Sunday, February 24, 2013

Fire and Ice: Not Missing the Stress of the Minor League Spring

Two weeks ago I made the following remark to a friend: "It's nice that winter is over."

I made this comment after a couple weeks of mild weather. Yes, we had scarcely entered this month of purification known as February when I made this proclamation, but the flowers seemed to agree with me. All around campus, sprouts of tulips could be seen peeking through like a child cheating at hide and go seek, yearning to arrive just a little earlier than normal.

Yet I--along with each foolish tulip--was wrong. This week the temperatures plummeted, and my house is now surrounded by ice and snow. And so I'm thinking about minor league baseball.

My normal fifteen-minute commute turned into an hour-and-a-half bad dream on Thursday. In fact, my car never arrived home on Thursday, as a car, stalled a block from my house, impeded my final passage. I parked my own car in a parking lot and walked the final couple of blocks.

For this reason, I should be yearning for the heat and the fiery sun of Arizona, my old spring training destination. But I'm not.

Stress arrives in many forms for the minor league player during spring training. "What team will I make?" "Will I even have a job?" "Why did they sign another forty pitchers in last year's draft?" "And how come everyone seems to be throwing harder than me?" These types of questions stymy the minor league brain like the Arizona sun stymies moisture.

Today, I want to briefly talk about another, often overlooked spring training stressor for the minor league player: financial stress.

I've talked elsewhere about low minor league salaries, in several places. Because of these low salaries, an offseason job becomes paramount for many minor leaguers. Whether a player gives baseball lessons to kids or delivers Jimmy Johns on a bike with no brakes, the offseason job helps a player sustain himself. After all, players who did not receive large signing bonuses still have bills to pay: car payments, rent payments, phone payments, student loan payments, etc. People don't stop collecting bills just because you're chasing a dream.

Players don't earn salaries during spring training. Thus, as you watch Grapefruit League highlights on ESPN this spring, remember the lowly minor leaguer. Remember the stress that this player is enduring as he chases his dream. It's a beautiful dream, and a dream worth living. But, like any good dream, it entails sacrifice.

I played my six years in the minors, made my sacrifices, and ultimately failed. I've moved on to a normal life with a beautiful wife and a wonderful child. And we'll be playing in winter's last snow today instead of preparing for the fire of Arizona.

At this point in my life, I'll take the ice over the fire.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Doug Clark: The Grinding Journeyman Hero

The movie Rounders teaches us that there are two types of gamblers. There's the gambler who makes a run at making it big, and there's the gambler that grinds it out.

So too with baseball.

Doug Clark is a grinder. I first met him in 2005 at the Giants' spring training camp. By then, he already possessed tweny-nine years, and, having been drafted in 1998, he already possessed the baseball equivalent of hair on his chest.

I entered spring training that year filled with wonderment and uncertainty. After all, it was my first spring training. Doug entered spring training that year cool and composed. It was his seventh spring training.

After spring training, we made our separate ways. I played with him briefly at the end of 2005 when I played a fleeting 10-day stint in Triple-A. The next season, he played in the A's organization, and I never played with him again.

Doug made short appearances in the big leagues in both 2005 and 2006. With one hit in twelve at-bats, he never played in the big leagues again. I knew he went to Korea for a couple of seasons, but I assumed that, by now, he would be retired. After all, I've been retired for three years already.

I was wrong.

This morning I woke up and saw the highlights of the final game of the Caribbean World Series. To my surprise, Doug Clark hit the game-winning homerun.

At thirty-six, he's still grinding it out. He might not love the game the way that he once loved it. The twinkle in the eye and that naive wonderment, the beautiful and raw emotions that I possessed that spring training of 2005, have long left Doug. But he's earning a good living, playing a boyhood game.

He may not be Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces, but today, somewhere in Mexico, he's a hero just the same.