relatively obscure. These are the affiliated minor leaguers: the talent has been recognized and they've been signed by MLB teams, but they're still in the development stage.

The last-level of bands are the stars. They make a lot of money, they play on the big stage, they're on all the radio stations, and Nickelback sings songs about their lifestyle. These bands drink whatever the hell they want, even if many still prefer Natty Lite or Jack and Coke. They're the major leaguers.

Manchester Orchestra is the equivalent of a Double A baseball player. The talent is there, they've been signed, and once in a while you'll hear their songs. Most likely they'll fizz out like a tablet of AlkaSeltzer, but with a little luck and a few more songs, they might be the next Kings of Leon. (I personally like them better than KOL, but I'm also a nerd that reads books.)

If Manchester Orchestra was to come to St. Louis, they'd play at The Pageant. A packed house would be there, listening to the music and drinking $6 beers. Now imagine if Manchester Orchestra played this show, but The Pageant didn't pay them a dime. Instead, their record label paid them only $50 for the night. The Pageant would be getting a free ride.

This is what is happening to affiliated minor league baseball players, as currently the minor league affiliates pay no part of their salaries. In certain places around 10,000 fans come to the games each night, but they don't pay the players a dime. Instead, the MLB owners pay them around $50 a night.

Now I'm not saying that the affiliated teams should be on the hook for all of players' salaries. I'm not even completely convinced they should pay any of them. But they could afford to take small steps.

One step that has been suggested by players is to pay for housing. Currently, players pay for housing, and many can't afford it. This leads to the types of living situations described in my previous post. Additionally, it makes for a headache when a player moves from team to team on a moment's notice, and suddenly they have to worry about paying rent here, there, and everywhere.

Some affiliated teams would find this difficult no doubt, but some are getting rich and could easily afford this. Affiliated minor league teams set their sixth straight attendance record in 2008, at more than 43 million. Many teams have doubled in value in the past 10 years, now worth in excess of $20 million.

Paying $400 a month doesn't sound like a lot, but it is significant to players in that it represents a third of their paychecks. Five months of rent for 30 players would cost teams around $60,000. Most teams could afford this $60,000.

Fans will say that teams will raise ticket prices in response. Nobody wants to see this, but many teams could afford it without a price raise. Even if they did raise prices, it would be a tiny amount. Consider this: most teams average over 200,000 in annual attendance. Even my old team, the Connecticut Defenders, broke 200,000 in 2009 despite being at the bottom of the league in attendance. A small price increase of 50 cents would yield $100,000.

In the 1990s, MLB teams forced the minor league affiliates to raise the level of their facilities. Many affiliated owners gave the end of days speech, but it has since resulted in a period of prosperity. Affiliated teams would no doubt find a working business plan.

The MLB teams could be taking steps as well. It would seem to be in their best interest to ensure that players optimally develop. Decent meals and sleep don't seem too much to ask for (see Maslow's opinion on this). In my opinion the signing bonuses of top picks are out of control, and they're skimping on the overall minor league system. They're robbing the poor to pay the rich. A slight pullback in signing bonuses could off-set improvements in the minor leagues. But of course the agents and the lawyers of the MLBPA won't go for this.

Minor league players recognize what they are: minor leaguers. They know most are doomed for obscurity, and they don't expect to be paid richly. They don't expect to drive Bentley's or to dress as if they're auditioning for the next Kanye West video. They just want to be able to afford to eat.

Okay, I'm done whining. I know you now think that I'm an egotistical asshole, and so I apologize. I promise we'll talk about something else in the next post. Please don't hate me. I'm just trying to help a few people out.

A few links:

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Plight of the Minor Leaguer, Pt. 1 of 6000

This week I've been working on a longer (by my standards) article on the depressed state of minor league salaries that will soon appear in Baseball America. Specifically, I'm comparing current salaries to those in 1975 and am giving reasons for why they've remained practically unchanged for 34 years.

I'm going to save the numbers for the article, but today I wanted to expound upon one of my favorite quotes from it:

"We had 12 players, two wives, and a baby staying with us all at once."

The quote is from Barbara Rothstein. Residents of Norwich, Connecticut, she and her husband served as a host family for the then Double A affiliate of the Yankees, the Norwich Navigators. As knowledge of her services grew, more and more players wanted to live with her to save money, and every sole was welcomed.

