The minor leagues: where nobody knows your name
From the book: WHERE NOBODY KNOWS YOUR NAME Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball. Copyright (c) 2014 by John Feinstein. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Random House LLC.
There is no aspect of baseball that has changed more in recent years than spring training. Or, more specifically, spring training facilities.
Once, the winter homes of most baseball teams were old, dank, and cramped -- minor-league facilities that served for six weeks each year as the headquarters for an entire baseball organization. The ballparks were older too, havens for fans who wanted to get close to players, but often creaking from age with outfield fences that looked as if they had been constructed shortly after Abner Doubleday invented the game.
Even in Vero Beach, where in 1947 the Brooklyn Dodgers set up what was then the model for a spring training facility -- Holman Stadium and the facilities around it became known as Dodgertown -- there was the feeling of being in a time warp. The dugouts never even had roofs. They were just open-air cutouts along the baselines where players either sunbathed or baked -- depending on one's point of view -- during games.
Through the years, almost all the older facilities have disappeared. Dodgertown sits empty now during the spring, used on occasion by local high school teams while the Dodgers train in a brand-new multimillion-dollar headquarters built for them in Arizona. Because spring training has become a big business, local governments in both Florida and Arizona have lined up to build modern baseball palaces for teams, complete with every possible amenity players could ask for-- from massive weight-training areas to sparkling training fields to sun-drenched stadiums that look like miniature versions of the big-league parks the teams play in once the season begins.
There is no better example of the modern spring training facility than Bright House Field, which has been the spring home of the Philadelphia Phillies since 2004, when it was built for $28 million to replace Jack Russell Memorial Stadium, which had been the Phillies winter home since 1955. Jack Russell, as it was known in the Clearwater area, was the classic old spring training spot: the stadium was made of wood, and the paint was peeling in every corner of the old place when the Phillies moved out.
The old spring training clubhouses -- in baseball no one talks about locker rooms, they are clubhouses -- were cramped and crowded with players practically on top of one another, especially at the start of camp, when between fifty and sixty players might be in a room designed to hold no more than thirty to thirty-five lockers.
Jack Russell was one of those dingy old clubhouses. The Phillies' clubhouse at Bright House Field could not be more different. It is spread out and spacious with room -- easily -- for fifty lockers. There are several rooms off the main area that are strictly off-limits to anyone but Phillies personnel, meaning players can rest or eat their post-workout or postgame meals in complete privacy without tripping over unwanted media members or anyone else who might have access to the main clubhouse area.
Even though he had been out of baseball for most of four years, Scott Elarton felt completely comfortable walking into the Phillies' clubhouse in February 2012. Many of the players had no idea who he was because professional athletes' memories rarely extend back more than about fifteen minutes. In baseball world 2012, Cal Ripken Jr. -- who retired in 2001 -- was an old-timer who played in a lot of games, Willie Mays is a distant memory, and Babe Ruth is the name of a league for teenage players.
Elarton had won fifty-six games as a major-league pitcher in spite of numerous injuries, including seventeen for a bad Houston Astros team in 2000. But he hadn't been in a major-league baseball clubhouse since 2008 and even though he stood out at six feet seven, a lot of players had no idea who he was.
"It's not like anybody looked at me and thought I was some hotshot prospect," he said with a laugh. "I probably look every bit of thirty-six."
Seven months earlier, even Rubén Amaro Jr., the Phillies' general manager, hadn't recognized Elarton. That was in August, when Elarton had called to him while standing on the field during batting practice prior to a game between the Phillies and the Colorado Rockies.
Elarton was watching BP with his seven-year-old son when he noticed Amaro standing a few yards away and, on a complete whim, decided to try to talk to him.
"I had taken my son to the game because I was friends with several guys on the Phillies: Raúl Ibañez, Roy Oswalt, Cliff Lee," Elarton said. "They set us up with tickets. The town we live in is about an hour from Denver, so we drove over. They'd also arranged for us to have field passes, which I knew would be cool for Jake. We went onto the field, and we were standing with all the other people with field passes behind this barrier they set up so that you don't get too close to the players or bother them while they're hitting.
