Aside from a surplus of pornography in the locker room, the first week of camp passed in routine fashion. I threw my scheduled pens, fielded an excessive amount of comebackers, and gave Bonnie the abridged version of the more provocative happenings among the boys. At the start of the second week, the position players arrived. To greet them, the pitching staff was asked to announce their pitches during our first live batting practice matchup, a gesture we resented more than the use of the cumbersome L-screen we were mandated to pitch behind.
During batting practice of any kind, pitchers are sprinkled around the outfield, charged with picking up all balls struck in and out of play. We try to make games out of it—shagging for points or style—but more often than not, the tediousness of the job leads us to congregate into clumps and let the balls roll past while we bullshit about everything from nightlife exploits to our latest pitching failures.
“Sorry we got you into trouble, Digs,” said Rosco.
“It’s not your fault. I should have known better than to bring the crazy shit you guys do up with my fiancée. A subject like that is just toxic no matter how you handle it. We’ve agreed to discuss only the crucial stuff, and spare her the disgusting stuff.”
“Compromise is the key to any relationship,” said Rosco.
“That stupid fucking screen!” fumed Slappy, breaking into our conversation. “I never feel the same behind it.” He had just finished his turn announcing pitches on the mound, a particularly bad outing, and was stomping out to the rock pile of Maddog, Rosco and me in left centerfield.
“When’s the last time you pitched a game with an L-screen?” he wailed. Before anyone could answer, he continued, “Never, that’s when. Not fucking ever. It’s stupid.”
“Quit whining, Slap. You’re just mad because Chang took you deep.”
“No, no, no. I’m not mad about that. Hitters are supposed to hit you when you tell them it’s coming.”
“Well, he crushed it,” said Rosco.
“Crushed,” emphasized Maddog.
“Probably the longest bomb of all time,” said Rosco.
“Of all time,” echoed Maddog.
“Screw you guys,” said Slappy.
“You said you weren’t mad, Slap,” Rosco volleyed back.
“Not about Chang. I’m mad because you’re my friends. I felt I could express myself in an environment of trust and support. Apparently I was wrong.”
“I’m sorry, Slap.” Rosco threw a hand on Slappy’s shoulder. “How inconsiderate of me. I’m sorry the L-screen made you give up the longest bomb in the history of baseball to a guy who hit a buck-ninety last year.”
“He knew it was coming!” pleaded Slappy, throwing Rosco’s arm from his shoulder. “He should have hit all of them out!”
“They knew it was coming when I pitched and no one hit my fastball off the moon,” said Rosco.
“Was Earp standing behind the backstop when you were throwing?” Slappy asked Rosco.
“I don’t know, Slap. I focus on the hitter when I pitch. You should try that.”
“Whatever. I hope you get your tits lit up this year.”
“Whoa!” everyone gasped in unison. A batted ball rolled past the group. No one made any effort to get it.
“Gosh, Slap. My tits? That’s cold-blooded.” Rosco grabbed his nipples to make sure they weren’t damaged by the harsh words.
“You can’t cold-blood me for that. I come out here looking for some encouragement and you guys put a dagger in my back.” Slappy took his hat off; he was really getting into the debate now. “You know Earp loves guys that throw hard, and guess what?”
“I dunno. What?” asked Maddog.
“I don’t throw hard.”
“Well, you better start.”
“Yeah, exactly. With Earp back there, that’s what I was trying to do. I wound up, threw as hard as I could and”—Slappy made a bat-smacking noise with his tongue—“ ‘See ya, ball.’ ”
“So that’s why he hit it so far,” said Maddog. “You did all the work.”
“Thank you, Maddog. I did do all the work. All for Earp! That home run is Earp’s.”
“You can’t let that guy throw your game,” needled Rosco. “You make batters feel sorry for you so they groundout out of sympathy. That’s your strength.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Slap said defiantly. “In this game, you gotta show the brass what they want, which is fucked up because they all want something different.”
“You have to pitch your game, Slap, rule number one,” said Rosco, raising his hands as if delivering commandments.
“Ya, but you also gotta pitch
game. Ask Hayhurst, he’s been around, he’ll tell you.”
The group turned their eyes to me for an official ruling on the matter. I was the oldest of the bunch, which somehow made me an authority. I stared back, mouth open, wondering how I’d been turned from harmless spectator to batting practice arbiter. “Uh, well ...”