You might be thinking that a mansion would be needed to house all of these players, but in fact, they live in a normal looking, 3 bedroom ranch-style home. So, where did all the players stay? In a Hooverville in the backyard? Or perhaps they brought in a mobile home for the summer?

The full basement is partially furnished, with storage on one side and a long open space on the other. As you walk down the steps today, you'll see an older big screen TV on the far wall, but something else will immediately grab your attention: there are futons everywhere.

Almost all of the players stayed in this room--some with their wives--all of them sleeping on the futons in the cave-like darkness of the basement. It made for a strange sort of communal living that would even procure a look of disbelief from an anthropology student. They did so because their paychecks were so low and because Barbara kept them so well-fed. She even ran a shuttle-service back and forth to the park for them.

If you're in the minor leagues for long enough, you'll hear a lot of stories such as this. Though this is one of the more extreme examples, it isn't an isolated incident. Many players live in less than desirable conditions and yet play in front of 5,000 or even 10,000 people everyday they go to the park.

Now you know a small part of the "what." We'll talk about an example from the "why"s category in the next post.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Catching up on links

I wanted to catch up on some links to recent articles.

First, here is an excerpt from my latest "Suitcase Chronicles" entry for Baseball America:

I then approached the TPX baseball bag. It sat at an angle in the bedroom. One strap dangled from its side and displayed a nametag: "Garrett Broshuis, Pitcher." It hypnotized me.

"Garrett Broshuis, Pitcher."

I'd played this game since I was a boy. Pitching had become as much a part of me as my blue eyes and ugly eyebrows. I'd carried this title and all its baggage everywhere I went.


I also wrote a piece for Deadspin recently about a "toy drum." It's a locker room tale (might not be for kids):

Friday, October 9, 2009

Thanks to everyone

I want to thank everyone who has left comments and sent emails lately. (Well, thanks for the complimentary emails. Those others accusing me of being Satan's second cousin I could live without. Just kidding, of course. Criticism is a good thing, and I'm in no way related to Satan.) One of the emails I received recently informed me that Keith Olbermann had complimented my writing, and it blew my mind.

In college, I once pitched against one of Andy Van Slyke's sons. Van Slyke happened to be at the game, and I was fortunate enough to pitch well. After the game he came up to one of my coaches and said, "That guy can really pitch." To hear a positive remark from someone with that much knowledge of the game did wonders for me. It sort of validated all of the hard work I had put into improving myself.

Well, I don't receive too many compliments like that about my pitching anymore. Hell, I don't know if I'll ever receive another compliment like that about my pitching. But it means a lot to receive a compliment from a long-time journalist such as Olbermann in a different area of my life.

There are a lot of problems in the game of baseball, especially in the treatment of minor league players. I know that the life that we live is better than many others. I'm grateful for every opportunity that I've ever had in this game and I love playing, but players are being mistreated by owners, and some things need change. My ultimate goal in my writing is to eventually shed more light on a few of these things. And hopefully I'll produce a laugh or two in the process.

I know that some of these hardships pale in comparison to other hardships in the world, but that doesn't mean that the situation in which we live is just. There are a lot of people getting rich in this game, including within minor league baseball. Meanwhile, the actual minor league players often sleep on floors and air mattresses and never see their wives or children. It doesn't seem fair.

Okay, I'm done tooting my own horn and ranting for a while. Have a good weekend.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Updated Poll: Big leaguers aren't watching the playoffs, minor leaguers are.

An update from previous polling numbers, it seems that players with big league time are less likely to watch the playoffs. In another very unscientific poll that is about as revealing as a sweater vest, the poll found that only 1 out of 6 big leaguers planned on watching the majority of playoff games.

The poll surveyed a total of 6 big leaguers from 4 different organizations. Most failed to give a reason for their lack of interest. One key difference seems to be that whereas minor leaguers feel that the playoffs present an opportunity to learn, big leaguers feel that they have already arrived to their destination and have less to learn.

Or perhaps they simply don't want to watch.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Poll shows that the majority of minor leaguers will watch the playoffs

According to a new non-random poll, approximately 60% of minor league baseball players plan to watch the majority of playoff games. The poll, conducted by GB polling services via text, contains a margin of error of approximately 727%.

