Spring to Fall

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​”Hey, you could have a real job,” Alan Regier suggested from his pitcher’s mound pulpit. I sat in the crowd of minor leaguers at my first spring training with the Chicago White Sox. Regier’s lesson sounded hollow when I thought back to thirty games in thirty days in the previous season. By the end of last season I had lost fifteen pounds, played through a pulled quadriceps muscle and suffered typical bumps and bruises on a daily basis. I’m not talking about thirty show and go’s, or batting practice at 5 pm game at 7 pm. I had the dubious honor of playing with true rookies. This meant report at 11:30 am, extra hitting at 12:30, weights at 1:30, orientation and stretch at 3, team defense at 3:45, batting practice at 4:30, find time for dinner at 5:30, starters stretch at 6:30 and play at 7. Rinse and repeat for sixty-eight games in seventy-five days. Most of us did this in pursuit of a once in a lifetime dream and a slim chance of success. But, make no mistake; I earned every cent of that $1,050 dollar a month salary. I sat underneath a scorching Arizona sun at 6:30 in the morning and dismissed his pedantic words of wisdom.
​Ozzie Guillen popped out from behind a fence when Regier finished and offered his words of encouragement. The energy he showed was infectious. He bounced around to illustrate every concept he wanted to express. There wasn’t anything lost with Guillen. He was going to drill home the basic baseball mantra; play hard, respect the game, respect the organization and never put your pants underneath your cleats. His passion fueled a dimming flame in me to play baseball. I was reminded that it was a gift to be here and they could find a thousand guys working in cube farms that would mortgage their future for the opportunity in front of us. Even still, it felt like work.

​Two weeks later I was on a plane heading back to New Jersey.

​As spring training report dates roll out and the players migrate to Florida and Arizona for a month I’m reminded of how lucky I was to have been there. After I decided to end my baseball career I searched for a “real job”. It took me three years to land my second career as a teacher. The entire process was more emotionally grueling than any practice or game. And since being hired I have learned what it means to have a “job” and go to “work”.
​For many of the athletes I met on my journey to professional baseball the skills came easy. At each level, from college to summer leagues and then professionally the weaker athletes washed out. At the top rung of this ladder are the athletic phenoms. I met the eighteen year old slugger who deposits balls in the upper deck during batting practice, the million dollar arm with a two cent head, the first round pick from LSU and the twenty-nine year old career minor leaguer. Even though I was a thirty-sixth round draft pick, we could all share the experience of being exceptional. We were exceptional.
​In college I often wondered what it was like to be a regular student. My teammates and I never knew what it was like to have two or three classes for the day, hammer out some homework and then have complete freedom in front of us. I had to plan a gym session in-between class and prepare myself for a six hour practice later that night. I complained about it then, but I would sell my soul for another shot.
​The reality that we came to was that we were different from most people. The kind of person it takes to be a collegiate or professional athlete is different from your average Joe. We practice, tweak and train. We scrutinize each part of the game ad nauseam. If you ever find yourself at a social gathering with guys who played college ball against or with each other they’ll break down a 2-1 change-up to the six hitter in the fifth inning of a three-run ball game. It seems insignificant, but to those guys it could have been the turning point in a season.
​All of this cathartic drivel I’ve just given you is the sum of what I once was. I used to be exceptional, but now I’m just a regular guy. And that has been the hardest lesson for me to learn, and most importantly accept. I’m not used to accepting mediocrity. I assess, revise, train, practice and improve. For me, accepting mediocrity is the equivalent of accepting failure.
When the Seahawks won the Super Bowl the media storyline was Russell Wilson’s “Why not us?” speech. I used to believe that and in some ways I still do. But living inside the mundane teacup twirl of life is humbling. So, to my friends who are still playing, cherish every at bat and soak up every moment sitting in the dugout. Alan Regier was right; you could have a real job. Your exceptionality will run out and probably sooner than you’re ready to admit. Only the exceptions to the exceptional get to choose when it’s over. Most of us are told when the magic well has dried up.

Bronson Arroyo agreed to terms with the Arizona Diamondbacks on a two year, $23.5 million deal yesterday. The agreement includes a club option for a third year.

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Will Burnett say yes to the Steel City?

