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.