Thursday, March 21, 2013

New Year, New Players, New Organization...Same Goals

Skirting Line Between Making Friends and Keeping Distance Not Always Easy

MAR 20th, 2013-Pro ball in Lexington will be back in full swing, very soon.

Before you know it, The Bank will be buzzing once more. Gates will open, ticket offices will be bustling with activity, concession stands will be serving up dogs and beers, and the ushers will take their positions. Fans will start filing in, greeting friends from seasons past and meeting new friends for seasons to come.

Here in Lexington, Kansas City's newest Class A representative in the South Atlantic League, there will be something noticeably absent from the year before:

Our boys.

Now that we're a part of the Royals' organization, the kids we knew from Houston's farm system won't be around anymore. There are new players to meet, new personalities, new lives of which we will be a small part. These players will be dealing with the same pressures on the field and off as the baby 'Stros, and thankfully our Booster Club and host parents will be there to help them along. We have a pretty good system  for that sort of thing, and some of our locals go to great lengths to make sure the guys have whatever they need while they're fighting to make their way beyond The Sally and up the ladder.

In 2012, I was exposed to some new experiences that I hadn't fully considered in my 24 years as a baseball fan. Perhaps the most memorable, sadly, was the most educational: the demotion.

If you speak to a player long enough, and they loosen up and tell you a bit more about themselves beyond batting averages and ERAs, you come to feel a personal connection with that player. Over time, you might even become friends. At that point, you are bound to that player just as you would be to any other friends you may have, and this means you're going to be thrilled when they do well. It also means you're going to be sad when they don't.

And when they get demoted, or even worse, cut, you're going to feel like someone punched you in the gut.

It honestly caught me off-guard. I was there when a few of the guys heard the news. RHP Tanner Bushue hadn't heard it yet, but he knew it was coming. He was coming off a shaky outing the same day the host families and Booster Club had their (monthly?) potluck gathering, when the boosters and hosts got to share a meal with their players. Tanner was sitting adjacent to me. I didn't know him very well, admittedly.

Still, it's a strange feeling to be on the outside looking in when one of these kids gets sent down; you're not a part of what's happening, and yet you are. From my perspective, Tanner had an expression on his face that is hard to describe. In short, he was crushed. There was no mistaking it. Here he was, surrounded by teammates and host families, all happily chatting away, and Tanner was somehow separate and alone from all of it. He just sat silently, staring at the empty space on the table in front of him, completely still. I wanted to say something to him, try to cheer him up, but you can't say anything to a player who's been sent down. Nothing that would help, anyway. All you can do is be there, if they want to talk about it. Some of them actually want to talk about it; others, like Tanner, not so much.

I know I'm not the only one who's ever felt that personal connection with a player; I was part of the Booster Club and a host for several players, last year, and I was on the periphery of their social circles. I interacted with some more than others, and for that experience I consider myself fortunate to have known them. I wasn't exactly best friends with any of them, and rightly so. After all, none of them knew who I was before they came to Lexington, and some players have a sense of apprehension from the moment they become professionals. Also, as it should be.

Thing is, every pro athlete knows that their career could end anytime. A torn labrum, serious knee injury, an unexplained "dead arm", and that's all she wrote. A life-long dream can be ended by the whims of the parent club, without explanation. One day, you're making your way up the ladder; the next, you're sifting through the classified ads. No promotional Day for you at the ballpark, no standing O on the way off the fact, it could be that no one even knows you're gone except for your close friends or family. Not even so much as a "thank you". Just a pink slip and a clubbie waiting to take the athletic tape with your name written on it in Sharpie off the top of what used to be your locker.

There are a LOT of people out there who are looking to take every possible advantage of pro athletes. They see opportunities to gain a player's trust, to work their way into that player's inner circle of trust, and some even become personal representative for the players they seek to exploit. At that stage, the player stands to lose a great deal of money. I have also, unfortunately, seen this happen to a player who IS a friend of mine, and it makes me very mindful of what I say and do regarding the players.

On that subject, many of these guys aren't exactly living out their champagne wishes and caviar dreams, if you know what I mean. For the vast majority of them, the only caviar they ever see might be on a re-run of The Real Housewives of Orange County. These kids are living on far less than minimum wage, struggling to make ends meet while sharing tiny apartments with two or three other guys, even sending a big chunk (if not ALL) of their tiny paychecks back home to help support their families. They truly do make a ton of sacrifices just to have a shot at making The Show, and to have some con man try to screw them out of what little they have is absolutely inexcusable.

OK, I've ranted on that enough. More on that in my next post, courtesy of Arizona Diamondbacks pitching prospect Seth Simmons. Seth has been kind enough to expound on a few pro baller subjects for me, and I'll be posting some of that conversation here at TGOG.

Anyhew, this year we'll be starting the process all over again, with new players, new personalities and a new organization. Different players, but the same goal. Also, the same problems, same struggles, same needs. We need to be ready to help them in any way we can. Thankfully there are some good people here, and I'm grateful that the folks at Lexington are well-prepared to help them.

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