Battle to the Big Leagues

Battle to the Big Leagues

The life of a minor league baseball player - it must be one of the least glamorous of all professional sports. In the National Football League (NFL) there is the draft in which young men sign a multi-million dollar contract, get a jersey with their name on it, and start practice with the team who signed them. Similarly, Major League Baseball (MLB) drafts young players, but just because they get signed with the Oakland A’s doesn’t mean they play for the Oakland A’s. There are six levels of professional baseball and players are required to start at the bottom and work their way up, playing on every single tier. That contract with the A’s most likely lands you in the rookie league, where you fight to climb the proverbial ladder of leagues until you get to Triple-A, which, by the way, is one level below the major leagues.

For the sake of ease, I’ll disregard the first four tiers of professional baseball (though that kid that just got signed can’t!) and skip right to Triple-A. There are 30 Triple-A teams in the United States, just as there are 30 teams in Major League Baseball. Each MLB team has a 40-man roster but only 25 players on their active roster. If you do the math, you’ll find there are 750 active men in MLB. (Women are eligible to play Major League Baseball, though there are currently no women in the league.)

I did some research to try and determine the likelihood of making it to the MLB and honestly, it was hard to find an exact answer to the question. I found an article from the NCAA regarding being drafted – not necessarily playing – for the big leagues that said about one in 200, or .05 percent, of high school seniors will eventually be drafted by an MLB team. But keep in mind a drafted player goes to a minor league team, not straight to MLB. There are many minor league teams, as compared to 30 teams in the majors. As I said earlier, there are 750 active players in the Majors, yet in the 2004 draft there were 1500 drafted. The drafted guys are then funneled into those six levels of minor league baseball, along with the other guys already playing. I couldn’t find an exact number of how many minor league teams there are, but what I have come to deduce is that the odds are pretty stacked against you when it comes to making it as a Major League Baseball player.

I think it’s worth pointing out that I did find numerous studies that said a college baseball player is far more likely to play MLB than a player coming straight from high school. College players have had more time to improve, and therefore should be better and stronger and more experienced, which is logical, but these studies still didn’t give concrete percentages, so it appears as if exact numbers and percentages are hard to determine.

The monetary disparity between the Triple-A league and the Major leagues is staggering. According to the MLB Collective Bargaining Agreement, a MLB players’ starting annual salary in 2018 $545,000. The average salary of a Triple-A ball player, according to CNN, is $2,150 a month – and they only get paid for the duration of the season, so approximately six months. If you don’t want to get out your calculator, that comes out to just $12,900 total. Which, if they did get paid annually, would only amount to $25,800! There was even a bill in Congress that exempts minor league baseball players from the Fair Labor Standards Act, meaning they are exempt from labor laws guaranteeing them minimum wage or overtime pay. Most minor league players spend an average of 70-80 hours a week dedicated to the game. They only get two days a month off, and one of those two days may even include travel to their next game destination.

Knowing all this, I was intrigued by what it is that drives these men to choose this life. What makes someone want to work his way through six levels of minor league ball in hopes of making the major leagues, all the while knowing the odds are very much against him? Is it grit? Determination? Stamina? Is it an altered reality, going from being a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a big pond? Luckily for me, I happen to know some folks at the Sounds, and they were kind enough to spend some time educating me on the organization, the roles, and the life of a player. Then they even let me chat with some of their players and I got to ask them myself what it is that keeps them going on the long, emotional and arduous journey to get to the big leagues. What I learned from them is really advice we can all apply to our own lives – perspective is everything.

 

 

Steve Lombardozzi, 29 years old

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If you’re a baseball fanatic, you might recognize that last name. His father, Steve Lombardozzi Sr., played Major League Baseball from 1985-1990, so Steve [Jr.] practically grew up with a ball in his hand. I had the pleasure of speaking with Steve, who is in his first season with the Sounds, about his life and his experience as a professional baseball player.

Here’s the truth - when I first met Steve, he seemed quiet, serious, and maybe even a bit intimidating. I had done a little research on him and knew he and his wife are expecting their first child in September, the same month Steve will turn 30. So I thought I’d warm him up a bit by asking him if he’s excited about becoming a father and if they knew the gender of the baby. He said he is excited and that they will be having a boy. (Maybe a little Steve Lombardozzi III? We shall see!)

Sooooo it didn’t seem like my questioning immediately softened him up like I had hoped, but he did humor me with a little bit more family talk. Steve and his wife have been together since 2012 and met through cousins. He said the wives and girlfriends [of the players] are a great support system for her and he’s thankful for that.

