Most workers in a professional field look forward to having their own home or apartment for a place to relax after a long day at the office. Professional baseball players in the minor leagues do not make much money, and since they are only in a town for 5-6 months and must be ready to move on at a moment's notice, finding a place to live can be a real challenge. Minor league clubs make arrangements for these kinds of challenges in many different ways.
Last season, the Whitecaps who came up from Oneonta or one of the rookie leagues lived in dorms. Most of the guys who lived in the dorms have fun memories of being able to get everyone together easily. They were all together in the dorm which allowed for team bonding as well as getting together for various activities. Matt Joyce remembers there being no refrigerators which meant that the guys would have to go out in search of food. For a while the air conditioning was out, which made it hard for them to sleep. Erik who had been on a different team had food provided for him in a cafeteria three times a day. "It was good stuff, but not high quality." He also remembers not having transportation and the challenges that caused him. Pedro Cotto remembers dorm life as a lonely life. "In the dorm you don't have anyone to talk to. When you have a bad day, you go to your room and close the door." One of the disadvantages is "having to share a bathroom with 20 other guys," Matt Rusch remembers "I was thinking about this the other day. When we are playing 140 games, I cannot imagine going back to a dorm room every night. That would be really tough—not so much physically, but mentally."
Ricky Steik was with the San Diego Padre organization last year. The Fort Wayne Wizards provided apartments for the team. They had host families, but did not live with them. These host families helped provide for their needs, and even went shopping with them. "It was pretty cool." Ricky acknowledged.
This year, with the Whitecaps, they have the option of living with host families. Each member of the team has taken advantage of this. Joel Roa's comparison of the dorm and host families is that "In the dorm you have to make your own food. With host families you have someone who does that work for you, and most important, you have someone who loves you." All of the Whitecaps I talked to agree that having a host family saves a great deal of money, but for these guys, it is not just a bed and a meal. "To go home and have somebody to talk to. And they don't always want to talk about baseball." Matt Rusch agrees, "It gets your mind off baseball and on other things—like current events. It's not just a bed and a home-cooked meal, but the people themselves who give you balance in a dizzying life." Pedro Cotto agrees that the host families themselves are important. "I am lucky with my host parents. When I am struggling, they talk to me. They are a big part of my success here."
Burke Badenhop also enjoys the family part of host families. His host family has a couple kids he enjoys being with. "I really feel like I am their oldest son, and that is the way they treat me." There are, of course, a couple disadvantages to this situation. It is harder for the team to get together as a group because the guys are spread all over the city, and there are house rules set up by the host families that the guys are aware of when they choose their family. They look over the profiles provided to them of the host families and decide if they want to participate (strongly encouraged by the Tigers and Whitecaps organization), and choose who they would like to stay with. They have to provide their own transportation, so if they do not have a vehicle, they have to have a roommate who does. With host families, they are not as free "to bring friends home or throw parties," but Matt Joyce admits that not having that freedom "keeps you balanced and level-headed."
One of the hardest parts of minor league baseball to all but a very few, is long bus trips as they play half of their 140 games on the road. For the Whitecaps, some of these trips are six to eight hours of sitting on a bus that some describe as being "freezing cold" (to keep the bus driver awake). Each series consists of 2-4 games with 4 games being the norm. A couple of the teams are fairly close—one hour to Lansing and an hour and a half to Battle Creek. When the Whitecaps play these two teams, they go back and forth from Grand Rapids for each game. This was particularly hard on them in one Saturday night double header at Lansing. The game lasted until almost midnight, so they did not get home until 2:30 AM, and had to be back on the bus for a day game at 10 AM.
The road trip is tough, but they manage to make the most of the bus trips, using a great deal of the time bonding as a team as they play cards together and visit. Many use the time to talk on the phone and catch up with friends and family back home. Many have ipods, DVD players and computers which allow them to listen to music and watch movies. Josh Kauten brings his laptop to watch movies. "The battery lasts for about one movie" he told me. After a movie, he gets involved in a card game or takes a nap. Most of the team spends some time reading. Ricky Steik is partial to Steven King. Manager Matt Walbeck likes to read books on management and leadership, as well as subjects unrelated to baseball such as the Civil War. Erik Averill enjoys using this time to read his Bible as well as Bible help books.