There was truth to both arguments. To be successful in baseball, a pitcher has to know what he can and cannot do. Often, pitchers get into trouble when they pitch away from their strengths, like Slappy did. However, the guy who rises to the top of the heap in pro baseball isn’t always the one doing the best job of sticking to his game. The job of the brass is to promote guys who’ll translate successfully into the big leagues. This means that even if a player does well in the minors, if the brass—guys like Earp and Grady—don’t think said player will get the job done in the Show, they won’t put their seal on him. Or they’ll get rid of him. Thus, while it’s true a pitcher’s best chance for success against a hitter comes from sticking to his strengths, his best chance for advancement means showing the brass what they want to see.
This paradox exists in every professional system, and because of it, players have learned to reverse scout those individuals scouting them. You won’t read it in
but players work just as hard at learning what certain coaches and brass members like, which tools they favor, and which aspects of the game they prioritize, as they do at honing their on-field skills.
As a matter of fact, Earp wasn’t the only coach with scouting reports filed on him. While Earp was renowned for his obsession with power arms and radar gun readings, hence his nickname, it was generally accepted that Grady was all about pitch efficiency and guys with good changeups. When Earp was around, guys put a little more effort into lighting up the radar gun. When Grady dropped in, the percentage of changeups thrown seemed to increase substantially. There were other folks in the evaluation system, but none seemed to have as much pull as those two.
As polarizing as their views were, having two distinct scales for what constituted a successful pitcher in the eyes of the brass was actually a good thing. The soft strike throwers did their best to suck up to Grady whenever possible, earning them the nickname “Grady’s Boys” for their trouble. In turn, guys who threw flames buttered up to Earp, and were dubbed “Earp’s Boys.” True or not, there is nothing shameful about surviving, even if it means being accused of kissing ass. When the life and death of a career comes down to the opinion of a coach who sees you play once or twice in a season, holding on to a job can be as critical, and ridiculous, as a popularity contest.
“I’m going to have to side with Slappy here. Sometimes you have to show ’em what they want to see, fellas.”
“Bah.” The detractors waved me off. Not because I was telling them something they didn’t know, but because I was allowing Slappy an exit from their bullying.
“See! See! Thank you, Hayhurst. I’ve always liked you,” said Slappy.
“You’re welcome, Slap. But remember, giving up a six-hundred-foot bomb is way more impressive than turning your 87 mph heater into 89 mph. Sacrificing what you do best when you have to tell the guy at the plate what’s coming might not be the best time to accommodate the whims of some jackass with a radar gun.”
“Amen!” said Rosco. “Pick your battles: rule number two.” His hand went up again.
“Whatever. With friends like you, I hope I get released,” said Slap.
“Keep pitching like you did today and you’ll get your wish.”
“I’m just telling you what I know, Slap,” I said.
“Whose boy are you?” Rosco asked me. “Earp’s or Grady’s?”
“Anybody who’ll have me,” I said. “Rule number three: kiss all asses more powerful than your own.”
“Alright, bring it in here, ya mutants,” said Earp, stepping off the golf cart that shepherded him around the fields. On his cue, the hoard of minor league campers broke from their sewing circles and assembled for another morning meeting on the left side of field four.
The Padres spring training complex holds six fields in total, all divided up like slices of a pie with each slice acting as home base for a minor league team level. Morning meetings are always held on field four. Once the morning meetings are over, the horde breaks to their respective fields for stretch. Following stretch, the teams rotate clockwise as each field also plays home to a specific training drill. Today, bunt defenses were on the High A field, pick-offs on the Low A field, comebackers on the Double A diamond, and the tiresome covering first routine was located on field four—Triple A’s home turf. That’s only four rotations for six fields, but the other two fields wouldn’t factor in until later in camp, when cuts got made.
In the early stages of spring training, everyone gets to entertain the thought of playing a few levels higher. I, for example, was working out with the Triple A group, though I wasn’t letting myself get too comfortable. The first cuts would soon be made at the big league level, which would put into motion a domino effect throughout the organization. The big league amputees would get grafted onto the Triple A group, and force out the borderline players currently there. In turn, those players would fall to Double A, forcing Double A fringe players to High A, and so on. The cycle repeats all the way to the bottom of the system, rolling along like a snowball, gathering more and more players as it goes. Finally, when combined with fresh draftees, there would be enough rookies and castaways to form two full short season teams.
Earp stood in the center of our semicircle of players, holding a clipboard full of names, locations, and times. We were three weeks into camp now and games had just started. Every afternoon, groups of players were leaving the complex to take on another club someplace else in Arizona, while, in turn, that opposing club sent a pack of their boys to take on us. Earp, when not evaluating talent, coordinated who went where, including who crossed the line and went over to big league camp as a backup.
