My baseball career wasn’t particularly stellar.
Mostly, I was a utility player, which means just good enough to plug in where needed in a variety of positions but not good enough at any of them to play every day. I could hit some, but I wasn’t particularly fast nor did I have a lot of pop so I couldn’t fit in an everyday lineup in that capacity either. I was a scrapper, though. I didn’t get to as many balls as some of my more athletic teammates but the ones I did get to I would almost always field cleanly. I didn’t give away runs. And I knew the strike zone and could put a bat on the ball so I managed to get on base. It made me a reliable pinch hitter and spot replacement when someone else couldn’t go for whatever reason…
…In the minors. Guys like me–just talented enough to get drafted in the lower rounds–tend to get really familiar with the map. We play most of our careers in towns, not cities; in actual ballparks, not the gleaming palaces with 40,000 seats that get named “Ballpark” with a corporate moniker attached to make them sound more intimate and less, well, corporate. We learn where Kalamazoo is because we’ve taken countless road trips there on old buses. We got assigned to Rochester. Tulsa. Eugene. Bakersfield. Minor league baseball players know this land by road almost as well as truck drivers.
But I played just well enough to move slowly up the ranks. Three seasons in A-ball before I got to Double A. I only occasionally started games but I kept the average and the on-base percentage up high enough to make it hard to cut me. Most teams like a guy who can come up in the 8th inning of a tie game with runners on and the pitcher’s spot coming up and drop in that single or work that walk. God had blessed me with just enough ability, honed by hours upon countless hours in that batting cage, to do that. My face won’t ever be on one of those enormous posters they hang in major league parks touting their marquee players. I won’t ever be an All-Star. Just barely good enough, solid enough, and smart enough to hang around.
Four years in Double-A. Not all with the same organization, mind you. I got traded for a case of baseballs after my first year at that level (I found that out later when I looked up who the club thought was a good enough deal for which to give me up). After my third season my contract expired and the team decided I wasn’t going to rise very far so they didn’t offer me a new one. But, fortunately there are 30 major league teams and each of those teams has 6 or 7 minor league teams so, there are a few opportunities. I signed with someone else. Your childhood allegiances take a back seat when you’re just trying to hang on. I once saw Mike Piazza hit a 3-run home run to win a game in the bottom of the 9th at Dodger Stadium and dreamed of one day being in that position. But when you find yourself unemployed you lower your standards a little. Your favorite team becomes the one who gives you one more chance to play.
I kept plugging away, and proved myself enough to get a Triple-A assignment out of spring training one year. One step short of The Show. I really figured that, by this time, 7 years into a very un-stellar minor league career (and that after 4 years of college) the club must have thought I’d be a good guy to have around–a mature presence around the organization’s younger talent. And, there’s always that tie game in the 8th when it’s good to have someone who can get on base.
So, there I was, a .265 average, coming off the bench, having played first and third and left and right, I even caught one game when our starting catcher got called up to The Show and our backup was suffering from back spasms. I could do a lot of things, and as you know by now none of them particularly well.
It was late July that first season in Triple-A. Major league teams who think they might have a shot at the playoffs will make major trades before the league-imposed July 31 deadline. Teams that aren’t going anywhere but have a highly-desired player might trade that player to a contender in exchange for younger talent around which to re-build their teams. I’d heard rumors that our parent club might be one of the sellers this year. I saw it from the clubhouse before the game, going across the crawl at the bottom of the SportsCenter screen. We sent 4 players away for minor league players and draft picks.
But there was still a game to be played that night for the parent club. Their 25-man roster was down to 21, a dangerously low number. I knew some of us would be going up. I could’ve named several players that would likely be called up to fill the void before me. In fact, that would have been pretty much all of our entire Triple-A roster. It isn’t that I had a low view of myself, I just understood my abilities and my liabilities. I was proud of my career. Most guys like me had washed out years ago, decided it was better to sell insurance or go to work in their parents’ business rather than bounce around the country on buses well into their late 20s or early 30s.
So, when the skipper called my name from across the clubhouse, summoning me to his office, I fully expected to be told I would start tonight in place of one of those guys who just got The Call. When I walked in he was sitting at his desk with tonight’s lineup in front of him. I could see my name. Curiously, however, it had a line through it.
“Sit down, Eric.” he said with obvious but as yet indiscernible emotion in his voice.
