Paychecks and Offdays

This is what we have left to play for.  We have already put in the 140 games required by the Minor League schedule, yet we are still playing.  We have moved into the bonus baseball portion of the season, where games have heightened meaning but stats do not count (at least not for career totals).  The more frequent our wins, the more off days we have and longer we receive paychecks.

This was Rancho’s first playoff series victory since 1998 and marks the second time in two years I have been part of an affiliate ending a long drought.  Last season, Cedar Rapids won its first playoff series since 2000, making myself (and several other players) part of teams that have collectively ended 19 years of playoff deficiency. 

Win and You’re In

Well, it did not quite work out like that, but we succeeded regardless.  Despite dropping six of our last seven, we backed into post season play with some help from Lancaster (Houston Astros affiliate) on Saturday night.  This is the first time the Quakes have been to the post season in five years.  For a core group of us, this will be the third time in three professional seasons that we have made the playoffs.  That, in itself, is a feat. 

With our magic number at one entering the four-game Bakersfield (Texas Rangers) series, we needed one win, or one Inland Empire loss (Los Angeles Dodgers).  After dropping our first two to Bakersfield, coupled with two Inland Empire wins, the originally manageable situation become direr.  However, while we were losing on Saturday night, Lancaster maintained an advantage throughout giving us the hope of backing into the playoffs should we not pull it out against Bakersfield.  Lancaster ended up squandering a 6-2 in the top of the ninth, but would go on to a 7-6 walk-off win.  This clinched our playoff berth, despite our 4-1 loss.

The clinching was a dim light on our otherwise dismal road trip.  Our celebration, complete with champagne (which is a step up from collegiate celebratory occasions), seemed a bit tainted due to our play down the stretch.  Nonetheless, when more than half of minor league baseball will turn in their uniforms at the conclusion of the regular season, we will live to play another day.  To win a League Championship, all you need to do is have a chance.

Major League wild card teams have garnered a lot of attention due to their post season success in recent years.  Their success can be attributed to the fact that these teams tend to come into the playoffs the hottest and have been playing meaningful games up until the end of the season.

Despite our losing record, we begin the playoffs alongside everyone else with no wins and no losses.  While we never seemed to put things together for a stretch of more than four or five games this season, we had enough of these little spurts to put ourselves in a position to win a title.  To overcome the injuries, roster moves (we have no starting pitchers from our initial starting rotation, and only five arms from the opening day roster on the staff), and other adversity that grips a team and be playoff bound is a respectable fear.  What we make of this opportunity remains to be seen, although it is our intent to be one of the fourteen minor league teams that will end their playoff run with a win.  We begin our season anew with hope and excitement and will see if we can write a victorious ending for the 2009 Quakes.

Just a Business

All too often, you hear someone saying that this game is “just a business.”  This was all too apparent yesterday as our parent club was trying to bolster its starting rotation by making one last addition before the rosters freeze on September 1.  While the trading deadline passed on July 31, trades can still occur through September 1 if players clear waivers.

We got to the stadium yesterday amidst rumors of the Angels and Tampa Bay Rays being close to a deal that would send starting pitcher Scott Kazmir to the Angels in exchange for some Minor League prospects.  What brought these trade talks closer to home was that one of the prospects on the trading block was teammate Matt Sweeney.  Sweeney had apparently heard about these rumors from teammates through an MLB.com article before he even got a call from his agent.  While we set out to begin our daily routines, Sweeney was off to get a physical.  After coming in from batting practice, ESPN was reporting the story that the Angels and Rays were close to completing this trade; all the while Sweeney is sitting in our clubhouse waiting to hear his fate.  Right after our game started that night against Stockton, Sweeney got word that the deal went through and he packed up his things and left.

The other big component of this deal was starting pitcher and former teammate, Alex Torres, who was in Double-A Arkansas.  What awaits to be seen for the ultimate conclusion of this deal is the “player to be named later,” which is the selection from a list of agreed upon names that the Rays will choose at a later date.

As I have discussed in the past, you never know when teammates are coming or going.  It is infrequent that a significant trade like this hits as far down the Minor League ladder that it did.  But, this is just another instance that supports the notion that in the end, baseball is not a game; rather, it is a business.  Free agents sign with teams that pay them the most money and give them the best shot at winning a World Series.  Teams out of contention deal away top players in the attempt to gain enough younger prospects to compete down the road.  Owners dismantle teams after winning a World Series to ensure their pockets stay lined with the fruits of their recent labor.  As long as baseball has been played, there have always been people in it more for money and prestige than wins and losses.  While there are arguments both for and against this ideal, it is one that will always be present as long as money drives the game.A

And the Hits Just Keep on Coming

After a brief writing hiatus, I am reporting live from a vehicle heading due west that will not stop until it reaches the water.  A few teammates are taking advantage of our second to last off day of the young season by going to the beach.  This off day comes at the conclusion of a nine-game home stand that has us one game behind the divisional leader and in the thick of the playoff race.

