They travel in pairs

I love the minor leagues. Where else can you witness dizzy bat races, human bowling and Lady Gagarilla (it’s a guy dressed in a gorilla suit dancing like Lady Gaga while wearing a mask—highbrow stuff)? There’s even a baseball game.

I love the intimate ballparks and the reminder that behind the glamorous opulence of Major League Baseball, there are hard-working kids making sacrifices in pursuit of a dream the vast majority of them will never attain. I’m a sucker for that sort of thing, and it’s fun to look back years later, like some indie band devotee, and remember the players you saw before most people had even heard of them.

They hadn’t sold out yet

As someone who gets to a handful of California League games each year (would be more, but the ballpark nearest to my house is about 70 miles away), I’ve seen my share of future big leaguers come through over the past decade or so, along with their less fortunate colleagues. In fact, you could assemble a decent team out of these guys:

C: George Kottaras, Mike Napoli
1B: Xavier Nady
2B: Howie Kendrick
3B: David Freese, Corey Hart*, Chase Headley
SS: Erick Aybar, Jason Bartlett, Stephen Drew, Khalil Greene, J.J. Hardy
LF: Conor Jackson (reminded me of Tim Salmon at the time)
CF: Fred Lewis, Nick Swisher
RF: Nate Schierholtz*
P: Felix Hernandez (had his one bad outing of 2004—4 IP, 8 H, 7 R, 5 ER, 3 BB, 3 SO, 2 HR—when I saw him), Jake Peavy

*If I were assembling an actual team, I would stick Hart in right field and forget about Schierholtz. However, Hart really did “play” third base in the Cal League.

I also retain a soft spot for the guys that never reached the big leagues, whose dream—for whatever reason—went unfulfilled. Some names mill about in the back of my mind because I thought they were destined for greatness and it never happened—former Padres left-hander Mark Phillips, for example.

Others linger because of the names themselves. What stadium wouldn’t benefit from having the syllables Giuseppe Chiaramonte, Eddy Martinez-Esteve, or Mayobanex Santana boom through the PA system? Seriously, MLB needs more Giuseppes and Mayobanexes. Or even one.

Anyway, much as I’d love to reminisce about guys I saw before they became famous (their first album was awesome!), I’ve got something else on my mind today. No, it’s not the time a player hopped onto the groundskeeper’s truck and practiced three-point turns in front of the home dugout before the game. Nor is it the time a manager launched a barrage of F-bombs in front of a very small crowd (mostly children) on Easter Sunday. Don’t get me wrong, those are great memories, but today I’d like to talk about another aspect of the minors.

Hitting the charts

My favorite place to sit at a minor-league game is directly behind home plate, among the scouts and the pitchers who aren’t pitching that night. At Lake Elsinore, my preferred destination for many years, I can drop $10 for a seat 10 yards back of the action. I can see and hear pretty much everything that happens on the field.

One thing that happens is pitchers chart pitches. They dress in civilian clothes, are young and tall (my wife adds “gorgeous”), and travel in pairs. They are easy to identify: Look for the guys who don’t appear to be enjoying the game (I’m sure they are, but that’s not why they’re there) and who aren’t old.

One of them, usually the next night’s starter, tracks every pitch in a large notebook, recording type, location, velocity and the like. The other, usually the pitcher who follows the charter in the rotation, works the radar gun and may also be responsible for setting up and monitoring a mounted camcorder.

Both teams are represented, so typically you’ve got four guys sitting behind home plate. They occupy whatever seats might happen to be available. Yes, that means they sometimes have to move to accommodate paying customers who arrive late to the ballpark. Yes, sometimes in the middle of an inning (or an at-bat). And yes, without complaint, because the customer is king.

I have seen dozens of young men do this over the years, and their professionalism never ceases to amaze me. Even though they are not active participants in the game being played, they pay meticulous attention to every pitch, as though their very careers depended on the information gleaned from so doing.

Other people typically leave these men alone to do their work. Sometimes a kid (or adult) will attempt to make conversation. Kids have better luck at this, although I’ve chatted a little here and there. I try to be respectful of the players’ space and time. I paid for admission to the ballpark, but this is their office. I don’t want to distract them from the task at hand. On the rare occasion when I do approach, I keep my comments short and to the point.

