Friction & Discipline: An Epilogue, Part Five
Photo by Frank Hunter.
An interesting word, disappointed. It doesn’t mean the opposite of appointed, which is something you say of cabinet members or hotel rooms. Does disappointed even have a direct opposite? It seems to stand alone, an isolated feeling, which suits it.
J. D. Martin had what they call a career year, winning a well-deserved honor as the International League’s Most Valuable Pitcher. He didn’t have a single really bad start all season, although the uncharacteristic run he allowed against Omaha last Tuesday ultimately cost the Bulls the Triple-A National Championship game. With two outs and no one on in the sixth inning, Martin had two strikes on the Storm Chasers’ Manuel Pina. He then threw cutter after cutter away, but Pina kept fouling them off to almost the exact same place. Finally, on the ninth pitch of the at-bat, Martin walked him.
Martin had the lowest walk rate in the International League this season. It was the secret of his success. Annoyed with himself after walking Pina, he proceeded to allow consecutive singles to Paulo Orlando and Irving Falu (they should be a pair of heartthrob crooners from the fifties, no?). Falu’s hit ticked off the glove of the leaping Tim Beckham, who almost caught it. Instead, Beckham only slowed the ball down, effacing what small chance center fielder Kevin Kiermaier may have had to throw out Pina, who scored Omaha’s second run. That run proved to be decisive in the 2-1 final score.
Close games have pivot points. I made a habit of circling them on my score sheets this year, as soon as they happened, so I could see at a glance where games were decided. Perhaps it’s better to call them friction points. I circled Pina’s walk right after he came around to score, two batters later, because Pina had progressed past a friction point in a way Martin rarely permits. The walk, and what it led to, had the feel of something momentous even with three innings left to be played. And it was. In retrospect. Martin’s rare walk of Pina was the game’s most important friction point.
For Martin, though, the true friction point came after the game was over. I congratulated him on his great season and asked him, a free agent to be, if he’d be happy to come back to the Rays organization in 2014. He was quick and firm with his answer: “No, no.” He elaborated: “I would love to. This team [the Bulls] was awesome, and I like the organization, but if [the Rays] don’t give me a [major-league] opportunity after my season, there’s no point. There’s nothing more I could have done.”
I asked him if he thought his modest velocity was the reason he wasn’t called up. Martin’s fastball tops out at just eighty-eight miles an hour. Like Leslie Anderson’s, his numbers were discounted by the means with which he compiled them. In defense of the Rays, Martin was hit pretty hard in the majors when he pitched there in 2009 and 2010. He allowed twenty-three home runs in just 125 innings. That would be the fourth highest home run rate in the majors this season among pitchers who have thrown at least that many innings. Martin is a wiser and better pitcher now, but he throws softer than ever. Did that explain why he had never been, well, appointed to the major-league roster?
“I don’t know what it is, but whatever it is, I’m really disappointed in the Rays,” Martin said. I asked him if he’d prefer I leave that off the record, and he said no, it could stay on. (Why not? He had nothing to lose, or to prove.) He allowed that there was still some chance he might be added to the roster by season’s end, although that was of course very unlikely; there were fewer than two weeks remaining, and the Rays had already called up Jake Odorizzi if they needed an extra starter.
“You never know,” Martin said, as though trying to convince himself of something he knew full well. He paused for the briefest of moments, seeking precisely the word he wanted to leave on the record. It turned out he had already found it, and he used it twice more: “[I]f it doesn’t happen, I’d be very disappointed in this organization, because I feel like I’ve earned it. I’m not the only guy that’s earned it, but I’d be really disappointed.”
Yet Martin was able to separate that disappointment from his feelings about the Bulls, one of many uses of that remarkable dual consciousness more pronounced among Triple-A players than at any other level of baseball: a kind of mental discipline that allows them to love their team while distrusting and even disdaining the parent club, which is so close and yet so far, and thus generates so much of the friction a ballplayer feels. The team is not the franchise. “The team is awesome,” he said of the Bulls. “I’ve had a great time this year. It’s the best group of guys I’ve played with.”
That sentiment was echoed by numerous Bulls, including Steve Geltz before the game and, after it, Jason Bourgeois, who was doubtful (but hopeful) he’d be back. He thought he might have a better chance of making the major leagues with another team, even though he did make the majors briefly with the Rays this season. He hit a walkoff single for them on August 14, and added a home run on August 21. Bourgeois loved the Rays. He said it was “the best organization I’ve ever played with.”
Why, I asked him?
“The communication,” he answered, decisively, “mixed with letting you go out there and play. Especially being a minor-league free agent, signing over here I didn’t expect to play that much, with Wil Myers on the team. But [Charlie Montoyo] figured out a way to mix everybody into the lineup. That’s all you can ask for, and it worked out for me. I was able to get three weeks in [the major leagues]. Three weeks doesn’t seem like a lot, but it kept my name alive. I was able to go up there and hit a walkoff homer. People remember that stuff. Any little thing like that, I’ll take it. I’ll take it.”
Note that Bourgeois had confused the walkoff single he had hit on August 14 with the second-inning homer he hit a week later, on August 21, right after which the Rays designated him for assignment. But these are the kinds of little fantasies ballplayers must allow themselves, and even embrace, in order to keep playing. It is a self-discipline constructed out of friction (and fiction): the discipline of unshakable belief in one’s value based on misremembered events (and misapprehended abilities) that rub up against reality. Jason Bourgeois and J. D. Martin, along with countless other minor-league free agents, must end every season committed to the certainty that they can do it next year, and the year after that, and after that, too, no matter their age. They tel themselves that their singles are homers and their career years repeatable; that the body never breaks down; that speed never declines or isn’t a hindrance if it does; that command and vision never waver.
