“He’s going to fight for his spot… he’s going to take his place back.”
He owns that position.
Really? Can you honestly outright own a role in baseball?
Sure, Chris Sale commands the mound, David Ortiz is leaving his signature on the designated hitter role but what a bold decision that anyone who dons a baseball uniform is secure in the role they play.
Randy Johnson, a man with a legend somehow larger than his towering frame, has become a teacher of the fleeting dream career.
“For me it’s more about just telling them what it takes to get to the major leagues and what you have to do… In some ways, it’s survival of the fittest because when you get to the major leagues there’s no guarantee you’re going to stay there. There’s someone else down below you that might be doing the same thing you’re capable of doing and if you don’t have a guaranteed contract or you get hurt they’ll come up and do it for less and that’s part of the business too. The bottom line is the organization just wants to win and they’re going to put the twenty five best players on the field and in the dugout that can help that organization win. There’s a revolving door here.”
By the time the Major League Baseball draft ends, over one thousand names will have been called to begin the journey of professional baseball. According to Mike Rosenbaum, those lucky enough to receive first-round selection have around a sixty-six percent chance to see major league time. On the other end of the spectrum, players called after the twenty-first round face a grim six percent shot at making it to “The Show”.
Diving further past the draft, there are even more factors within an organization itself. Catchers get converted to outfielders, a traditional starter is needed more in the bullpen, and infielders and outfielders are interchangeable within their respective ranges.
Think about it, a company offers you a job as a financial executive but you have to start in the mail room making minimum wage. In addition to that, you only have a six percent chance to make it past the mail room and even furthermore, they might decide to move you to operations, public relations, etc. Sounds like a great chance, doesn’t it? Didn’t think so.
Right-handed pitcher Zack Godley knows all too well the battle to stay consistent through changes. After beginning the 2015 season with Diamondbacks’ High A-affiliate Visalia, Godley was promoted to AA-Mobile before receiving the call to the show. July 23, 2015 became Godley’s big league debut and the day of a new-era record; the righty tossed for six shutout innings and only four hits.
Even the performance of a lifetime did not keep Godley in Phoenix. The Tennessee product was sent back to Mobile August 10 and due to high use was relegated to a bullpen role.
“You get used to the lifestyle of moving around when you’re in the minor leagues. Part of pro-ball is getting you accustomed to jumping around. I understand what the organization is doing, they’re trying to protect my arm as well as my future with this organization… I just keep doing what they want me to do.”
Godley would return for several more big league appearances in 2015, being utilized as both a starter and reliever. He entered 2016 as a starter once more with AA-Mobile before another call-up to Arizona for June 11 against the Marlins.
“It let me know that no matter what they want me to do I can go in and do it and hopefully have success at doing it. I’m happy every time they give me a ball and let me go out on the mound and pitch and as long as I can do that I’m happy. Granted, I want to get back up there [the big leagues] as quickly as possible and stay up there as long as I can but it’s a process. I’m just going to keep grinding it out and do what I can.”
There are plenty of motives to pursue a career in baseball despite the chances, certainly the glistening opportunity that you could be the one to defy the odds, to be the six percent that succeed. Rockies prospect Wesley Rogers never forgets his motivation in the game.
“When you first get drafted and sign, it happens so fast you don’t even realize what you’re getting into. I feel like it [baseball] is a part of who I am. It takes a special kind of person to want to be a part of the grind known as minor league baseball. You can’t just be in love with baseball, you have to be in love with competing. It’s a constant everyday grind and can easily get the best of you if you don’t just love competition.”
The fourth-round outfielder, just two years into his professional career still has some growing to do. Apart from a seven-day disabled list assignment last season for a concussion things have run pretty smoothly. In contrast, Pirates free agent signee Chris Harvey has had quite a different battle. The Pennsylvania native, also signed in 2014, began battling injuries almost immediately into his professional career as a catcher.
“Dealing with injuries can be tough because as an athlete, you aren’t much good to anybody if you can’t play. It’s easy to feel like your career is temporarily stalled. All you can do is trust that the work you’ve put in is going to pay off at some point. When that [payoff] happens varies player to player. You just have to get back as quickly as you can… I’ve got to get healthy, I’ve got to get back on the field sooner or later, hopefully sooner.”
The backstop’s approach to patience in his career may be partially attributed to his time at Vanderbilt. Harvey’s “spot” as catcher was not cemented despite entering the program as a five-star recruit. Instead, he faced the challenge of battling injuries and for playing time.
“There’s only a certain amount of spots to go around for so many guys in the organization. Having to fight and compete constantly for a spot in a program like that [Vanderbilt] makes this process a lot easier. Vandy really helped me with the process of fighting for a spot and continuing as a pro player. I knew I wanted to play professionally even before I was in college.”
Harvey completed surgery and returned from the disabled list in June of 2016. The catcher has resumed playing for Pirates’ Short-A affiliate, the West Virginia Black Bears, albeit he now faces battling against Pittsburgh’s newest draft class signees.
Two different roads but Rogers relates.
“Regardless of the pay, some conditions of fields and the odds of you actually making it to the majors there should be a relentless will to get better every single day. Baseball is one of the only sports that is a game of failure. It’s hard to subject yourself to something that, if you’re lucky, you will fail seventy percent of the time and be one of the best in your profession. It’s easy to say why you choose to pursue baseball professionally when you’re doing well. It’s when you’re struggling when your true colors show.”
Maybe the young outfielder has already taken a page from Johnson without even knowing. The Big Unit understands baseball as a combination of mental will and physical grind.
“It’s a mindset as much as it is being able to go out there and perform. The mindset is that every day, you can’t let it slip, it’s a grind. It’s the people that can be consistent with their performances that are going to be called up because they know what they’re [the team] going to get.”
The legends and farm hands… one thing is certain, both agree that in baseball, no spot is guaranteed.