Most respondents said they weren't cheering for any particular team. Some claimed that they "knew" a few of the players on other teams, and would cheer for these particular individuals, but most declined to proclaim any further allegiance.

Those that claimed they would be watching the majority of games said that they "hoped to learn something" by watching them. The games seem to present a rare opportunity for minor league players to actually watch baseball at its highest level, as during the season most are consumed with playing everyday, which allows them little chance to digest a baseball game.

The minority that do not plan to watch the games gave a variety of reasons. One claimed that work would prevent his viewing. Another said he simply didn't care to watch and that he had seen enough baseball over the six month season. One lone individual claimed, "It's hockey season." The interrogator's response: "Maybe hell will freeze over and you can play hockey there."

Most individuals expressed that their viewing of baseball had changed in the years since they entered professional baseball. Most do so more objectively, trying to dissect every single play. Many also suggested that part of the fun had been removed from watching, but as one individual stated, "It's still great to watch."

Friday, October 2, 2009

Buscones and Cocaine: What the hell? And what to do?

Perhaps no force has shaped the growth of Dominican baseball more in the past 20 years than the buscón. (Hint: it rhymes with the thing you dip into your coffee.) And yet, hardly anybody in America has ever even heard of the term. When one of them is caught with 293 kilos of cocaine, a couple of submachine guns, and a rifle with a silencer, maybe people should start paying attention.

(see Melissa Seguaro’s piece here:

It sounds like a recipe for a Quentin Tarantino movie. According to one estimate, the cocaine that Jose Gabriel Arias Castillo possessed was worth $5.86 million. It's enough cocaine to get a herd of elephants high for the rest of their lives. The former Phillies’ minor leaguer turned buscón even used baseball equipment bags to conceal the drugs. So what the hell is a buscón?

A rough literal translation is “one who searches.” In America we’d call them bird dogs. The buscón lives in all parts of the Dominican, turning over every leaf in their talent quest, often plucking kids out of their families’ houses at age 12 or 13, promising them a better life at their “academies.”

“Throw a scout, a coach, and an entrepreneur into a blender, then mix, and you have a buscón,” Jim Salisbury of the Philadelphia Inquirer once said.

The buscones often care for the kids, providing them with food and training. The business, totally unregulated, has exploded, and every MLB team deals with buscones when they sign Dominican players.

Often the players do not pay for the services of the buscón upfront. Many parents of American kids pay for baseball lessons, but parents in the Dominican can’t afford to do so. Instead, they agree to pay a portion of the kid’s signing bonus, if there ever is a signing bonus. The buscón accepts a high degree of risk, and so the parents agree to pay 25 or 30 percent of a signing bonus; even 50 percent is not unusual.

Teammate Angel Villalona told me earlier this year that he gave his buscón $750,000 of his $2.1 million bonus, a percentage of more than 30 percent. Agents in the states, in comparison, typically receive around 4 or 5 percent for their services.

Despite this, almost every Dominican teammate speaks highly of the buscones. On a long bus ride recently, we talked about them.

“They give you better food, they give you a better bed, and they teach you the game,” one Dominican told me. “A lot of kids are poor and their parents can’t feed them. This way they’re taken care of, especially if they have talent. They even give them protein shakes.”

Many speculate as to whether or not they give more than protein shakes, and MLB even maintains a list of buscones known to distribute steroids. Yet with no way to perform drug testing on players not under contract with MLB teams, there is still speculation that at least some young kids are receiving steroids as part of their training.

“Some are bad people,” my Dominican friend conceded. “Most don’t give steroids, as this would give them a bad name if they were caught. But some do.”

Other buscones are involved in the business of forging documents. In the post-911 era, requirements for documentation have increased, and MLB has even begun the controversial practice of performing DNA testing on some prospects to try to deduce a true age. This has made document forging more difficult, but with so much money being paid to the buscón, there is tremendous incentive to falsify ages. A sixteen year old with tremendous raw talent might receive a signing bonus in the millions, whereas a nineteen year old with the same raw talent may receive a signing bonus in the low six figures.