Not everyone comes as prepared as these three. Matt Joyce laughs as he remembers being unprepared with reading material once. "I bought a $13 magazine just to keep me occupied during the last road trip. I don't think I really got my money's worth out of it." Many try to take naps. One of Matt Rusch's favorite bus trip scenarios is when they are traveling at night and everyone is asleep. "It is a good time to mentally reflect on who you are and what you are. It helps balance out the mental aspect." Cameron Maybin uses the time on the bus trips to listen to music on his ipod, sleep and relax. "I'm not a fan of cards."
Road trips allow for a little more time to relax, which allows some of the guys to spend some time golfing and just hanging out together. Erik admits to making sure he gets some time alone. He places value on time alone to nurture his soul. This makes the time the team spends together as a group more enjoyable. Cameron Maybin's favorite part of road trips is having more time to relax before batting practice. At home, they "have BP, and then have to sit around for a long time before playing the game." Sendy likes staying in motels and "having the extra money." The team is given $20 a day for meal money when they are on the road. Pedro Cotto agrees. The meal money, being able to eat in restaurants, and seeing new places is one of his favorite parts of road trips. He especially enjoyed "going to see the Mississippi (river), going to the casino, and spending time in a motel, which I might not get to do back home (Puerto Rico)." Several of the guys enjoy the opportunity to see different sights and cities. Burke Badenhop enjoys being able to "stay at cool places with great things to do nearby." Mike Hollimon finds an advantage to road trips in "not as many distractions. You wake up and know what you're doing—focus is a little bit easier." All of the guys agree that being together is one of their favorite parts of the road trip, and that the long bus ride is the hardest part of the road trip. For Will Rhymes, the bus trips and staying in a motel takes a lot out of him. "My legs can't get comfortable. The day after a road trip, it is hard to get yourself going. I feel like I don't have my legs under me."
Separation from loved ones
With technical advances like cell phones and laptops, separation from loved ones is not the struggle it was a few years ago, when baseball players had to line up at the only pay phone at a ball park or hotel and wait their turn to talk to their loved ones for a couple minutes, but it is still one of the hardest parts of professional baseball for many of the guys. Joel Roa was married in December, only a little over a month before reporting to spring training. Being from the Dominican Republic, his wife was not able to get a VISA to come for a visit, but her support is felt long distance. "I like having someone to worry and be concerned for me back home." Pedro Cotto also has a wife back in Puerto Rico, so this is the worst part of playing baseball for him, but unlike Joel, he is looking forward to his wife being here for some of the playoffs. Both Erik Averill and Ricky Steik have fiancés who have been able to come out for a visit or two. As Erik put it, "I miss physically being with them (family and fiancé), but they are still there for me everyday." Cameron is able to talk to his family everyday, and is used to being separated from them because of baseball. Girlfriend? "I am staying away from the girlfriend thing so I can focus on the game."
Little time for worship for believers
One of the struggles for the believer in baseball is not being able to attend worship services and have regular fellowship with other believers. Erik Averill and Phil Napolitan are blessed to be roommates who share a similar faith. They are not able to attend morning services because they have to be at the ballpark at the time church services are scheduled. Their pastor in Grand Rapids is also the chaplain for the team. They try to get to the evening service, and are able to have a Bible study with their Pastor sometime during each week. Orlando Perdomo also feels the struggle in this area "Sunday is my favorite day. It is a beautiful day for me. I can worship my God, Jesus Christ." Erik is often found spending time in his Bible on the bus during road trips. As Phil Napolitan said "It definitely forces you to really get into the Bible yourself."