Had I been cut? Had I been traded? I never really considered the latter possibility ever happening. When minor leaguers get traded it happens because someone thinks you have potential. Career minor-leaguers nearing 30 don’t attract a great deal of interest. I figured I had it about as good as I ever would.
“How many years have you been playing in the minors, son?” he asked.
“This is my 8th year, skip.”
“Where do you see your career heading?”
“I don’t know. I figure I’ll play as long as someone will have me. After that, who knows? I think I could coach. That would be fun.”
“I think you’d be a great coach one day,” he said, “you know the game from just about every angle and you’re really good with the younger players.”
I figured this was where he told me that the parent club needed my roster spot for someone who actually might amount to something at some point. He’d give me the names of some friends who might be looking for a high school coach or some other way of staying in the game in a non-playing capacity. As the scout tells Billy Beane in Moneyball, everyone eventually gets told he can no longer play the kids’ game. Some at 40, others at 18, but we’re all told. I knew the day would come. I knew I was much closer to the end of my playing career than the beginning. How many guys ever get paid to play baseball? Not very many. I wasn’t even disappointed. This had lasted way longer than it should have. Everyone in the room knew I didn’t have a long major league career ahead of me: me, the skipper, and the team’s travel secretary. It hadn’t even occurred to me yet how odd it was for her to be in this conversation. Travel secretaries handle logistics, not careers. Maybe she was there to meet with the players who’d be coming in next, the ones getting the good news, arranging their trips to the bigs. She was going to see both sides of this brutal business in the course of a few minutes. Some guys go to The Show. Others take their stories of what might have been and go to truck driving school.
“A great coach, indeed,” he continued.
“Thank you, skip,” I answered with impending gratitude not only for the compliment but for all of the opportunities he gave me to play. “That means a great deal to me.”
“You’ll have to tell your players about this day,” he said.
“The day it all ended,” I thought to myself. A good lesson in enjoying the grass and the sunshine, the smell of glove leather and the sounds of bats punishing baseballs while it lasts.
“We don’t have much time to talk, though. You have to catch a plane.”
“What’s that? A plane to where?” I’d never been cut mid-season so I didn’t know that the team actually bought your ticket out of town. After all, how did they know where I’d want to go from here?
“New York,” he said.
“That’s cool,” I thought. “I’ve never been to New York.”
“You’re meeting the big club there. After the trade they need someone to start at first base tonight. Congratulations, son. You’re headed to The Show.”
I was speechless. Into the silence created by my shock he briefly told his own story of getting The Call. He got to spend a few days in the bigs. After that he started coaching.
My experience would mirror his. I spent a week in the bigs before another trade got the team the permanent first baseman it needed along with a few other parts. I got to play in 6 games, even started 5 of those. My bags got themselves to my hotel room without my help for the first time in my career. I got to fly on a luxury charter. I walked onto the perfectly manicured fields of three different major league stadiums, the kinds with huge video screens–it scared me a little to see my face blown up that large. I got my first major league hit, a double, in that first game. There would be 2 more singles, but I also managed to walk 4 times and even got hit by a pitch. 3 hits in 16 official at bats. I’m in the baseball encyclopedia now, a career .188 hitter with 2 RBI, a perfect fielding record, and an on-base percentage of .381. I got on base, whether it was pretty or not. Surely Billy Beane must have heard my name at some point.
My short stint came to an end much as it began, in the manager’s office. He thanked me for my contribution to the club and wished me the best. The club informed me I could go back to Triple-A and resume my role there. I had an hour to decide what I wanted to do. It didn’t take me that long. Rather than wait to be told I could no longer play, I’d end my playing days on my own terms. This was the top of the mountain for me. I got to stand there and breathe it in for a few moments. Other guys get to rise to greater heights and even live at those heights for a while. But this was my time, brief as it may have been.
I am a good coach. I love the game and I teach it well. Every year, with every new crop of young players, I tell the story of the day I got The Call. One day I’ll have some students reach places far beyond where I got to go. I know there will be All-stars and league leaders and big moments on the biggest stages. When they get there, they’ll be taking me with them. There’s no regret, no sense of what might have been. We do all we can with what we have and then we invest who we’ve become in someone else so they can do the same.
[The prompt for today’s 500 words was to “[r]ewrite history, imagine an alternate reality, or just plain lie.” There are two sentences in the story above that are absolutely true. I’ll let the reader try to guess as to which ones fit that description. EJT]