Observations from a Minor League Press Box

The press box at a minor-league game is a different place than most. (via Joel Dinda)

Triple A must be the most human place in baseball. Nowhere do results matter more and nowhere do they matter less. Nowhere does how you treat others matter more and nowhere does it matter less. Nowhere else does potential intersect in quite the same way with what someone has already done.

I’ve spent the last four seasons in and out of a minor league press box, and I’m unsure I’ve ever been around more contradictions in my life. Every player you talk to—every single one—firmly believes he will make it to the majors. Or make it back to the majors. He believes he is ready right now or will be very soon. He just needs a chance. Most of them won’t. They can’t. Baseball doesn’t work that way. But they need that belief. If you don’t have that belief, how do you get up in the morning and go to work?

Because no one wants to stay at Triple A. The “happy to be here” phase lasts for maybe a day or two after getting promoted from Double-A. Coaches mostly feel the same way. Though there are always a few teachers around who really just want to work with the younger players, most of them want jobs coaching and managing on big-league teams. Some will get there. Some won’t.

Everyone in Triple A is one step forward or one step back from where they want to be. Players, coaches, the support people who are necessary to the running of a professional sports team. The front-office type folks always talk about traveling to the Winter Meetings to try to work a gig with a big-league team. Most every choice they make professionally is geared toward achieving that end. 

Coaches can have maybe the most fraught relationship with the minors. Many of them had a big-league career already. A lot of them love the game so much, they can’t help coming back to it. Some just want something to do. And some are trying to make it to the big leagues for the first time. But politics play into coaching like perhaps nowhere else in the minors.

Many coaches do have very deep ties with the organization that employs them, and that can factor into why they’re employed in the first place—even if they are very good coaches. Some put in years of work in the minors only to see a fresh face hired for the big league team ahead of them. How particular players feel about you matters. It can matter a lot. But everyone also knows coaches and managers are the first scapegoats when things don’t go like they should. Any change in ownership or front office personnel is likely to flow downstream and take some coaches and managers with it.

But most coaches stick with it. Some of them prefer working with guys in the minors who are still developing, but a lot are just waiting for that chance to get back to the big leagues. I’ve asked coaches if they would be back next year plenty of times, and it’s not remotely unusual to get, “I hope not” as a reply.

And then there are the players. I know everyone wants to imagine the players in the system as having a deep connection to the organization, but with few exceptions, they don’t. That kind of connection might come once they’re called up, but while they’re in the minors they just want to get to majors–any way, with any team. Players know when they’re blocked, and it’s not uncommon for such players to talk about wanting to be traded.

Minor league players, as a rule, aren’t rich and they aren’t paid well. Even a few days in the majors is a huge boost financially for most of them. Never mind that they’re also realizing a dream they’ve held onto since childhood. The overwhelming majority of minor league players would be thrilled to be traded to any team—no matter how bad—if it meant they would be in the majors tomorrow.

Beyond being blocked, they also are aware of every mediocre performance on the big league team. They know who they think they’re better than. They know options and team control and all that stuff can keep them in the minors when their performance says they should be in the majors and often, they resent it, just as you or I would.

Baseball is supposed to be a meritocracy. But Triple A shows the lie more than anywhere else in baseball. It’s unique in the minors in that it contains the widest age range by a large margin. It’s not uncommon to have a roster with players in their early 20s and others in their mid-30s. But no matter how many guys you strike out or how hard you smash the ball in Triple A, if you’re 29, 30, 31, you can’t count on getting your chance. The next day, you might be sitting because there’s someone new, and the parent club wants him to play. And he might hit .200 for six weeks, but he’ll still keep playing because of the potential someone sees in him. Because the minors are about process and not results.

Age is one of the most uncomfortable topics in Triple A, so much so that I rarely ever mention it. Even coaches can get uncomfortable when you ask about how old a player is and how that affects his chances of seeing major league time. The only player who’s ever spoken openly about age with me is Hernan Iribarren, who just this year made the transition from player to coach. When I first got to know him a few years ago, he knew how old he was, and he knew what he wanted. He wanted to make it back just to prove to himself he could. And he did. He got his call up. 

So it’s not all grim. Sometimes, the 30-year-old player does get a call-up. Sometimes a player who wasn’t on the radar puts himself there. It’s a special cheer that happens when someone gets called up. This year, I’ve seen Josh VanMeter and Aristides Aquino go from being almost entirely off the radar to maybe central pieces on an up-and-coming team. I’ve watched Brian O’Grady see his steady, consistent performance finally result in a call-up. But more often, I’ve noticed guys who were already nearing the end slide off a roster, quietly vanishing from baseball.

Stick around and watch long enough and you’ll be amazed at how much people remember and how fast they forget. Who was that guy the year before last? Who hit one waaaaaay out there, remember? Or the other side. Oh, yeah. We saw him down here. You could tell he had it. He was an obvious star. Unless he wasn’t, and turned into one. Unless he was, and didn’t.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Nearly everyone who’s made it to their late 20s–and many who haven’t yet–can understand most of what it is to be in Triple A. We’ve all either been or seen the young guy who’s a rocket, passing through. Too sure of himself, but 20 years away from coming face to face with his own limitations. Or the same guy but suddenly out of fuel. Or the veterans who find the energy to keep going. Everyone in Triple A is looking for his shot. Maybe his first shot. Maybe his second or third or fourth and so on.

If being human is about the moment we realize our dreams, or the moment we realize we never will, or the moment we decide to try again—if it’s about how we respond to all of those things and how it changes how we see ourselves—then there can’t be anywhere in baseball more human than Triple A. The only certainty is that if you wait a couple of years, almost everyone will be somewhere else.

Jason teaches high school English, writes fiction, runs a small writing program and writes about education and literature. He also writes for Redleg Nation and both writes and edits for The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @JasonLinden, visit his website or email him here.
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Dennis Bedard
4 years ago

This is the stuff of which movies are made and books are written. Ironic that his article is published the same morning that MLB.com puts out an article labeled “30 call ups to get excited about” or something like that. Having read a lot about the ins and outs of minor league life, there are four aspects that separate the majors from the minors:
1. Pay of (course);
2. Long bus rides;
3. Cheap motels;
4. Lousy food (unless, like many of us, you really enjoy but will not admit that the Checkers 1000 calorie burger for $2.49 tastes like Nirvana).

4 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

“…you never handle your luggage in the show, somebody else carries your bags. It was great. You hit white balls for batting practice, the ballparks are like cathedrals, the hotels all have room service, and the women all have long legs and brains.”

4 years ago

Very good article, Jason. Really enjoyed it. Please come back with more like this.