I guess you probably have to know what you are signing up for if you marry a professional baseball player – six months of intense work with little time off, a lot of travel, and no guarantee that they will ever be anywhere very long. Steve said his wife does stay in Nashville with him quite a bit but their permanent home is in Pennsylvania, which is where they will have the baby. I asked him if they have gotten to experience Nashville very much while they’ve been here and he said they do try to get out and explore. They like to have breakfast and check out as much as they can on those days. It’s much different than what he did when he was younger, which was to relax and catch up on sleep.

A typical schedule for a professional baseball player on the Nashville Sounds is to arrive at the field at about 2:00 pm and do workouts and warm up. Batting practice starts at 4:00, the game usually starts around 7:00 pm, and they get out of there around 11pm.  Time off is scarce, but he credits his father for his help in mentally preparing him for just how long a season can be.

“My dad had a huge impact on me playing baseball – though he never forced me,” said Steve. “I practically grew up in locker rooms, and I naturally like to compete, so my dad helped me as I grew to take the right steps towards a career in baseball. He was also very honest with me about what it was like and I think that helped me feel more aware of what I had to deal with.”

Steve has played in the Major Leagues off and on quite a bit in his 10-year career. The first time he played in the big leagues was September 2011 for the Washington Nationals. He then went on to play for Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Miami for a total of 291 career games in the Majors thus far. I asked him what the biggest difference is in playing for the Major League than for a Triple-A team. (Besides money, which I’ll get in to later.)

“I can tell you where it’s not different for me is on the field,” said Steve. “The crowds, the stadium, the fans – all that could be different but for me, once I’m on the field, it’s only baseball.”

He said the major league players have a huge advantage as far as traveling and timing. For example, in the major leagues, you take a private plane to your next destination and have plenty of time to rest and get situated before the game. In Triple-A, players still fly (which is nice because at least you’re not on a bus!) but you catch a commercial flight and often times it’s what is most economical or what works best for the team’s pocketbook. Players may not get much rest, if any, not to mention the chance to prepare either physically or mentally the way they would like. I asked Steve about going on the road, in which they usually travel for one or maybe two series that are back to back. Generally a series lasts about 3 to 4 days. Being a road warrior comes with its stressors, and when you’re underpaid and exhausted, the stressors can be hard to bear.

“As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to find ways to help my performance, to find my edges,” he said. “Things like meditation and talking to my sports psychologist have been extremely helpful for me.”

Okay, now I was starting to make progress with Steve. He wasn’t the easiest nut to crack but he did start talking to me about some very complex emotions and I was thankful for his honesty.

“At times when I am going through a slump or a struggle I have to remind myself, why am I doing this? Why am I here? I’m fortunate to play this game but in the end, it is just a game.” He said he and his wife have had that conversation several times, to keep themselves in check and know what their priorities are. He finds talking about it helps him process.

“So what keeps you in it?” I asked him.

“It’s such a short window,” said Steve. “It’s a short window I have to play, so I prepare and I work and I do my best. That way, one day, when it’s all over, I can look back and know without a doubt that I did my best. I did everything I could. There is so much in this sport that I can’t control so I’ll control what I can and be happy with that.”

 

 

Jeremy Bleich, 31 years old

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Jeremy grew up in Metairie, Louisiana, and graduated high school in 2005, the same year Katrina hit. Luckily he wasn’t in Louisiana at the time, as he was in Mexico pitching for the USA Junior National Team, which finished in second place at the Pan-Am Championship. After graduation, he signed with Stanford to play baseball. In his junior year of college, he was drafted by the New York Yankees in the supplemental first round of the 2008 draft, but he returned to Stanford in 2010 to complete his bachelor’s degree. According to FOX Sports, only 4 percent of MLB players have college degrees, so having a degree – much less from a prestigious institution like Stanford – is pretty rare.

I wasn’t too surprised when Jeremy told me this, because I had also done some research on him and found he comes from a very well-educated family. His father, who passed in 2014, was a cardiologist. His sister is a gastrointologist, and his brother is also a cardiologist.

“So did your family support your dreams to play baseball?” I asked him. Jeremy told me his family was very supportive and never pressured him to choose a career in medicine. I inquired as to whether or not the field interested him and he told me about going home to be his father’s caretaker while he was very sick. He said he was with his father all the time when he was ill, and he would receive information from the doctors, educate himself on it, and learn as much as he could about options and possibilities. When he was young he would go to the hospital with his father and follow him around, so I could tell that the role reversal of serving as his dad’s advocate was a role he devoted himself to fully.

