It is my belief that most professional baseball announcers wish they could be professional baseball players. Maybe that’s because I wish I could be a professional baseball player.
Growing up in Seattle, WA, I dreamed of starring for the Seattle Mariners. Around age 11, I realized this was not going to happen. I was placed in “minors” in Little League for the second straight year. If you can’t make the “majors” in Little League, you’re probably not making the Majors with a capital M.
It was at this point I started thinking about the movie “The Sandlot.” This film came out the year I was in Kindergarten and remains one of my favorite movies to this day. Scott Smalls, the narrator, was lousy at baseball, so eventually he became an announcer. Now I was much better than Smalls (and for crying out loud I’ve always known about The Great Bambino) but the general idea was very appealing. So after my second straight Little League rejection, I set my sights on one day making it to the broadcast booth. I’d already been broadcasting pretend baseball games in my driveway since I was three, so this wasn’t a radical change of direction in my life plans.
Fast-forward to 2012 and I’m the voice of the Joliet Slammers professional baseball team. It’s not the Majors yet, but I’m being paid to broadcast professional baseball games at the age of 24, so that’s a plus.
Our VP of Baseball Operations, Ron Biga, had an idea a few months ago. How about I participate in Spring Training with the team and write about the experience? I hadn’t played organized baseball in six years but I can throw and catch the ball well enough. “So,” I thought, “why not? Let’s do this!”
My plan was to use the off-season to get in shape. This didn’t happen. See, the off-season in professional baseball is actually more stressful than the season. During the season I get to broadcast baseball. During the off-season, my hours are more normal but I spend the entire time trying to find corporate sponsors.
No one has ever gotten in playing shape while cold calling. By the time I got home, I’d be tired from work and I’d go to sleep. Working out just didn’t happen.
(Alternative explanation for not working out: I’m lazy and there’s just too much college football and basketball to watch while sitting in an incredibly comfortable recliner.)
So I was the same chubby kid I’ve been since the sixth grade when I stepped on the field in early May for the first day of Spring Training. Before we went out there, I was privy to 2011 Frontier League Manager of the Year Bart Zeller’s pre-season welcome speech to the 2012 Slammers.
One of the key components of the speech was “what happens in the locker room, stays in the locker room,” so sorry, I’m not going to reveal what was said. However, I can tell you that Zeller emphasized to the entire team that a key component of them sticking around was that they must be model citizens in the community.
“Good,” I thought to myself. “The most trouble I’ve ever gotten in with the law is a speeding ticket on Jefferson Street.”
I was introduced to the team and the coaching staff explained that I’d be working out with them for a few days. I’d put on the catchers gear and caught our star relief pitcher Brian Smith the other day with our best hitter Erik Lis at the plate so they knew I wasn’t a complete clown on the baseball field.
I eagerly jogged out to the field to get my first day as a professional baseball player started. I’d bought cleats, baseball socks and other necessary gear the day before at a used sporting goods store, so I was ready.
A player who will remain nameless pulled out a can of dip (chewing tobacco) when I got to the field and offered it to me: “hey, you want to make this official?”
“No way,” I said. I’ve seen “The Sandlot”, remember?
I should have taken the fact I was exhausted after the warm-ups were over as a hint. Running back and forth, frontwards, backwards, sideways, upside down (okay, not upside down) takes a lot out of a man. Bart started yelling at me during the stretches because apparently I wasn’t doing them correctly. Now, I don’t have many muscles to stretch, but I digress. Stretching was never something I paid much attention to since I’d never gotten hurt playing a sport. This is probably due to the fact I don’t move quickly enough to get hurt.
I was still winded as I began playing catch with Kyle Maunus. This is one area of baseball where I thrive. If you need a guy to play catch at the highest level, I’m your man. So no one yelled at me that I wasn’t throwing or catching the ball properly.
Next up on the first day of practice was good old infield and outfield work. I joined Lis and Maunus over at first base. I started playing first base at the age of 12 because (a) I couldn’t move very quickly and (b) there is no other reason.
