BY GABE COHN
Imagine: From the time you could walk you held a bat and a glove in your hands and dreamed of playing Major League Baseball. Throughout your childhood, you played in travel leagues, got private coaching and worked endlessly to get better. Once you got to high school, you were immediately the best player on your team and were instilled with the confidence to lead your team to a state title.
You were heavily recruited by several colleges that have top-notch programs. At a top program in the country, you have a solid college career which included winning a national championship and a batting title. After graduation, you enter the draft, get drafted somewhere in the middle rounds, and immediately go to short-season ball in the MLB organization’s farm-system.
After a position change, you find yourself stuck in the farm-system because of the talent on the big league roster. For years to come you endure long bus rides and constant scenery changes, as you move from team to team until your dream is finally realized.
This story mirrors a lot of minor league players’ stories and to this day a lot of those who had aspirations of playing in the big leagues are still climbing the mountain that is the MLB farm-system.
It’s hard for every athlete to reach the highest level of competition in their respective sports but for baseball players, it might be the hardest to reach that plateau. In basketball and football, once drafted, players are immediately thrown into the professional ranks, whereas baseball players who are drafted get sent straight to the minor leagues.
That’s not the only reason why it’s hard to make it to the big leagues. In the MLB First-Year Player Draft there are 40 rounds and players who range from high school graduates to college graduates. In baseball, no rule exists that limits players from entering the draft straight out of high school, whereas in the NBA (after one year of college) and the NFL (after two years of college) there are restrictions for those who want to enter the draft.
The combination of 40 rounds, a ton of talented players and the tedious structure of the MLB farm-system makes it hard for the average player to make it all the way to the top.
Each MLB organization’s farm-system consists of a short-season team, an Arizona Fall League Team, a Single-A Full team, a Single-A Advanced team, a Double-A Team, and a Triple-A team. In total there are 246 minor league teams throughout 30 Major League farm-systems which house about 30 players a piece. That’s a staggering amount of players and all of them are fighting for one of only 25 spots on a big league roster.
For former UT Spartan third baseman Nick Flair, the difficulty of making a roster became a real obstacle during his transition after college.
“I’ve had a lot of ups and downs since I was drafted,” Flair said. “After the draft I got the call to report to camp to fight for a low-A spot with 3-5 guys who were all going for the one spot available. After I didn’t get one of those spots I packed and unpacked my bags a lot and traveled a lot through the system.”
Through all of the hardships, so far, Flair has leaned on former Spartans Andrew Amaro, Stephen Dezzi and his former coach Joe Urso to help him.
“We (Amaro, Dezzi, and Flair) all became extremely close on a totally different level than we did the year before when we played for Coach Urso,” Flair said. “It was nice, especially because Amaro and I were far away from home. It was nice having a father-like figure like Coach Urso and his wife Mrs. Julie treat us so well. I know those relationships will last me a lifetime.”
A lot of young players, like Flair, return to their colleges/high schools during the offseason to rekindle relationships and further improve their games. That sense of familiarity helps young players cope with the massive transition and gives them an opportunity to learn more from their former coaches and teammates.
The fear of the transition and not making it to the major leagues hangs over young players throughout their minor league career, but what scares the players even more is the fear of a potential injury that could derail their career. Since any one of these players’ careers can end from an injury, they know their dream could always end tomorrow.
“Baseball doesn’t need any one person to continue, but the people that love and play the game need baseball,” Dezzi said. “You can’t take a single day for granted because, once you get to the professional level, any day could be your last. It’s good to find the right balance of confidence and humbleness, but, no matter what, the most important thing is to be a good teammate and enjoy yourself while you play.”
Through all of the ups and downs, minor-leaguers work extremely hard to move up through their organization’s respected farm-system. Through injuries, demotions and constant travel, they continue to be as determined as anyone in any non-sport occupation.
The MLB may be the hardest major league sport level to reach, but minor league baseball at least gives a ton of players from smaller countries and those who are craving to make it a chance to fight for a spot each and every year.