This self-distracting ability is one of the things I admire most about older Triple-A ballplayers. Although they age, although they can’t stick in the major leagues or even get back at all, although they watch players younger than they are leapfrog them on the way up, still they lose no confidence. “Just keep pitching,” Martin told me when I asked him what he planned to do next year. He said it again, as if anything else was out of the question, even as a consideration: “Just keep pitching.” And he will.
I began yesterday by giving an example of the many ways Triple-A differs from the major leagues. These ways are legion, deep, and stark, but one of the things that has kept my interest in Triple-A fresh all these years is not just that it’s different from the majors. If it was nothing but simple, plain, comparative difference, Triple-A wouldn’t be worth bothering with, because it would be just an ersatz baseball environment; a cheap suburban substitute for the big leagues; a littered, anxious base camp forever shrouded from the summit.
You do still hear people use that old saw that goes something like, “Triple-A is the worst level because no one wants to be here.” But it isn’t true. Plenty of ballplayers want to be here, and “here” is more than just (to borrow back again from the movie I was quoting the other day) the almost-famous level sagging below the majors. Triple-A, despite its two-way relationship to other levels, and despite its protectorate status, is its own discrete, exciting, stand-alone world, totally unlike any other in baseball. It’s the most real of all the levels. It’s the most like life. It’s all happening.
To illustrate, here is another story. After the National Championship game last Tuesday, the Bulls stayed over in Allentown one more night, a rarity in a world where most travel is done by overnight bus in order to save on hotel rooms. The team was booked at the fairly swanky (for the minors) Sands Casino in Bethlehem, the next city over from Allentown. A shuttle came to the ballpark to drive them to the Sands, and most of the players were showered, changed, packed and ready to board within half an hour of the game’s final out; they weren’t sitting around ruing the loss to Omaha, or exchanging long beery goodbyes. It was long past time to go. The season had reached ultima Thule.
I was outside in the parking lot, mingling with the Bulls’ seasonal staff. These were mostly energetic kids in their twenties who had been rewarded for their summer’s work at the Durham ballpark with a trip up to the National Championship game and its surrounding hoopla. They were waiting for their own overnight bus back to Durham (no Sands Casino for them). We watched a few of the Bulls, including veteran Mike Fontenot, the team’s second-oldest player, quickly cram their things — huge bags full of gear — into the back of an inexplicably available taxi. Or maybe, knowing they had missed the first shuttle to the Sands, they had actually called the cab.
In any case, they sped off. Some of the staffers wondered aloud why those ballplayers had sprung for a costly taxi, even though another (free) shuttle was supposed to arrive any minute. It turned out that those older ballplayers knew better. There were a few other Bulls players still out there on the curb, mixed in with the congregated Bulls staff. They, too, had missed the first shuttle to the Sands. They were told that the next one was due shortly, but after ten or fifteen minutes there was no sign of it. The players who were left behind, I noticed, were all Double-A guys who had very recently joined the Bulls, including top left-handed pitching prospect Enny Romero. Two or three of the other players were not even on the Bulls’ playoff roster, forming instead a small taxi squad in case big-league moves had necessitated their domino-effect activation (which never came to pass). One of the active players took advantage of the wait to ask a Bulls official whether he, the player, had been with the team long enough to qualify for an International League championship ring.
The difference was so clear. The Bulls’ Triple-A mainstays knew exactly where to go and when, and they knew how to improvise, on the fly, when they missed the bus. (“It’s a game of adjustments”: you hear that far oftener than, “It’s a game of inches.”) The underclass had not been so savvy. Triple-A wisdom had left Double-A greenness in the dark. And it wasn’t just that the Triple-A guys were older. Had this been the major leagues, where the players are older still, there would have been limos, handlers, chartered flights, drinks. In Double-A, there probably would have been the usual bus out there, waiting until every last man was accounted for. But here in the Triple-A netherworld — the neither/nor world — there was neither luxury nor lookout. You got to stay at the Sands, but you had better make sure you got yourself there. You were caught between a rock and a rock star.
The younger players were offered a ride on the staff bus. They gladly accepted it, even though they knew they would have to wait out a pit stop for the interns to stock the bus with long-haul refreshments halfway between Allentown and Bethlehem. It took me a long time to sort out why this moment on the curb seemed so potent, so true, and so full, right after I’d been startled by Brandon Guyer calling me by my first name. But when it arrived, it arrived all at once, as loud and large as the bus that roared up to the curb minutes later: You have to be smarter to survive Triple-A than anywhere else.
As the staff bus pulls away from Coca-Cola Field bearing the kids (ballplayers and otherwise), as the night grows cold and the lights go out in the ballpark on the last night of the Triple-A season, we would seem to have reached the end of this long epilogue. But its most important moment is yet to come. Three nights after Allentown, the cataclysm hits in Tampa Bay, in the tidal-wave form of an eighteen-inning game. This force majeure rattles the walls in Durham, and Providence, and Louisiana, and the Dominican Republic. It gives Bull City Summer its final, giant twist, and it exposes the foundations of Triple-A. This epilogue concludes Monday, but not before navigating a new beginning.