The last week has brought a lot of activity to Quakesville.  Last week’s off day was spent at Angels Stadium for Quakes Day.  This publicity stunt had us signing autographs outside the stadium for about 40 minutes, getting announced on the field prior to game time, and watching the Angels beat the Tampa Bay Rays from a left field suite.  This was my first time to Angels Stadium and it was an interesting experience.

Joining the team during the home stand was Torii Hunter, the Angels centerfielder rehabbing an adductor strain prior to his return to the Big League club in Baltimore.  Hunter is very personable and could always be found talking to players, discussing the finer points of our craft.  He had a lot of enthusiasm and knowledge to offer the team and everyone benefited from his time with us.  After arriving on Wednesday, he played centerfield that night, was the designated hitter on Thursday, and player centerfield again on Saturday.

Hunter’s absence on Friday was attributed to discomfort felt from a stomach virus that has been plaguing several players (myself included), coaches, and rovers.  Four players, two coaches, and two rovers got sick Thursday night, with some others getting pulled down over the past few days.  In what was first thought to be food poisoning, this bug has left everyone extremely uncomfortable and made eating undesirable.  I was scratched from my start on Saturday after feeling lightheaded and dizzy, but was felt well enough to grit it out during Sunday’s finale against Lake Elsinore.

Apparently after my performance on Sunday, I might want to consider getting sick more often as it seems to boost my power numbers.  In what is a rare feat for me, I hit my first homerun in two years to give us a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the seventh inning.  This was my third professional homerun (which was erroneously reported by the Quakes as my first–I know the two I previously hit were two years ago in Orem, but they still count), and ironically, the second one I hit feeling under the weather.  During the game of my first homerun, our entire team was dealing with food poisoning from a tainted postgame meal the previous night.  Somehow, I got my first that day (on a hit and run, good thing I protected the runner). 

I know that it is said when you are sick you are not trying to do as much because you are not feeling up to it, and there may be some truth in that.  However, I would rather figure out how to do this when I am feeling healthy because only hitting homeruns when sick is a little absurd.  Regardless of my offensive output, the most important thing is that we pulled out a 5-2 victory and my work behind the plate aided the pitching staff overcome nine walks by scattering four hits and limiting the Storm to only one hit in 13 runners-in-scoring-position opportunities.  This was definitely not the best performance of the season, but it was a win nonetheless.  And this late in the season, you will take wins any way you can get them.

“If You’re Goin’ to San Francisco…”

Well not quite that far north.  We just wrapped up a three-game set in San Jose against the San Francisco Giants’ affiliate and are set to head home.  A trip that started at 6:00am Friday morning will end around the same time three days later.  Fortunately, we have our second off-day of the second half tomorrow, an off-day nearly three weeks since our last.

We had a tough series with the first-half Northern Division Champions and current second-half leaders, dropping the first two games 3-1 and 2-0.  However, we were able to salvage game three, winning an extended affair 5-3 in 11 innings (extra innings always seem to be a feature of getaway days).

This was only our second overnight road trip of the season, since most of the season is played within our division and all of those games are commuters.  Some players like the lack of overnighters that are common in most of the other minor leagues; I, on the other hand, do not like this format.  I see commuters as a lot of time wasted on buses, and I find the changes in scenery from overnight trips to be good from time to time.

You can learn about your teammates during road trips.  You find out who has the least patience while waiting 15 minutes for your dinner check when the server has to split it into eleven separate tabs.  You find out who insists on eating toast with grape jelly, and being appalled when the only choices are strawberry and blackberry jam, and orange marmalade.  But, aside from these nuances, you also find out who has your back and who will pick you up when you are down.

As players, we spend half the year away from our friends and family (for those that still reside around their families) to pursue our profession and chase a dream.  When we take the field every night, we are a family and we are all each other has that given night.  When we battle the other team, the umpires, and the fans, we can only turn to each other for guidance and support.  This long season is starting to near its homestretch, and we are banding together to grind our way through the completion of another season.

Men Amongst the Shadows

We enter another weekend in this long season where you can be at least guaranteed one thing: the home Sunday game with a 5:00 p.m. start.  During the first-half of the season, the Quakes home games on Sundays are at 2:00 (as are most teams’).  Once the All-Star break is reached, these game times shift to 5:00.  This change is said to be of the player’s benefit, so that we do not have to play during the hottest part of the day during the summer months.

While this is a good thought in theory, there are more drawbacks for the players of playing at 5:00 than 2:00, and it seems to me that this is being primarily done to keep the fans out of the heat.  For a 2:00 game, pitchers and catchers do the bullpens and drills around noon, and batting practice does not usually consist of anything more than hitting in the cage.  Assuming a three-hour game, that puts us outside for five hours, from noon to 5:00.  For a 5:00 game, bullpens will usually be around 3:00, with pre-game hitting, again, being done in the cages (Sundays are generally considered “fundays”: pitchers do not have their daily running, and position players do not go through early work and batting practice).  Again, assuming a three-hour game, we are outside for five hours, from 3:00 to 8:00.

So, it seems that we are outside during the “cooler” part of the day.  For those of you who have frequented Southern California, you know that the summer temperature at 5:00 is not much different than the temperature at 2:00.  The sun does not leave the field until close to 7:00 anyway; if this is the case, then maybe the last hour of the 5:00 game starts to cool down a bit.

