And then the work began.
The first day, I could barely contain my excitement. In the spirit of professionalism, I had to restrain my emotions, but it wasn’t easy. Years of schooling and months of preparations had boiled down to that moment.
Still, the first day was uneventful, centering on orientation and getting acclimated to the surroundings. Working at the ballpark is a nice change of pace from a normal office. You’re surrounded by your passion and, whenever you go outside for a breath of fresh air, you’re staring at a baseball diamond. It’s too bad there’s a turf blanket covering it until March.
For the first few weeks, my job revolved around corporate sales and ticketing. Despite being part of the Public Relations Department, this is the primary focus of my offseason. Though I write articles and releases for the website, there just isn’t a whole lot of buzz surrounding the club this time of year. so the impetus is on sales.
Still, things are as busy now as they’ll ever be. Though we’re not currently in the playing season, we are well into the sales season, which, in many ways, is more important than the games themselves. These short months determine whether we’ll have a productive year and, for some teams, whether there will be a 2011 season.
Hell, even the Field of Dreams wouldn’t be operational for long without a good sales and maintenance staff in place. As well-intentioned as they are, Terence Mann and Ray Kinsella wouldn’t survive for long without the aid of greater corporate America. Remember that beautiful wide-angled shot of the car-packed highways before the film’s credits? Those people have to park their cars and seat themselves somewhere.
Yes. Baseball, the game, belongs to the great people of this country. But, Baseball, the business, belongs to America’s corporate sector. Therefore, my primary responsibility during the preseason is to sell, sell, and sell some more.
Still, this is only one facet of my profession and one phase of the year. There are other aspects of my job … and other perks as well.
For whatever reason—be it familiarity, opportunity or something else unknown—employment in baseball seems to attract a large proportion of ex-ballplayers. The Sky Sox are no exception.
Around the office, there are at least three former college ballplayers. One in particular, Matt Pribbernow, is quite the baseball mind. A part-time baseball instructor when out of the office, he has tutored countless young players and continues to give lessons in his spare time. I’m very fortunate to have crossed Pribbernow’s path. He’s always eager to discuss baseball and to answer any of my inquiries with in-depth, detailed explanations.
It’s pretty lucky for me, as one of my goals while working for the Sky Sox was to find a network where I could improve my baseball acumen.
A two-way player at New Jersey’s Division III Richard-Stockton College, “Pribb,” as he’s known around the office, has an understanding of the game that is paralleled by few. Following work one mid-February afternoon, Pribb began tutoring me in the art of scouting.
Around 5 pm, I threw on the gym clothes I had brought to work and took the elevator down a floor to the clubhouse, next to the batting cages. That first session was a brief, but very important review of the basics. There, in the locker room, we discussed the importance of watching the game closely, paying attention to every little thing a player does: balance for fielder, pitcher and hitter; the importance of a good physique; watching how a batter swings at certain pitches.
For hitters, what type of batter is at the plate? Is he a dead-pull hitter or does he stay back and drive the ball to all fields? Can he stay back and adjust to an off-speed pitch or does he roll it over and tap a weak groundball to the pull side?
No one is better at adjusting to pitches than Manny Ramirez. If you can, find archived video tape of Manny driving a low and away change-up to Fenway’s right-center gap. Watch his balance. Watch him keep his hands back until the pitch comes into the zone. There’s no one better at it, and he’s made quite the career out of staying back on the pitch.
We discuss pitching.
The best hurlers can consistently throw and locate three pitches in all parts of the zone, staying out of the middle of the plate. The truly elite ones can identify a hitter’s weakness during an at-bat and exploit it.
To do so, you have to be very observant. Pay attention to the scouting reports and watch what a hitter is having trouble with on that day. That includes watching his balance on different pitches you throw, whether he’s making clean, well-timed swings, and if he’s getting fooled or guessing on certain offerings.
After about an hour, we concluded the session and exited the clubhouse. As we rode the elevator back to the top floor, he left me with one last tidbit from his decades in the game.
“The most important thing I look for is work ethic. A kid can be a generational talent, but I’d never work with him unless he’s coachable and works hard. If he’s immature, he won’t dedicate himself to his craft and won’t improve. And, when it comes to these major league organizations, coaches won’t want to work with him—at which point he’ll never have a career.”
At the time, my only reaction was to nod my head. Later it got me thinking—about why certain prospects succeed while others fizzle out. Sure, talent is the primary mover in the process, but, as Bill James has often said, these young players have so much to improve upon that its anyone’s guess where they’ll ultimately end up.
Still, one thing is for sure: if you aren’t willing to work tirelessly to hone your craft, you’ll be eaten alive in the professional ranks. There’s just too many talented, assiduous players in the minors gunning for the same job. The game is just too cutthroat, the mountaintop so desirable, that it’s no wonder only the most committed subjects reach paydirt.
And it’s also no surprise that so many players turn to PEDs. Oftentimes, I can’t blame them.
On a corollary, who’s to say that these young, impressionable players are even motivated enough to remain focused after multiple arduous, grueling minor league seasons? Fame and a big payday at the end of the tunnel is enough to keep the dream alive, but how many prospects flare out because they really don’t enjoy the minor league lifestyle?
At moments like these, I can’t help but invoke a conversation I had with a close professor of mine in college. Long-time Dodgers fans may recall his name; in the early 1980s, he was one of the best prospects in the game, the No. 2 outfielder in the Los Angeles minor league system.
But he quit.
Following the 1982 season, a young Anthony Lachowetz called it a career after a brief three-year stint in the Dodgers system.
The epitome of the early ’80s five-tool player and an the impressive right fielder, he was infinitely talented, possessing excellent power, blazing speed, range, patience, intelligence and a howitzer of an arm.
In 1980, he stole a phenomenal 36 bases in just 212 at-bats in rookie ball. In 1982, with high-A Vero Beach, he clubbed 15 homers in 393 at-bats, walking 54 times. He was destined for stardom. He could have started in right field for one of the most prestigious franchises in major league history. He had everything a scout could dream of, except the desire to put his life on hold for the minors.
So he gave it all up.
As Dr. Lachowetz once told me, he got tired of toiling in the minor leagues, the low pay, the road trips, and, especially, watching his friends advance in their private sector careers while he played baseball. Though he was good, he had other interests, so he left it, even after the best season of his career.
It takes guts and a tremendous amount of intelligence to leave that kind of dream and opportunity behind. For that, he immediately earned my fullest respect. But what is most important to take away from his experience is that this is happening every day all across the country. Young players fall out of love with the game. Veterans look toward life after baseball even with three years remaining on their contracts.
Sure, there’s more money in baseball now, and there’s no saying whether or not Dr. Lachowetz would do the same thing if he played today. In fact, I regret having never asked him the question.
Still, there’s no denying that there are countless prospects in the minor leagues who don’t have the focus or the drive to commit themselves and see it all the way through. And who can blame them? For many players, it can be a decade or more until they stick in the bigs—if they ever do.
In baseball, nothing is guaranteed. At a moment’s notice, a career in the minors can end with nothing but memories—and, some would say, wasted years that one could have spent with friends, building a career, starting a family, or living a different life.
So, maybe Pribb is right. Maybe the most important attribute a prospect can possess is the requisite desire, work ethic, and perseverance to succeed. The more I think about it, the more I realize that sometimes talent isn’t the most important characteristic after all.
If you’re in doubt, just ask Tony.