Like I’ve mentioned (have I mentioned?) I don’t really play sports. It’s just not my gift. But I have always thought that some positions seem to carry so much more weight than others. Goalies, pitchers, catchers – they all seem to have those pivotal moments placed on their shoulders so much more than some other positions. Jeremy is a left-handed pitcher so I was curious as to whether he felt more pressure in that position.

“Na, it’s really all in your perspective,” he replied as he shrugged his shoulders. “Pressure comes in many different ways. You just learn to fuel it, to challenge it. Baseball is a constant game of adjustment, just like life.”

Jeremy pitched for Team Israel in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. His face lit up when I asked him about it. “That was a great experience,” he said. “To play with them, we got a lot of attention because we were good but we were definitely doubted. It was fun to share that with those guys.”

Jeremy is the kind of guy you want on your debate team. He has a certain intensity to him; he reminds me of a smoldering fire that could easily get larger with a blast of oxygen. He’s says he’s not a Type A person, but that he is a fiery competitor and he stands up for the things he believes in. From our short conversation I felt like he’s the kind of guy who tries to make the most of every single moment in his life.

“So why do you stick with it [baseball]?” I ask him. “Is it the love of the game?”

“There’s just so much work, so much dedication, that has gone into it. When things are good, it’s easy. Then when things get rough, and you have to sacrifice more, you stick with it more. Perspective is hugely important in anyone’s life. This game shows you how quickly things can change.”

 

 

Nick Martini, 29 years old

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Nick Martini. Not only is his last name a little dangerous, so are his eyes. (Check out this Valentine video from when he was with the Memphis Redbirds.) When I met Nick he had just come back from his first Major League debut for the Oakland A’s. He was rocking a big beard and seemed like he really wanted to be on the field instead of chatting with me in the dugout, but I recognized his jittery energy and chalked it up as someone who has a lot of focus and drive.

“What was it like to play for the A’s?”

“Unbelievable. It was so great. My whole family and my girlfriend went to Texas and then Oakland for the games.”

Nick grew up outside Chicago and attended Kansas State University from 2009-2011, during which time he was named a Big 12 Player of the Year. In 2011 he was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals, which is somewhat ironic, since  Martini grew up a Chicago sports fan and the Cardinals and the Cubs have a bitter rivalry. But alas, there is a game to be played and Martini wants to play it! After signing with the Cardinals, he bounced back and forth between affiliate teams, Memphis Redbirds and Springfield Cardinals for a number of years before signing a minor league free agent contract in November 2017. He then signed with the Sounds in January 2018. When asked about what those couple of months were like, Nick said it was a little uneasy to not know what’s going to happen or where you’re going to be, but you start talking to people and the pieces start falling into place, and it all works out.

Since I talked to Nick he’s been back up to play for the A’s. The second time he went he up, he scored the game-winning run against the Chicago White Sox at their ballpark, a thrilling experience to have in his hometown. He was called up a third time, in the midst of an incredible streak of 65 consecutive games on base with the Sounds, on July 10.

Every time a player gets called up, the amount of days they spend as a Major League Baseball player means their salary is prorated to the minimum salary for that amount of days. That means in one day they make $1,424.67, which is quite possibly what they would make in a month as a minor league player. So as if the gamble to play for the major leagues isn’t enough, rolling the dice on the salary certainly makes it all the more enticing and, I would imagine, harder to get off the hamster wheel.

Luckily for Nick, his love of the game coupled with the ability to keep it real, and at the same time be hopeful, has helped him to cope with the ups and downs.

“For me, it’s pure baseball at the park. It’s all I feel,” said Nick. “I’ve learned to let it all go when I need to, and to just play the game.”

 

 

I wish I could have spent more time with each of them, maybe off the field, outside the reach of the magnetic pull from green turf that calls to each of them. While all cordial and kind, I knew that deep down each of them just wanted to get out there and play.

Steve, Jeremy and Nick all know this is their shot; their chance, no matter what the odds are. And therefore, they work their asses off, knowing they only have so much control over the outcome. They each depend on their families to keep them grounded and their love of what they do to propel them forward. And at the end of the day, maybe that’s what we all do, right? It might just look slightly different when you’re donning a baseball jersey.

 

*Update: Jeremy Bleich was called up to pitch for the Oakland A’s on July 14 and again on July 20. Nick Martini has been playing for the Oakland A’s consistently since July 10.
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