The sun setting poses, perhaps, the most aggravating thing about playing an early evening game: shadows.  Squaring up a round ball with a round bat is already the toughest sport in the world, having to hit a ball that “flashes” from light to dark (and sometimes back to light depending on the stadium), or hit a dark ball off a bright batter’s eye only makes things more challenging.  These ill-lighting effects make it very difficult to pick up rotation, and makes not only hitting more difficult, but catching as well.  The worst situation is when the pitcher is in the sun and home plate is in the shadows, with the next bad situation occurring when the field and batter’s eye is bright, with the pitcher and home plate in the shadows.

For the usual 7:00 start, shadows have covered the mound and home plate, eliminating the worst shadows, with the sun getting off the field by 8:00, at the latest.  During the 5:00 games, the shadows start creeping onto the field a little after 6:00 (but cover a good portion of the fans in the stands from the start, hence why I feel that saying the later start time is a benefit to the players is a copout).

Another drawback of the later Sunday games is the loss of the “mini-off days” that the early Sunday games provide.  Finishing a Sunday game by 5:00 gives us the entire evening to ourselves, giving us the chance to catch a blow, especially during long streaks of consecutive games.  The Sunday games that end closer to 8:00 do not give us much more time off than regular 7:00 games that end at 10:00 do.

These later start times were not done on Sundays in the Midwest League, and the humidity there during the summer can make it feel just as hot as anywhere in Southern California.  I find it rare that things are ever done for the players’ best interests.  While there are those that will say we have no right to complain because we are playing a game for a profession, there are plenty of injustices that go on to highlight the importance of some small positives we achieve along the way.  But, the professional athlete’s livelihood ultimately lies with the support of fans.  For this reason, we must be willing to make sacrifices to cater to their wishes, for without their attendance, there are no professional sports. 

Called-Up

Over the past three days, I have taken four flights, spanning three states and two time zones, a journey not uncommon for a Minor League baseball player.  On Monday, I was called up to our Triple-A affiliate in Salt Lake City to provide support to a team riddled with injuries.  Ironically, this was a year and one day after I was called up to Rancho last season.

After returning home from our Sunday night game in Lake Elsinore, I packed up some things to make a 7:40am flight on Monday.  This flight to Salt Lake City was via San Jose and Reno, making a two-hour trip an all-morning adventure.  After arriving in Salt Lake around 1:00pm, I took a taxi to the stadium.  From here, I went about a typical day at the field, with the usual early work, bullpens, batting practice, and game against the Tacoma Rainiers (Seattle Mariners affiliate).  The next two days were business as usual, with the series finale against Tacoma Tuesday night, and the series opener against the Colorado Springs Sky Sox (Colorado Rockies affiliate) Wednesday.

 While I did not play in any of the games, it was a good experience to see the level of competition at the Triple-A level.  Players are always being told that on a given play, we could play at any level, including the Major Leagues.  However, the separating factor between the upper and lower levels is consistency.  This improved consistency was the biggest difference I noticed between Rancho and Salt Lake from a baseball perspective; games were cleaner and more strikes were thrown.  Then again, this is not to say that the teams were perfect.  I still saw a pitcher cut a ball off from the outfield on a throw home and redirect it to third (when he should have been backing up the catcher), as well as an outfield misplay a fly ball that led to a triple and a subsequent throwing error that allowed the runner to score.  Management is more hands-off at this level, with instruction being done subtly as the situation calls for it.

From a non-baseball perspective, I noticed that things ran a lot more smoothly in Salt Lake, from pre-game activities to in-between inning entertainment to clubhouse administration.  However, this is to be expected from a Triple-A organization that has a lot more support staff and additional resources compared to its Single-A counterparts.  There are some additional perks to being in Salt Lake, aside from the increased efficiencies:  salary is increased (which is still nothing to live off of), spikes are cleaned each night, and a wider variety of food is available (including a catered post-game spread).  The trade-off is higher clubhouse dues ($12 per day versus the $4 per day in Rancho).

Overall, this call-up, while short, was beneficial and has given me another perspective on the journey through the minor leagues.  It was finally nice to be one of the younger guys on the team instead of one of the oldest.  In fact, I warmed up Rudy Seanez last night, a relief pitcher who was drafted when I was two-years-old and has played for nine Major League teams spanning 17 seasons (a call-up to the Angels would make this his tenth team in 18 seasons).  If he pitches next season, his professional career will have spanned four decades (there’s a feat in itself).  Talking with Rudy offered me a unique glimpse into what playing is like for someone has been doing it for that long.  It turns out that he has many of the same concerns as the younger players do: staying healthy and concerns about job security.

I wrap this up prior to landing in Ontario (bordering city of Rancho; fortunately this was a direct flight) with some final thoughts.  This brief reprieve provided me with valuable insight into what makes players successful at the upper levels and has given me the chance to work alongside players a step away from the Big Leagues.  The randomness of this opportunity is further support that you never know where this game will take you and what opportunities will present themselves.  All you can do is complete the preparation so that when the opportunity strikes, you are ready to seize the moment and succeed.