THT film review: Time in the Minors

Being a major league baseball player appears glamorous and fun. It’s a job nearly any fan of the game would happily swap for his or her present occupation. But how about the life of a minor leaguer? How many people would be willing to make that exchange?

In the documentary film Time in the Minors, director Tony Okun gives viewers insight into what minor leaguers go through by following two real-life players as they work their way through the bush leagues.

Tony Schrager is the mid-round scrapper, the veteran minor leaguer who is battling at the cusp of breaking through to the bigs, while John Drennen is the first-round hot prospect just starting to make a splash in professional ball.

Okun effectively blends one-on-one interviews with voiced-over footage of the players preparing for, and playing in, minor league competition. This combination is used to demonstrate the great efforts the players put in as they attempt to overcome the monumental challenges faced along their paths to the major leagues.

One theme Okun concentrates on is the nearly complete lack of control players have over their fates. The competition is fierce, as 40 to 50 new players are added to each team’s talent pool every summer via the draft, along with several international free agent signings.

Of the 150 or so players teams invite to minor league camp each spring, about 40 are released before the season begins. In other words, there’s about a one-in-four chance that a player’s dream will end before breaking camp. And the odds of actually reaching the majors are even steeper, as only about 10 percent of all players drafted make it to the big leagues.

Despite the odds being stacked against them, Okun clearly reveals that both Schrager and Drennen give everything they have to pursue their dreams. Both players practiced constantly, getting up very early to hit the gym and the batting cages before heading to the field for hours of prep before game time. (Along the way, viewers gain an insight into the unusual training techniques the players engage in to push their bodies to peak performance.)

The two distinctly different personalities of Schrager and Drennen are starkly delineated, as well. Schrager is reserved, Midwestern and in his late 20s. Drennen is loose, Hawaiian-born and fresh out of high school.

Schrager had been in the minors for several seasons when the film was made, and while he knows the ups and downs of minor league life, that doesn’t make it any easier.

He signed out of Stanford for an $87,500 bonus, plus $20,000 to finish college later, but he initially had to get by on $850 a month in salary—an amount insufficient to cover his living expenses, which include clubhouse dues. While his salary does increase somewhat as he moves up the minor league ranks, he never makes any real money, especially compared to his former college pals.

Schrager is married during filming (though later divorced), and the balance of a baseball player’s complex situation and the stress of maintaining some sort of normalcy in a marriage plays out vibrantly during one scene regarding relocation. When Tony earns one of his promotions, he has to travel from Mississippi to Salt Lake City to join his new team. Meanwhile, his wife is forced to travel west to east—from Albequerque to Raleigh—to get everything packed up for the relocation.

On the flip side, Drennen is single, with little other than baseball to occupy his mind. Despite being a first-round pick and receiving a $1 million signing bonus, he keeps things simple, as evidenced by the only item he purchases with his bonus: a new fishing pole. While Schrager has traveled this road for several years, Drennen is about to get his first taste of pro baseball, and he doesn’t yet know what’s in store.

He learns quickly, though, and there is a nice scene where Drennen and his roommate, Nick Petrucci, discuss the differences between high school and minor league ball. The physical challenge of playing every day as a pro, compared to two or three games a week as a student, is exhausting at first. They realize they have to figure out for themselves a balance between pacing themselves and still giving their best every day.

In a scene that is perhaps a bit more drawn out than was necessary, Drennen is given a dream opportunity to demonstrate his best. When Roger Clemens made his first minor league start during his midseason return to baseball in 2006, it was for the Lexington (Ky.) Legends against Drennen’s Lake County Captains.

Drennen made the best of the situation, driving a Clemens pitch over the right-field wall for a home run he surely will never forget. The drama is replayed a few times, and Clemens’ reaction during the post-game press conference is shown, as well. While this confrontation and result is milked a bit much, it’s understandable. If one of the greatest pitchers of all time crosses paths with your production, you make sure he’s in the film!

On a technical level, Okun uses several interesting techniques to focus the attention where he most wants it. The classic spot shadow helps identify Schrager and Drennen on the field. He also uses a creative top-bottom split-screen effect, as opposed to the more common left-right split, to show the pitcher head-on as he deals to the batter.

The game footage is plucked from team broadcasts and ranges from crisp and clear to grainy, reflecting the quality of the video equipment available to different teams. Shots of the various ballparks show the range of quality of the overall facilities, too. Some minor league parks are obviously worn and decrepit, while others are sparkling new and feature the very latest in fan amenities.

While this is a tale of two particular minor leaguers, it is really the story of most every young ballplayer hoping to make it big. Schrager and Drennen represent the dreams of thousands of young men, and their individual successes and failures reflect those of myriad similar players. Okun presents this tale directly and honestly, showing the ups and downs of these two players pursuing the dream so many of us shared when we were young.

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Comments

  1. eric arvidson said...

    You have peaked my interest to see this documentary! It sounds like it could be a part of the “30 for 30” on ESPN which I have really enjoyed. How do the chances of a baseball prospect compare to the chances of a football prospect? I know the career of a baseball player is longer, but are the odds of making the “bigs” better?

  2. Greg Simons said...

    Eric, I don’t know what the specific odds are for an NFL player, but it seems with the fewer number of rounds and the fact that the NCAA is akin to “minor league football,” drafted college football players are significantly more likely to play in NFL games.  But, as you said, the length of a football player’s career is generally shorter than those of MLB players.

  3. Duane Wallin said...

    Southpaw, you bring a new meaning to what it is like to try and become a major league player.  I can’t imagine living on $850 a month.  More people should read this article and go to the movie.  I laugh at the Twins stuff I read about Joe Mauer making 23 million a year.  They don’t believe that he is worth it.  They forget that he has already has 3 batting titles and is a MVP.  He also puts people in the seats.  I’m happy that he is a Twin but we need to understand why players continue to stuggle.  I believe it is truly for the “Love of the game.”  I guess that is why I love playing vintage base ball so much.  Those of us who play vintage can’t seem to get enough.  I’m happy to have that feeling and I can relate to the guy still trying to make it to the bigs.

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