Most times, however, I say nothing. I can learn plenty just from observing.

Professional courtesy

An interesting manifestation of the professionalism these players exhibit comes in their interactions with one another. For example, consider a not-so-hypothetical situation in which two pitchers from the home team are sitting directly in front of two from the visiting team. Say the home team takes the field and its starter pumps a few relatively straight pitches at 92 mph. No problem, everyone knows those are fastballs.

Then he spins something toward the plate and it registers 84 mph on the gun. The guy charting for the home team knows what the pitch is as soon as his wingman announces the recorded speed (and probably before, just based on movement). The visitors, however, may not be familiar with the man on the mound’s repertoire and so one of them will ask his colleague on the other team for help. “Slider,” comes the response. A quick thanks follows, and then it’s back to the grind of watching and recording everything for the next 2 1/2 hours.

Some things just aren’t scalable. Here’s a fun exercise: Imagine yourself at Dodger Stadium, catching a Dodgers-Giants game with 40,000 of your closest friends. Hiroki Kuroda and Barry Zito are the starters. A few rows back of home plate, Chad Billingsley is tracking pitches using pencil and paper while Clayton Kershaw works the gun. Behind them, Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum do the same. The people sitting in their vicinity, having paid less than what it costs to see the latest overhyped 3-D movie, pay no attention to them whatsoever.

You can’t imagine it, can you? But that’s the minor-league experience, where players room together or live with “host families”—members of the local community that give them a place to stay—to save what little money they may have. (Those same folks from the community will walk around the ballpark with a bucket, collecting dollar bills from fans after a player for the home team strikes out the side or hits a homer. And fans gladly contribute to the cause of a young man’s dreams… or at least an extra helping of pepperoni on his next pizza.)

If nothing else, attending a minor-league game provides a lesson in perspective. If big-leaguers sometimes seem like prima donnas out on the field (or in life), it’s helpful to understand where they came from and what they endured to arrive at their current destination. This doesn’t absolve anyone from behaving like an idiot (although to be fair to baseball players, there are bad seeds in all walks of life), but it may help explain some otherwise baffling behavior.

Besides, where else are you ever going to see Lady Gagarilla?

References & Resources
Thanks to my wife for helping this article find its direction and to the minor leagues for existing.

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Comments

  1. Joel said...

    Thanks for writing this article! I was lucky enough to play four years in college and – aside from my occasional appearances in actual games – the thing I enjoyed the most and took the most pride in was keeping the game chart. There’s nothing better to keep you involved, and it feels like you’re holding the entire game in your notebook. This article really brought back the memories for me. Keep up the good work!

  2. LynchMob said...

    I had an MLB-equivalent experience a couple of years ago … drove up to a Padres day game in Seattle (from Oregon) … got to the box office as the window was opening … asked for “best available single” … got front row right behind home plate (which does have the downside of an up-close-and-personal view of the home plate umps rear-end the whole game) … and I ended up sitting next to Gary Reonicke, who was advance-scouting the Mariners for the Orioles who were coming into town for the next series … what a FANTASTIC experience!  It was the most interesting baseball game I’ve ever experienced … he managed to do his job and partake in some conversation … just a gold mine!

    I’ve never tried that tactic since … but it seems like a reasonable approach to getting such a seat … at least at SafeCo …

  3. derej said...

    Great post. You nailed the exact reasons I’d honestly rather attend a minor league game than an MLB contest. Unfortunately the atmosphere you are describing is disappearing from the higher levels of the minors. I take a quick baseball trip every summer, seeing as many minor league games as I can in a week or so, and I have essentially given up on AAA. AAA is now full of mini-Camden Yards meant to be entertainment destinations. Most people at the games, don’t seem to realize there’s a game going on.

    The experience you describe still can be found at the lower levels, though; especially in Rookie Ball. My favorite ballpark experiences of the past decade have almost all been in Elizabethton, TN; Pulaski, VA; Bluefield, WV; etc.

  4. Oliver K. Burrows III said...

    Having come to Wisconsin 31 years ago as the general manager of the Appleton Foxes (now the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers), I can attest to that minor league feel.  We now have a collegiate league team from the Northwoods League in Wausau, and the feeling is the same.  Great story!

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