Climbing the ladder of success
Reaching the major leagues is a difficult ladder to climb. "5% of guys who play high school ball get to play in college, and 5% of guys who play in College get to play professional ball," Commented Phil Napolitano, relief pitcher for the West Michigan Whitecaps, "It is definitely a privilege to be here." Those who beat these difficult odds and are able to call themselves professional baseball players still have a long and difficult climb.
Most professional baseball players spend their first season in Rookie league or perhaps skip a level and play in short season A ball. After rookie league and short season A ball, comes two levels of single A ball—low A and high A. Here the prospects play their first full season of 140 games. Double A and Triple A levels are closer to the major leagues. Some prospects in these two levels are on the Parent club's 40 man roster and are available to be called up to the parent club if needed because of injury, or for the September call up.
The team that has been part of my research, the West Michigan Whitecaps (affiliate of the Detroit Tigers), is on the third rung of that proverbial ladder - low A ball. This team is privileged to have as their home field a stadium that is privately owned and run, rather than a city owned and run stadium. This means that it is well maintained and periodically upgraded. This is not the case for all minor league teams. They also have a loyal fan base that averages around 5000 fans per game. This, too, is not always true in minor league baseball. Even with a pleasant situation, baseball life can be tough on a professional baseball player. Phil Napolitan agrees, "this time of the season (August), it doesn't matter who you are or who you play for, it is a grind."
Most of the minor leaguers, especially after a late night, will get up somewhere between 9 AM and noon and, under orders from their trainer; will begin their day with breakfast. Erik Averill (starting pitcher), Phil Napolitan and Pedro Cotto (first base) are a couple of the exceptions. Pedro usually wakes up early "to do laundry, eat good, and do what I have to do at home." Erik's day usually starts between 8 and 9 AM and ends at about 11:30 or midnight. As Phil told me "You want to get up a little early. You don't want to wake up and have to go right to the park." Certain days of the week, their day starts at the YMCA working out. Pitchers are scheduled two days a week. Position players are also scheduled for, as Will Rhymes (2nd base) calls them, "mandatory fitness routines" 1 or 2 days a week. These are usually scheduled at either 10 or 11 in the morning.
Erik described his routine in detail. The day after a starter pitches, is "lower body day. I am up between 8 and 9, eat breakfast, come to the gym and lift one and a half to two hours, eat lunch, and head to the field between 1:30 and 2:00." There he will do some running and lifting before the game "and leave the field at about 11:30 at night." The second day is upper body day. He is up at 9 and to the gym for upper body lift. He then goes to the field and works out in the bullpen. Other pitchers described this day as bullpen day. Dusty Ryan, catcher, had a regular workout routine he followed at the beginning of the season, but injuries put an end to that. Other days include appearances for the Whitecaps and extra appearances and things that Erik and Phil Napolitan do for the Pastor of the church they has become a part of in Grand Rapids.
Matt Rusch, relief pitcher, describes some of these appearances as being outside stores or visiting children's hospitals from about 11 to noon. Burke Badenhop, starting pitcher, enjoys golfing and swimming on some of the non-lift days, While Sendy Vasquez, also a starting pitcher, enjoys going for walks. Mike Hollimon enjoys relaxing and watching a little TV before heading to the ballpark about 1:30 or 2. "I like to get there about an hour ahead and take my time to get ready and relax." Dusty Ryan also likes to get to the field an hour ahead of time "to work on my swing and throw."
Hollimon describes the time on the field at the ballpark. The team is usually stretching by 3:30. They then have batting practice for about 45 minutes from 4:15 until about 5:00 or 5:15. Then they go back into the clubhouse to relax and mentally prepare. Matt Rusch describes this break as a time to "go over game plan, talk to coaches, and chill out." Josh Kauten, relief pitcher, adds that during this time a pre-game meal is served.
The team dresses for the game, and is in the dugout about 6:30 for a 7:00 game. At 6:40, Mike Hollimon starts his pre-game routine: some shuffles, back pedals, and then he and Will Rhymes do whatever throws they need to do. "I go out on the line and do my thing, and it's like a switch comes on. I'm in game mode." Joel Roa, catcher, describes his day as "Come to the field at 12, play the game, go home and sleep." That pretty much describes the life of a professional baseball player.
Sometimes the day does not end right after the game for these dedicated ballplayers. After the team suffered a 7-0 loss, Brian VanOchten, sports writer for the Grand Rapids Press, witnessed a few of the guys putting in a little overtime. Brian describes the scene in the July 11 entry in his blog found at mlive.com (www.mlive.com/grpress/hitandrun ):
"On their own, with no prompting from manager Matt Walbeck, three players went to the batting cage out beyond the center field hitter's backdrop and spent several minutes taking some extra swings.
I can't ever remember players taking extra batting practice immediately following a game, but center fielder Cameron Maybin, shortstop Mike Hollimon, and reserve outfielder Jeramy Laster did just that."
A professional baseball player's life is much more than a 2-3 hour game. With player appearances, mandatory workouts and lifts at the gym, and practice before the game, a baseball player's life is one of total dedication. As Matt Joyce, right fielder, said, "You feel like you never leave the baseball field."