“Double A, Triple A guys, you’re staying home today, which means High and Low A is on the road. Kick their asses, boys, the vans leave at noon, make sure you’re on ’em.” He flipped a piece of paper on his clipboard. “Guys going to the pros today.” He cleared his throat and started reading off who would serve as backups to the big league side, also known as JiCs, or
just in case
players—though we players just call them “jicks”—who would serve as indentured servants to whatever the big league club had planned for the day.
“Why does he always say ‘the pros’ when he means the Bigs? We’re all pros,” I whispered to Aden, who was standing next to me in the circle.
“Because he’s a fucking retard,” said Aden.
“Didn’t he sign you?”
“Yeah, but he can still be a fucking retard.”
“You won’t say that to his face.”
“Nope. I’ll tell him he’s Jesus Christ if that’s what gets me to the Bigs.”
“Amen, brother. Amen.”
Earp read through the list. When he got to the
s I held my breath, thinking he might name me, but he didn’t.
“We’re minor leaguers for another day,” I said to Aden.
“Living the dream,” said Aden.
Going over to the big league side of camp on JiC duty is a great opportunity, but one that comes at a healthy price. First off, you go into it knowing you’re not supposed to play. That’s the whole point of a
just in case
player: everything needs to go wrong for you to get in the game, and I mean everything. The big leagues provide their own backups and failsafe players, so there is a whole wall of guys standing in front of you for a chance at pitching in the presence of big league coaches.
It gets worse. Since you’re at a lower rank than those who actually belong in big league camp, you get stuck with all the busywork. Things like fetching foul balls, carrying equipment, and manning the ball bucket during batting practice. The big league club plays at night, so a minor league JiC who gets the call will often attend a full day of minor league practice, pull ball bucket duty for the big league club that night, sit isolated through a big league exhibition game, then give the uniform back with a thankful smile about “experiencing a taste” of the dream. Any player who’s accrued any significant amount of time in this game hates being a JiC, including me. But here’s the rub, if it all does go wrong and the opportunity comes, you have a chance to leave a mark.
Even so, the opportunity to leave a mark was not what dominated my mind when I thought of going over to the big league side. It was fear, actually.
I had an ugly track record of embarrassing myself around big leaguers. The first time I ever JiCed was during a preseason exhibition game wherein the Padres came to Lake Elsinore in 2005 to beat the snot out of the Storm. I was playing for the Storm at the time, but I was told to go to the other side of the field and play for the Padres because they didn’t bring enough pitching to finish the game. I was told to borrow a Padres uniform so I could look like a big leaguer, but the Padres didn’t have any extras. I had no other recourse but to sit in the big league dugout wearing the uniform of a minor league team, silent as a church mouse, trying not to get in anyone’s way.
When the Padres came off the field to hit, I got off the bench to make sure I didn’t take anyone’s seat. I moved down to the water cooler and hovered next to it, even going so far as to pour cups of Gatorade for some of the players, hoping to be seen as respectful.
Everything was going fine until Jeff Blum, the Padres veteran utility man, shouted out, “Hey, batboy.”
I, not being the batboy, paid no attention to this.
“Hey, batboy!” the shout came again. I remained still.
“Jesus, hey, batboy, what are you, deaf?”
I started looking for this batboy who was either too deaf or dumb to heed the call of a big leaguer when I realized that everyone in the dugout was looking at me. In fact, just as I turned, Blum tossed a handful of sunflower seeds on me to get my attention. I obediently came over to him, wiping seeds from my shoulders, eager to clear up our case of mistaken identity. I actually thought he may have just been joking—some prankish put-down of younger players—but when Blum asked me to spin around and model my uniform so he could see the full logo, making the comment, “Wow, that’s a real jersey; nobody on the team wanted number 22?” I realized this was no joke. He dismissed me back to the water cooler when he was finished. I went as told, stupefied and snickered at by a few other big leaguers who understood exactly what had happened. In no time the story found its way back to the minor league side, and I spent the rest of the year being called the batboy just because some big leaguer, a god in our profession, mistook me for one.
It would be different if this were an isolated event, but last year I embarrassed myself so badly in front of Trevor Hoffman it brought a team meeting to an abrupt close when I asked him how he “inculcated” himself. Then, there was that time I was given the JiC busy work job of warming up the right fielder, only to send him chasing my overthrows to the wall so many times they had to call in a reliever for me.
“It’s alright,” I said to Aden. “Probably wouldn’t play anyway. Huge waste of time.”
“Totally,” said Aden.
“Guys going to tomorrow’s road series in Tuscon.” Earp flipped to another page on his clipboard. “Players traveling need to take the early van to the park tomorrow morning.” He put his finger on a list and started reading from it. “Abignail, Crakhower, Hayhurst, Johnson, Richardson ...”
“Ah crap,” I said.
“Try not to inculcate anyone,” said Aden.