The Long, Hot March of a Single-A Summer

The weather in the South Atlantic League is almost unrivaled in Minor League Baseball. (via Ron Cogswell)

The weather in the South Atlantic League is almost unrivaled in Minor League Baseball. (via Ron Cogswell)

There is summer heat. Then there is Georgia summer heat, with humidity so thick it hangs in the air like the Spanish moss draped from the trees ringing Lake Olmstead in Augusta, where the Single-A GreenJackets of the South Atlantic League play half of their 140-game schedule.

The heat is definitely a chore for players who aren’t used to it, but the biggest challenge is the season itself. They’ve never played 100 games over a summer, let alone 140. Even with college summer ball and showcase tournaments for high school players, nothing comes close.

“I’ve played a lot of games before, but not five months straight,” said Augusta third baseman Jonah Arenado, younger brother of Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan. “I’ve never experienced anything like this, especially in this heat. There’s really no way to get comfortable in it. You have to stay hydrated as much as you can.”

Arenado and his teammates are now in their fifth and final full month of their first full season (sixth if you count spring training). They are all physically spent, whether they admit it to themselves or to anyone else. When they talk about how they feel, it always seems as if they’ve convinced themselves that they’re fine.

“I feel a little better than I thought I would,” said Arenado, convincingly. “I still have days when I wake up really tired, and my legs are sore and I can’t get out of bed. But for the most part I feel pretty good. I’ve taken care of my body pretty well.”

Augusta manager Nestor Rojas said he appreciates his players’ upbeat attitudes, especially in August. He knows how hard the season has been on them.

“Most of these guys played in the Arizona League last year, where you play four games and have an off day,” said Rojas, who managed the Giants’ AZL teams the previous two season. “It is hard to make them used to getting up to play, travel that night, get into the next city and play that night, too. I think it’s the playing time and the travel that eventually gets to you.”

His job is keeping everyone upbeat and ready to play, and the Giants couldn’t have picked a better man for that role. Rojas was a catcher in the Giants’ system from 2003 to 2010, making it to Triple-A before taking the hitting coach job in Augusta in 2011.

“I believe if you stay positive, you will get positive results,” said Rojas, who managed the Arizona League champion in 2013. “I hate losing. I go out there every day and I try to pass to my players the energy I have. I’m here to make them better ballplayers, but I also want to make a statement and I want to be the champion in this league.”

Players say having a regular pregame routine helps them stay focused. Augusta shortstop Evan Potter said that’s been the biggest challenge for him this year. Potter, who signed as a non-drafted free agent last year out of San Diego State, said a steady daily routine helps him feel comfortable going into every game, no matter where or when it starts.

“It’s all about knowing how to manage yourself,” he said. “Know how to manage your body. Manage your time. Manage how many swings you’re getting in the cage before the games. It’s more than just going out there and playing baseball. You just try to find a routine that works for you and makes you feel confident in yourself.”

For a typical 7 p.m. start, players arrive at the ballpark around 3 p.m. Many carpool because not everyone has a car for the summer. Most of the players live together in apartment houses near the stadium, and the setup is exactly like you’d imagine it.

“Some of us are sharing rooms,” said Potter. “I have five roommates, and we have a whole bunch of lawn chairs set up in a living room, so it’s fun. It’s just a bunch of guys living in a house, like college.”

As soon as players arrive at the ballpark, they make a beeline for the clubhouse beneath the stadium to escape the heat. Most bring their own subs and salads for lunch because the spreads at low-A are pretty meager. All those stories about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? They’re true. That’s one reason why most of these guys have trouble keeping on weight.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

“My weight has gone up and down,” said Arenado. “I went into spring training at around 230 and I’ve lost eight pounds. I’ve been around 220 for a little while. You sweat so much you’re bound to lose weight, but I knew this was coming. You try to prepare for it in the offseason.”

Back in April or May, players trickled out onto the field early to take extra batting practice and throw bullpens, but not now. Not in this heat. They wait until scheduled batting practice about three hours before the game, and it’s a lazy affair set to the classic rock radio station blaring over the public address stadium.

“You can’t blow it out at three or four or five in the afternoon,” said Delmarva Shorebirds infielder Steve Wilkerson. “You’ve got to save as much energy and focus as you can for 7 p.m.”

Rojas said the Giants have a daily pregame schedule the organization likes all its minor league affiliates to follow, but he said he made a few adjustments after the first half to make things easier on the players. Before the Sally League All-Star break, for instance, the GreenJackets would have had to be at the park closer to two.

“I try to adjust every day to help these guys,” said Rojas.

Most of the adjusting comes on the road. Rojas recalled a 16-inning game the team played in Lakewood, N.J., earlier this season. It finally ended at 2 in the morning, and the Jackets had a four-hour trip to Salisbury to begin a series with the Shorebirds that night. Rojas told the team to sleep in, have lunch and catch the bus to the field at five. No batting practice.

In Augusta, the Shorebirds’ bus pulled into the Lake Olmstead Stadium parking lot just as the GreenJackets started batting practice, around 4 p.m.. Wilkerson wasn’t looking forward to the ride back to Maryland that night. He was still a little sore from the trip south.

