Life in the Minor Leagues: Part 4

Life in the minor leagues is no easy journey for anyone, as has been seen over the first three parts of the season. Finally, in part four, Wendy Smith delves into the key elements of a winning team, and how strong a team can be when they get along well off the field.

Motivation of a winning team

A baseball player in the minor leagues puts in many long hours, receives little pay, and has no job security. The Whitecaps have a total of 12 days off scheduled during the 2006 season. Many of these days are interrupted by travel to the next series on the road, appearances or entertaining the season ticket holders for the evening. If the baseball player makes it on the All Star Team, that cuts out three of those off days. In previous parts of the article, many other challenges have been addressed. So why do it? Orlando Perdomo may have trouble at times communicating his thoughts in English, but he put it the most succinctly, "I love this baseball. I have it in my heart." His words summarize what each of the other guys said.

"It's about chasing a dream," commented Matt Joyce, "Everyone has a dream when they are a kid to make it to the majors where they drive nice cars and stuff like that. You want to be a professional baseball player and you don't realize all the stuff you have to go through to reach that dream—it's tough."

Will Rhymes grew up with the same dream, "It's what we have always wanted to do. It's a lot of fun and a rare opportunity that we have to take advantage of. I can't imagine anything else that would be this much fun."

Erik Averill added, "I grew up in a baseball family. My dad played college ball and my brother plays. You grow up as a little kid dreaming to play, so how can you pass up the opportunity?"

For Dusty Ryan, Josh Kauten, Cameron Maybin, Sendy Vasquez, and probably every other member of the team, the answer was identical—for the love of the game. "I love baseball," Anthony Claggett said. "If you don't love baseball, you can't really do this."

Burke Badenhop agrees, "Because it is what you love doing. People talk all the time about doing what you love and loving what you do."

Mike Hollimon and Ricky Steik can't imagine ever doing anything else. "It is the only thing I have ever wanted to do." Mike commented. The zero job security is tough but as Matt Rusch said, "there is risk in everything you do, and I feel this is a risk work taking."

Memories of a winning team

The 2006 Whitecaps have had a tremendous season filled with many memories that these guys will carry with them the rest of their lives. Very few of the memories were bad ones. Like Burke Badenhop getting sick on Motel food on one of the road trips, and one of the team members, Jake Baxter, being traded to another organization. This hit the team hard, but especially Anthony Claggett, who had become very close friends with Jake. Cameron Maybin has one bad memory that still haunts him. "The error in Cedar Rapids at the beginning of the year—it cost us the game," he commented sadly. By the way, that was the only error that Cameron has committed all season long.

Most of the memories have been good ones. For Erik Averill and Dusty Ryan, it was winning the first half. Erik remembers the game vividly. They were in a series against Dayton and he will always remember "seeing Cameron (Maybin) come up with the bases loaded and hitting a grand slam."

Manager Matt Walbeck and AJ Sager's favorite memory is also tied up in winning the first half. Having the opportunity to coach the All Star game was a privilege neither of them will soon forget, but when the East beat the West, that put the icing on the cake for Walbeck, who enjoyed being part of that victory march and shaking hands on the field.

For many of the guys, there are individual victories that make them smile. Sendy Vasquez struggled in the first half with 6 losses, but in the second half, he told me with a big smile "no losses." Joel Roa will always remember his walk off RBI; "it will be in my memory forever," he assured me.

For Will Rhymes, it was the brawl at Fort Wayne, "right after, I hit a 3 run homer." For Burke Badenhop, it is two memories in one. "The Southwest Michigan complete game (victory for Burke), and it seemed like we had more fans in the stands than they did—standing up, cheering, high-fiving, and clapping as we walked off the field. You get good fan support at home, but it was really nice on the road."

For a couple of the guys, their favorite memory is of another's victory during the season. Erik Averill has really enjoyed watching Cameron Maybin's success during the season. "I enjoy watching Cameron, as young as he is, do what he does. He's a great kid. It makes me happy to see such a young kid having the success he is and be humble about it."

Mike Hollimon listed his three favorite memories in order. 1. The first game of the season and how everyone's adrenaline was pumped. 2. "Mike Hernandez hitting for the cycle--never been a part of that before." 3. Luke French's no hitter going into the ninth inning. "I had more adrenaline going into that ninth inning than I had all season long. I think everyone would have done anything possible to help him accomplish that. It was awesome to play behind him." Mike Hollimon had a cycle of his own this season, but will always remember Mike Hernandez's cycle as special.

For Ricky Steik, clinching the playoffs and doing so well has been a wonderful memory, but added with a hopeful gleam in his eye, "My favorite memory hasn't happened yet. It is still in the future." Ricky's hope is that his favorite memory will be winning the Midwest League Championship.

Chemistry of a Winning Team

For most of the team, their favorite memory is of the season they are having and of the team itself. "The month of July (23-7)" was Josh Kauten's favorite memory. After hesitating for several seconds, Cameron Maybin proclaimed his favorite memories as "too many to count."

The team itself is the recurring favorite part of the season for the guys. "Everything is a good memory," Pedro Cotto said and continued to explain that when he struggles, he receives a great deal of encouragement from his teammates, and "the whole season is a good memory because it is the first season I have played without being hurt—that encourages me."

"Times in the bullpen with the guys," Phil Napolitan decided without hesitation. "The fun and games, and the jokes we play on each other. That's a special time I will always remember—bullpen times. The bullpen is really tight-knit. Our numbers are the best in the league, and the reason is because of the closeness of the guys in the bullpen. When the starter is throwing, we play games and have fun, but when one of the guys from the bullpen goes in, we are locked in and really pulling for him."

The camaraderie extends to the rest of the team as well. Cameron Maybin will always remember having "a lot of fun joking around with the other guys. We get along better than any team I've ever been on. I definitely enjoy being around these guys. This is a great group of guys, and I think it shows in how we go about our business that we are a very together bunch."

Mike Hollimon calls the 2006 Whitecaps a special team. "Everyone gets along with everyone. This team could have so many egos and that would pull everyone in different directions. But we don't have that. No one has an ego on this team. We are all about family—all about team, and that's why we are successful." The chemistry of this team is something that has stood out as being unusual since the first the very first day.

The camaraderie seen by fans on the field before the game is something that originates in the clubhouse away from the public eye. "It's an odd thing," Hollimon continued, "everyone that I have ever talked to (in baseball) …..normally the Dominicans are on one side of the locker room and the Americans are on the other side—not with us. Everyone's together. Everyone is mixed together. I think that is why we're so successful, because we're all pulling for each other. It's almost like a summer ball team. Hopefully it stays that way. I think we can do special things this season."

That long and difficult climb up the ladder of the minor leagues may seem like an endless struggle as the seasons get longer and the level of play becomes more difficult, but that climb can be made a little easier if the right teammates are climbing along beside. The 2006 Whitecaps are indeed "doing special things this season." It will be fun to watch them finish out their season and strive together for that coveted ring—joking around and enjoying each others company along the way.


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