Once again, I held my own. Professional baseball players throw the ball a lot harder to first than my buddies did back in high school, but at the same time they are a lot more accurate. I think only one throw went over my head which is impressive considering I am 5”10” with spikes. By comparison, Maunus is 6’4’’.
Bart doesn’t know this but I nearly took off his head on a throw home once during infield/outfield. Luckily one of the catchers saved him from being hit and thus he is still our manager today. Nonetheless, infield practice went very well for me. This is where I can hang with pros.
This entire time I am sure the players were watching me with bemusement but frankly I didn’t notice. When I get involved with a sport, I may not be very good at it, but it consumes my focus. In Little League, I was not the kid picking dandelions in the outfield. I was the kid who screamed angrily at that kid for picking dandelions or for making an error. My competitiveness has always outweighed my talent by an unhealthy margin. (Seriously, watch me bowl some time, it’s not pretty).
After infield/outfield, it was time for batting practice! I love batting practice. Batting practice is usually the one time I can pretend I’m a good hitter. A 90 mph fastball (heck an 80 mph fastball) is insanely hard for me to hit and I’m helpless against any sort of junk. But in BP, it’s straight, down the middle, with no movement.
The day was not a cold one. It had started overcast but by the time BP rolled around it was over 80 degrees out on the field. So my second wind after I felt tired from the warm-ups was almost over.
I was in group three so for the first two rounds I shagged balls in the outfield and watched one of our pitchers nearly pull a Mariano Rivera at the right field wall. One of the players asked me what I do in the off-season. I explained cold calling. He lost interest.
Finally, it was time to hit. Hitting is something I can actually be fairly effective at if given a few weeks to get my swing going. Unfortunately, this was one day and I was already tired. I stepped in to the batter’s box and a lot of grounders to short followed. Words that will never be heard on the radio were said by me as I grew increasingly frustrated.
Nonetheless, after it was over, relief pitcher Chuck Lukanen told me he was impressed with my hitting and fielding. That made my day. Holding my own with the pros was the entire goal of this exercise.
I’d stop reading if you have a queasy stomach. The next part of practice was what I like to call torture. Others call it conditioning.
Conditioning started with something known as an “Indian Run.” Is this politically correct? I’m not sure. But that’s what it’s called. The entire team gets in a line and jogs around the field. The person in the back of the line has to sprint to the front. This goes on and on until the coaching staff decides the cruel and unusual punishment, I mean, exercise, can end.
It was hot.
I was tired.
I can’t run to save my life when I’m not tired.
“Yeah, this isn’t ending well,” I thought to myself as I sprinted to the front of the line. Hector Pellot told me they’d probably be doing this for 40 minutes. I don’t think I’ve ever been more terrified.
Near the end of the first lap, both my legs started cramping up at once. Have you ever had both your legs cramp up at once? The pain is comparable to a thousand paper cuts at once.
I persevered and once we got to center field it was my turn to sprint to the front of the line again.
“Still want to be a professional baseball player?” pitcher Geoff Brown asked me as I stumbled by.
“No!” I yelled back.
I finally got to the front of the line but as we made the turn towards home I begin to not only have cramps in my legs but…well…my throat and stomach started to feel a little weird.
Pellot finally lost patience with me and passed me to go down the home stretch.
At that point, let’s just say I left it all on the field.
I sat at my desk pondering how I could survive day two when our team president Bill Waliewski called me into his office along with VP of Baseball Operations Ron Biga.
“Son,” Waliewski said with a straight face. “This is the hardest decision a team president has to make, but we’re going to have to let you go.”
“Oh come on!” I protested. “Couldn’t you have at least traded me to the Pecos League?”
“Sorry kid, for your own safety, this is it,” Ron responded.
My day as a professional baseball player was over. I was the first casualty of Spring Training.
You’re killin’ me Smalls.