Cultural and Language challenges
For the Latin Americans on the team, dealing with especially the language while living and working in the USA can be a real struggle. Pedro has been in the United States since 1999, and attended college in Iowa, so the English language is easier on him, but he remembers the struggles when he first came to the US. Joel Roa also speaks English well. He acts as interpreter for the Spanish speaking members of the team. Whenever someone has a conversation with one of the Spanish speaking members of the team, Joel is usually found within earshot quietly translating what is being said to them. He does it so quietly, that often people are unaware of his presence. Orlando Perdomo and Sendy Vasquez find the language difficult, but wanted to answer my questions themselves. Sendy enjoys the opportunity to learn the language "I like English." he told me with his trademark smile.
The Latin American culture is a warm and close one, where the people do not have personal zones like we do here in America. In the Latin American culture, a hug and a kiss is a typical greeting—sometimes even if you do not know that person. For Pedro Cotto, adjusting to the American culture where people do not enter another's personal space is difficult. "I miss the warmness."
Daily Grind of a long season with few days off
The Whitecaps are coming to the end of a very long season in which they have had very few days off. In a 140 game season, they have only 12 days off. They will have one day off at the end of the regular season and before the playoff run starts. Some of the Whitecaps described how the long season has affected them both mentally and physically. For Matt Joyce, it is both mentally and physically difficult. "You come out here everyday and you're in the sun 6-7-8 hours, and it wears on your body. But the tougher part is the mental part, being able to focus during every game every day, and learning something from each at bat--trying to get better everyday, because that is why you're here, to learn whatever you need to move up."
Matt Rusch remembers manager Matt Walbeck warning that it would be tough this time of the season. "This is something our manager brought to our attention. This is the first full season for a lot of the guys and you're going to hit a wall—I just didn't know it would be this hard of a wall. You go out there, 100 times so far, and do the same stretches, and throw the ball the same way—I'm glad it's a routine, because you just go through the motions sometimes. It kind of wears on you—muscle aches, and mentally. You gotta plow through it, because it doesn't get any easier. As you move up the levels, they expect you're going to adapt to it." Matt described the wall. "One day I'm sitting down in the bullpen and thinking, ‘wow, I am really tired.' I am not as sharp as I was at the beginning of the year. If you let it get to you, it will affect your play. If you can get through it, it gets easier every time. It's something I have never been accustomed to. It's pretty harsh on the body right now."
For Will Rhymes, it is more of a mental drain. "A good year flies by, but when the team or an individual struggles, it takes a lot of motivation to come out and do it everyday." Josh Kauten has to deal with the mental aspect as well "Every day is groundhog day. You lose track of what day it is and what time of year it is. Although," Josh adds with a laugh "the weather helps in the summer months." For Mike Hollimon and Dusty Ryan, it is more physical as they deal with aches and pains. "Especially for a catcher," Dusty explains "Your legs are sore. It's a grind every day to get through it."
So how do these guys get through the toughness of the long season? Having a good season and having the best record in all of minor league baseball helps a great deal, but how do they handle the mental and physical struggles? A few commented on how they deal with it.
For Josh Kauten, it means making sure he is healthy for the game. "This time of year, you start doing less working out, less running, so you can be healthy for the game."
For Orlando Perdomo, it is an attitude check. "With 30 games left, it is very hard for us. I keep positive and work hard every day to be my best on the mound for the team."
For Anthony Claggett, it is both mental and physical "You try to keep in shape; stay focused, and be ready when they need you."
For Phil Napolitan it is about focus and taking breaks from the game. "You do whatever you have to do to take care of your body. You have to find things to get away from the game for a while, and sometimes you need to be more focused than ever."
For Matt Rusch, it is about setting goals. "You lay your ears back, you put your head down, and you go. Especially with being in the playoffs, we have to be picking up momentum and not dying off. You have to find motivation and set personal goals—for that game, for that week—make sure you keep going up and not down."
So what is the motivation that keeps Pedro Cotto going? "Thinking about the Championship--You think about having (the) ring on (your) finger."