"I'd seen that barrier a couple thousand times in ballparks -- but always from the other side. I had never even thought about what it might be like to be on the field like that in street clothes and not be a player. I felt completely humiliated. I just hated being there.
"Then I saw Rubén standing nearby. I'd never met him, but I certainly knew him. So I called his name. He looked over at me, and I could tell right away that he had no idea who I was. But he's a polite guy, so he walked over to where we were standing."
Elarton was right; Amaro hadn't recognized him. "I knew who Scott Elarton was," Amaro said. "He'd pitched too long for me not to know who he was. But he had lost some weight since I'd last seen him pitch, and it had been a few years. But when he said, 'Rubén, I'm Scott Elarton,' it came right back to me."
Elarton had lost weight -- a lot of weight. After he had stopped playing in 2008, he had ballooned from 260 pounds to just under 300 pounds after having surgery on his foot. "I didn't exercise at all for a while after the surgery," he said. "I wasn't doing anything at all to stay in shape. On the day I got on the scale and weighed 299, I knew I had to stop. I didn't want to see 300. So I started working out. I started throwing batting practice to the high school team in my hometown. By the time we went to Denver that day, I was probably down to 225."
After Elarton had introduced himself and introduced his son, he said something to Amaro that surprised him -- even as he spoke. To this day, he isn't quite certain why the words came out of his mouth.
"Rubén, do you think there's any chance I could make a comeback in baseball?" he said. "Do you think I could pitch again?"
Amaro was, to say the least, surprised by Elarton's question. Perhaps the only person more surprised was Elarton. "I'm still not honestly sure what possessed me," he said, shaking his head. "The thought never crossed my mind until the question came out of my mouth. Maybe it was standing behind the barrier that way. Something clicked in my brain that said, 'I don't like the view from here.' Or the feeling I had standing there."
To Elarton's further surprise, Amaro didn't answer him with a response along the lines of "Are you insane?" or even a polite blow-off. Instead, he shrugged his shoulders and said, "If you'd like, I'll send someone to watch you throw once the season's over."
Elarton couldn't ask for more than that. "Great," he said. "How should I get in touch with you?"
Amaro gave him his card, and they shook hands again, leaving Elarton standing there wondering what in the world he had just gotten himself into.
As it turned out, Amaro was as good as his word -- better than that, in fact.
Elarton had gone home to Lamar, the town of just under eight thousand where he had grown up, and had begun throwing on a regular basis with Josh Bard, a former major-league catcher who lived nearby. He wasn't counting on a call from Amaro -- or even 100 percent certain he wanted one -- but he wanted to be ready just in case. He could feel the adrenaline each time he threw to Bard, and as the season wound down, he began to believe -- "maybe just a little bit" -- that he wasn't entirely crazy.
Shortly after the World Series ended, Amaro called. He was going to be in Denver for a banquet in which Shane Victorino, then with the Phillies, was scheduled to receive an award. If Elarton was still interested and could make the drive to Denver, he would watch him throw the morning after the banquet.
Elarton and Bard made the drive early on a November morning, and Amaro met them at a local school. Amaro stood and watched as Elarton began to throw. After about five minutes he asked him to stop.
"I remember thinking, 'Am I really that bad?'" Elarton said. "I had kind of talked myself into believing I was throwing pretty well, and when Rubén told me to stop after five minutes, my heart sank. I thought I had wasted my time, his time, and Josh's time."
"I don't know what you've been doing, but you look completely different than I remember from the last time you were pitching," Amaro said. "You look comfortable, your ball has movement -- I really like what you're doing. If it's okay with you, I'd like to shoot some video while you keep throwing."
It was more than okay with Elarton. Amaro had him throw about fifty pitches in all. Encouraged by what Amaro had said early on, Elarton thought Amaro would tell him that he'd be in touch. That would leave him with some hope.
Amaro didn't do that. "I'd like to sign you," he said. "If you give me your agent's information, I'll get in touch and we'll work out a deal."