But being sore is typical. Wilkerson, a 2014 eighth-round pick of the Orioles out of Clemson, said the Shorebirds had been hit hard by injuries all year. The team struggled to stay around .500 all season long. No one, he said, was 100 percent at this point.

“How you feel really depends on the day,” he said. “Sometimes you have something tweaked here and there. You just try to take it day by day and try to manage your repetitions and stay on top of things with the trainer to keep yourself in the lineup.”

That goes double for pitchers. Right-hander Matthew Grimes, the Orioles’ 2014 18th-round pick, said the schedule he’s following now make his time at Georgia Tech seem like a country club.

“I’m pitching more than I ever have,” said Grimes, who made 12 starts in his last season with the Yellow Jackets, a total he passed this season way back in June. “In college I started every seven days and now it’s every five days. I’ve really started to figure out my body and how to adapt to the travel and pitching every fifth day.”

And that daily routine? It’s even more crucial on the road, said Wilkerson, because every other part of the day is thrown completely out of whack. Buses break down. Hotels forget wake-up calls and road roommates snore. The food options aren’t always great.

“You drink a lot of protein shakes and eat a lot of protein bars,” said Wilkerson.

And even then, players have a tough time keeping their weight on. No player can prepare for things like that or even imagine dealing with them until he finally goes through it himself. Arenado said his big brother told him it’d be like this. Nolan played in the South Atlantic League, too, for the Asheville Tourists in 2010.

But how can you prepare yourself for having to get up early for one of those odd weekday day games after a night game that went extra innings? You can’t, said Potter.

“When you get out there between the lines, it’s just baseball,” said Potter. “That’s what you have to think about. You just have to go out there and do your best. That’s all you can really do.”

And that might be the most important lesson players learn in low-A. Succeeding in pro ball depends a lot more on how mentally strong they are than how physically fit they feel.

“When things aren’t going well, you have to remember it’s a process and you have time to bounce back,” said Arenado. “Just because you’re going through a slump doesn’t mean you’re going to stay in it forever. Sometimes it feels like that when you’re in it. But it’s a long season.”

They can tell themselves that all they want. The only way they’ll know they can handle it is by experiencing the peaks and valleys. Everyone has his own way of dealing with it.

“Having a short-term memory and keeping the same approach is the key,” said Arenado. “If something doesn’t go right one day, it doesn’t mean it won’t go right the next. You just have to stick with a positive mindset going into the next day or next at-bat.”

Potter said it helps that the GreenJackets are in a playoff race.

“We know where we want to be at the end of the year, so that keeps you going,” he said. “Trying to advance to the next level keeps you going, too. You know the Giants are watching everything you’re doing, so you have to be on top of your game all the time.”

But even on a non-playoff team like the Shorebirds, the players are putting in their final kick like a runner nearing the finish line of a marathon. They all want to finish strong, and when they look back when it’s all over they’ll declare the season a victory no matter what their stats are like.

“When I set foot on the field, I don’t want to have any regrets,” said Grimes. “I tell myself I’m going to max out. That way when I look back at the experience, I don’t wish I played harder. I want to bring honor to my family and my community where I’m from. I represent all that. In my mind that’s what keeps me going.”

And now that it’s almost over, Grimes and other first time full-season players are looking back on the experience with a sense of wonder that they’ve actually made it.

“You come a long ways to get here,” said Grimes. “Now that it’s on the horizon, you look back to spring training and realize that getting to this point is huge. It’s been a grind. I’m not going to lie. But to be able to make it through this is such an awesome experience. I definitely feel like I’ve been part of something that’s bigger than I am.”

The other thing Grimes is happy about is knowing what to expect next season. He said once you make it through 140 games, you feel like you can make it through just about anything. Like a nine-hour bus ride into the teeth of Southern heat.

“At this point I feel like I’m a veteran planning for these long trips,” said Grimes. “You need to think ahead and bring along decent food, because in the Sally League there are some long trips.”

Wilkerson feels the same way, and not just about long road trips. About everything.

“Now I know what I need to do over the winter get myself ready for next season, and that’s a good feeling,” he said.

It beats those humid summer afternoons in Augusta, that’s for sure.

Chris Gigley is a freelance writer who has written for a number of Major League team publications, as well as Baseball America and ESPN the Magazine. Follow him on Instagram @cgigley and Twitter @cgigley.
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Jim S.
Jim S.

Very nice job, Chris. Yes, after living in Georgia for most of my life, I live now in central Florida. And the humidity is worse in Georgia.

Yehoshua Friedman
Yehoshua Friedman

This article brings home what a calculated risk playing pro baseball, especially straight out of high school, really is. Life is sometimes a bowl of rotting cherries and stale potato chips in low minor league ball, and if you don’t make the majors the time is wasted that could have been applied to study or work experience. It is not surprising that kids who have other talents are reluctant to commit to the years of grind. Also compared to basketball and football, where the distance between breakout and payoff is shorter, baseball often gets the short stick in the young… Read more »

Dan Hill
Dan Hill

Well done, Chris. I started sweating just reading it.