People in the game of baseball have a slightly different view of spring training than most fans, who glow with excitement at the words, “Pitchers and catchers report,” and drool over the opportunity to see the game’s biggest stars in the quaint Grapefruit or Cactus League ballparks.
The reality for most who have played the game is that while highly touted prospects battle on the big field for a chance to head north with the Major League club, the real battles are held on the back fields. These minor leaguers, most of whom are anonymous to media and fan base alike, take the field every morning and leave the field every night with their ears perked, waiting for the doomsday-like call into an office where a group of people let them know their dream is over.
Other than the Major Leagues, four minor league schedules start in April – low-A, high-A, double-A, and triple-A. Players that are young enough (usually under 21), talented enough, or have enough money invested in them to warrant a bit of a longer chance to develop, are held back into extended spring training to wait for assignment to one of the four “full-season” minor league clubs in case of injury or player release, or wait for the short-season class-A or rookie ball leagues to begin following the MLB Draft in June. These short season rosters are made up almost primarily of recent draft picks with those who make it through the development process in extended spring mixed in.
Some clubs have two rookie ball teams, which means come next spring, including the four full-season teams, every MLB club has around seven full rosters worth of players fighting to make it out on four full-season rosters at the end of March. For the college draft picks the writing is on the wall, you better be able to make the low-A club and have success quickly because there aren’t many 23 or 24-year old players in extended spring. And the minute you don’t show the ability to make the big league club, regardless of your production at your current level of assignment, you get the dreaded call to the office.
The good news for these players is that their baseball career isn’t necessarily dead on the spot, but make no mistake, getting released is a major setback. A common misconception for minor leaguers who are released is that the 31 other clubs out there will be waiting with open arms in bidding-war style for their services. Unfortunately, the other 31 teams are making cuts of their own and signing someone else would mean one more difficult decision. This is where the rise of independent baseball over the past 15 years has been a god-send to these players, offering them a place to play, stay in shape, and wait to catch the eye of the right scout at the right time when a roster spot just happens to be open.
Over the next couple of weeks, e-mails will start going out on a regular basis listing names and contact numbers of released players that have expressed the desire to continue their career. These e-mails begin a feeding frenzy in the independent baseball, which has a fluctuating number of teams across the country that was in the 60 range last year. The best way I can describe this to someone who hasn’t been through it – take a multiple-year college recruiting process and jam it into two weeks.
The responses from the players when you get them on the phone less than 24-hours after getting news of their release ranges from excited for another opportunity to retiring on the spot to almost literally crying on the phone. There is a legitimate reason for the tears that even the most professional of the players feel – the odds of making it to the Big Leagues via independent baseball has grown greatly in recent years, but it is still a longshot.
The stories that truly break my heart are the late round high school picks that don’t have enough money invested in them to have their club wait around for them to develop. Released after a couple years of rookie ball and maybe just a couple dozen innings of competition under their belt, these 20-years olds stand almost no chance of getting an independent contract, where most players are 23-28 with several years of experience under their belts. Where they would be a junior in college they are done with their careers – the tragedy of which is the main thing in my mind during this time of year.
Author Notes – Jason is the Director of Baseball Operations for the Traverse City Beach Bums in the independent Frontier League