Elarton was almost dazed. If nothing else, he had gotten himself out from behind the barrier.
Four months after that meeting, Elarton walked into the spacious clubhouse at Bright House Field and found a crisp, clean uniform with the number 59 on it hanging in a locker that had his name on it. A number of veteran players, guys he had pitched against in his first baseball incarnation, came by to say hello and welcome him.
"If you've been a player, a baseball clubhouse is a very comfortable place to be if you're in uniform," he said. "Even if you haven't been around for a while, if you're in uniform, then you feel like you belong. If you're not in uniform, then you don't. It really doesn't matter who you are or who you've been, that's the way it is."
Players talk often about the fear of someday not having a uniform or a locker anymore. Elarton had taken that a step further when he had shown up in Denver as a "civilian," as players call anyone not in uniform. Putting on a uniform again, even surrounded by so many unfamiliar faces, was comforting.
His negotiations with the Phillies after Amaro's visit had gone smoothly except for one small glitch: performance incentives. Elarton didn't want any. The Phillies were offering a fairly typical two-way contract: If he was on the major-league roster, he would be paid $600,000 -- which was $120,000 over the major-league minimum because it included bonuses for making the team. If he was in the minors, he would be paid a very high Triple-A rate: $15,000 a month.
"Take the incentives for making the major-league team out," Elarton told Michael Moss, partner of his long-time agent Ron Shapiro, who had also represented Cal Ripken Jr. and Kirby Puckett in the past.
"You want them out?" Moss said, stunned for obvious reasons.
"Out," Elarton answered. "I don't want money getting in the way of me making it back to the majors. If it's a close call and it's me or another guy and they have to pay me extra if I make it up, they may call the other guy up. I don't want to take a chance on that happening."
Moss called Amaro back to tell him he had an unusual request. Amaro had never in his life had a player ask for less money potentially, but he laughed when he heard what Elarton was thinking.
"Tell Scott that, being honest, the amount of money we're talking here will have no influence on whether he gets called up or not," he said. "If he pitches well enough to earn the bonuses, he should get them. But if we need him in Philadelphia, this money isn't going to get in the way. I promise."
Elarton was still a tad doubtful when Moss told him what Amaro had said but finally agreed.
He arrived in Clearwater with a simple goal: pitch so well during spring training that it would be impossible for the Phillies to send him down.
"Realistically, there weren't any spots open -- especially for a starter," he said. "All you had to do was look at the rotation and you knew there wasn't any chance. They had stars and veterans. I hadn't pitched, except for three starts in Charlotte in 2010, since 2008. Intellectually, I knew the deal. But as a competitor I was going there to show them I was still a major-league pitcher. If I didn't think I was good enough, there wasn't much point in my being there."
The first three times Elarton got into games, he showed them. When he was on the mound facing real hitters, it all came back like riding a bike. His unorthodox delivery, all arms and legs coming at the batter from his six-foot-seven-inch frame, had hitters who hadn't see n him before way off balance.
"First three times I pitched I didn't have to pitch from the stretch once," he said, smiling at the memory. "It almost felt like I was back in Houston and it was 2000 again."
That was the year Elarton won seventeen games pitching for the Astros before injuries and a taste for the nightlife sent his promising career off the rails. Twelve years later, back in the March heat of Florida's west coast, he was twenty-five again. He could tell by the looks he was getting from his teammates in the clubhouse that they were noticing.
And then, not surprisingly, he came back to earth. It wasn't as if he crashed; he descended more slowly than that, pitching reasonably well but not lights out the way it had been at the start of camp. As March came to a close, he knew the numbers he had been concerned about in February were clearly stacked against him. Nevertheless, with a wee k left before the team broke camp, he was still on the roster.