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With a disappointing Super Bowl behind us most hot-stovers are anxiously looking forward to Thursday, when pitchers and catchers report to spring training for the Arizona Diamondbacks.  Each day following, a new club opens up spring workouts and in three weeks most of us will rush home from work to catch the tail end of a Grapefruit league debacle between the Phillies and Mets.  If nothing more than to satisfy our nine-inning itch nagging us since October, perhaps some of us will also turn up the thermostat, put on some shorts and a t-shirt to channel the tropical heat while the relentless snow falls outside.  I’m sure there are more than a few of you dying for a dirty-water-dog from your local ball park accompanied by a ten dollar brew.  On March first it’s the best money you’ve spent all winter.  But, aside from practicing steal breaks in my living room and boiling hot-dogs as my potpourri there are a few loose ends clubs and players need to tie up before spring training gets into full swing.

With Masahiro Tanaka signing a $153 million dollar deal with the Yankees the frenzy for pitching has tempered to a low sizzle.  A few quality arms still remain unsigned in the home stretch to spring training.  Ervin Santana turns thirty one this year and is looking for a long-term deal to take him into the sunset of his career.  It’s been reported by the Kansas City Star that Santana is pursuing a five year deal in the neighborhood of $112 million.  Coming off a career ERA year of 3.24 it’s unlikely he’ll remane unsigned for too much longer. Although, he’ll have to settle for a lot less money.  The common wisdom among the baseball literati see Santana landing a one or two year deal in the $12 to $15 million dollar range.  A fair price for a team in the market for a middle rotation or number two starter who fills the strike zone.  

Another big name still outside in the cold is Ubaldo Jimenez.  With a 3.30 ERA last season and a career high strikeout rate, Jimenez could be an asset for a club looking to improve their starting rotation.  In 2010, Jimenez had one of the best starts to a season in history.  He finished with a 2.88 ERA and a 19-8 win/loss record.  However, he also posted a career high in wild pitches with 16.  Since 2010 Jimenez has struggled with his command and most clubs in the mix to sign him will certainly take a long look at his mechanics.  It’s been reported that Cleveland tendered a $14.1 million dollar offer and Baltimore and the New York Yankees are courting the hurler, but people close to Jimenez seem to think Toronto has an edge over the other suiters.  The city of Toronto fits Jimenez’s “worldly” penchant and could remove him far enough away from the spotlight to allow him to refine his mechanics with pitching coach, Pete Walker.  

Perhaps the biggest two names unsigned are Bronson Arroyo and AJ Burnett.  Arroyo has bounced around the league, but found a comfortable spot in Cincinnati for the last eight years.  Even though he is thirty-seven years old, Arroyo has never been on the disabled list.  This fact should assuage fears of his age and risk of depreciating value.  Teams like the Phillies could find a soft spot for the reliable right-hander between Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels in the rotation or place him as a dominant third starter.  The only factor holding most teams back must be the price tag.  At three years, $30 million dollars some teams scoff at these numbers.  But, this late in the off-season and the desperation expressed by Arroyo it could be a happy marriage with anyone willing to get a deal done in the $22-$28 million dollar range for three years.  Another option, take him for two years at $15-$18 million with an option for a third at $10-$12.  Whatever the case, Arroyo should find a home quickly.  He won’t last much longer on the market with the type of consistent numbers he has.  But, Arroyo should avoid the cautionary tale of Kyle Lohse throwing bullpens at a sandlot in Arizona holding out for more money until signing in mid-March (twice, 2004 and 2013).  

The final free agent pitcher on the market worth talking about is AJ Burnett.  AJ was a conundrum wrapped up in an enigma for three years with the Yankees.  Whenever he pitched he either got torched or threw a gem with little run support.  It was painful to watch.  He began a promising career with Florida, moved on to Toronto and then landed with the Yankees.  In 2009, Burnett won a world series with the Bronx Bombers, but fell from grace after a few dismal seasons.  For the past two years he’s found a renaissance with Pittsburgh.  Whether or not any other clubs are interested in signing him should be irrelevant in his decision.  He”s thirty-seven years old and has endeared himself in the heart of a city that matches his brand of baseball and asserted himself as a leader in a young and vibrant clubhouse.  I want to send two messages here.  To Aj; recognize what you have in Pittsburgh and help yourself by building a legacy with the Buccos.  To Pittsburgh; offer him market price for what he’s done (considering age, performance, etc.), reward him for breathing oxygen into a lifeless franchise and promote him as a mentor to your strong, young arms.   

I’d like to know what your feelings are on AJ Burnett.  Should he stay? Or should he go?