The buscón no doubt plays a valuable role in the development of Dominican baseball talent, but the business needs greater regulation. Many buscones are legitimate baseball men. Several former professional players operate as buscones, including MLB star Ramon Martinez. Professors and accountants can be found in the ranks of the buscón, but just as many sleazier subjects can be found as well.

These sleazier subjects need to be found and eliminated. Also, some sort of standard on services provided and payment accepted needs to be established. Until these things are done, there will be too many kids being misused by the likes of Arias Castillo, with his submachine guns and cocaine ring.

Monday, September 28, 2009 "The dream was falling apart"

The SF Chronicle asked me if this season was rough, and why I still played. Here's an excerpt of what I wrote:

Going back to Connecticut was harder than being told that I was going to San Jose. It might have been the hardest thing to face in my sports career. Flying across the country, I knew that my chances of coming back to AAA were not good. Furthermore, the feeling that the Giants had given up on me overcame me. The dream that I had lived since I was a boy was falling apart. I had been given one game, and I didn't take advantage of it. As so often happens in this game, just as I had regained hope it had again been ripped away from me.(Here's a Baseball America article on that). This season has made me realize that I'm an organization arm. I'm simply a guy who can fill in at whatever level I'm needed, and it's not an easy thing to swallow, as this isn't my goal. Still, I've pitched against enough big league guys now to know that I can get them out. Over the past two years, only one person in the Giants' minor leagues has more wins than me: Madison Bumgarner. It's thoughts such as these that keep me going.

Do I have doubts? Yeah, all the time. I throw slower than almost any righthander at any level. I'm 27 now and have only a handful of AAA starts. I know that the chances of having a big league career are very, very slim.

I'm not sure how much longer I can keep playing. Unless a person has some big league time, the minor leagues pay players so little that it is difficult to keep playing financially. I also have a wife that I have to think about. I love her dearly and I'm forced to be away from her for six months out of the year. She's very understanding, but I know how tough it is on her. It's tough on me.
Read more:

Friday, September 25, 2009

Random Question #1 (with teammates' responses)

Lighthearted thoughts. Sometimes we get bored in the clubhouse; sometimes we act like idiots. Sometimes bored idiots come up with random idiotic questions. Here's a sample.

Random Question #1 (answers from anonymous teammates follow):

Okay, so you have to choose one of the two:

A) You can never drive again. When I say never, I mean it. For the rest of your life you can never get behind the wheel. In fact, you can’t even ride in a car. No driving to the grocery store for a forgotten item; no more street racing or mudding (for my "Redneck" readers). Biking and public transportation become your only means of movement.

B) You can drive as much as you want. Hell, you can be a Nascar driver if you like. The catch: you have to live in your car for the rest of your life. Eat, sleep, and dream in your car, day after day.

Which do you choose?


One afternoon in New Britain, I asked almost every teammate this question. I thought A was the obvious option, and if you spend most of your time in a city, you'd probably agree. Some though had a different opinion. A few responses:

"Have you seen how sweet my car is? I would have no problem living in it." ("Yeah, but could you sleep in it every night? Think about your back. And are you honestly going to bring a girl back to your car?" "I could do it.")

"I've got a huge truck. I'd just throw a mattress in the bed." (When told this was against the rules, he reconsidered but still chose option B.)

"Can I put camouflaged curtains on it and shoot things with my pellet gun?" "Sure, why not." "Then I'd live in my car."

More practical:

"Can I take the bus?" "Yeah." "Then I'd choose A."

"What about taxis?" "Nope, no cars." "Hmm. I guess I'd just buy a bike or take the train."

Further Thoughts

Approximately 100% of guys from Texas chose option B (of course, it was a small sample size). I'm not sure if this signifies laziness, a love for cars, or mere Texan stubbornness. Or perhaps they simply have further to travel.

The overall percentage choosing option A came to be about 70%. Obviously those living in a city with greater access to public transportation were more likely to choose A.

There was a Third World Split. The Dominicans all chose Option A, while the one Venezuelan chose Option B. Maybe it's all the cheap gas that Chavez is passing out in VZ.

Last thought: Some people love their cars WAAAYY more than I love mine. Of course, some people have WAAAYY cooler cars than my own. Maybe I'm a dork.