"I was in early one morning to work out before I was supposed to throw a bullpen," he said. (When pitchers throw on their days off, they do so in the bullpen, thus everyone in baseball refers to those workouts as "throwing a bullpen." Many pitchers shorten the phrase to "My bullpens have been good lately.") "I was on a bike when [pitching coach] Rich Dubee came in. I said, 'Hey, Rich, what time am I supposed to throw this morning?' He just looked at me and said, 'Need to talk to you in Charlie's office.' "
Charlie Manuel was the Phillies' manager. Elarton knew he wasn't being invited in for breakfast. "In baseball there are two reasons you get called into a major-league manager's office and both are bad," Elarton said. "The first one is if you're being taken out of the rotation -- or benched. That's not good. The second one is a lot worse."
This was the second one. Rubén Amaro was sitting with Manuel when Elarton walked in, a clear sign of what was to come -- if Elarton had needed one. Both men were very complimentary about Elarton's spring: He had worked hard, done everything they had asked. They believed he was capable of pitching in the big leagues again if he could improve his command. (Another pitching term, which, in English, means being able to throw pitches to the exact spot where a pitcher wants them. Missing by an inch can be the difference between a swing and a miss and a line drive.) But as he knew, the team was blessed with starters like Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels -- not to mention guys like Joe Blanton and Vance Worley who weren't stars but had solid big-league résumés.
Manuel finished with the inevitable line ballplayers have been hearing for as long as the minor leagues have existed. "Go down and keep working hard and there's a good chance you'll be back up here. It's a long season."
Elarton was disappointed, though not surprised, yet also elated. He had gone from standing behind a barrier trying to wave Amaro down the previous August to being on the cusp of making a big-league roster seven months later. He knew Manuel's words -- although clichéd -- were true: it was a long season, and if he pitched well in Triple-A, there was a chance he would make it to Philadelphia. He believed he was good enough.
He thanked Amaro and Manuel for the chance they had given him and packed up his locker to move across the complex to the minor-league camp. The walk from the big-league clubhouse to the minor-league clubhouse took only a few minutes, but it was as if Elarton had traveled through time and space to another dimension.
"The minute I opened the door all the memories flooded back," he said, a smile crossing his face. "It was as if I was a kid pitcher on my way up again except that I was thirty-six years old. I took one step inside and there it was again, the smell."
Athletes talk often about the smell of failure, of disappointment, of fear. This smell was different.
"This was the smell," Elarton said. "The minor-league clubhouses in Florida are usually built for about fifty guys, and at that time of year there are two hundred guys trying to figure a way to move around in there. It smells -- big-time."
Baseball players understand that no one goes straight to the big leagues. Once upon a time, an occasional player might bypass the minor leagues either because of extraordinary talent or because a team needed instant publicity. Nowadays, no one does that -- even phenoms like Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, and Mike Trout spend some time in the minor leagues.
But they all assume that their journey will go in only one direction -- up. They all believe that once they walk out of a minor-league clubhouse heading for the big leagues, they aren't coming back. Of course many do come back. Some end up on an escalator that takes them up and down to the point where they fee l dizzy.
"Every time you get sent down it hurts," he said. "It doesn't matter if you know it's coming or not. You can do one of two things: you can sulk and say you got screwed, or you can be honest with yourself and say, 'I haven't played well enough to stay up there.' It's really pretty simple."
Scott Elarton had ridden the escalator, particularly near the end of his first baseball incarnation -- even dropping briefly back to Double-A at one point. "You rationalize it by saying it wouldn't have happened if you hadn't been hurt," he said. "But after a while it doesn't matter. You look around and there are plenty of guys who have been hurt, plenty of pitchers who have had shoulder surgery more than once.
"You want to think you're going to wake up one morning and you're going to be twenty-five and your shoulder is going to be completely healthy. Then you wake up and realize that's never going to be the case again. One morning I woke up and decided it was time to go home."
That is ... until that summer afternoon in Denver, standing behind a barrier with his son, when he decided it was time to try again -- one more time.
And so, on this late March morning in Clearwater, Elarton stood for a long moment and looked around the packed minor-league clubhouse. Then he took a deep breath and went to find his locker. No one even looked up at him. He was another face in the crowd. He was back where nobody knows your name.
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