Bush-league bloggers

Pro athletes are typing away like never before. Most of it's bad, but minor league baseball is a veritable writer's colony.


King Kaufman
July 18, 2008 2:35PM (UTC)

Professional-athlete blogs are springing up all over, which mostly means the demarcation lines of journalism are continuing to blur, Buzz Bissinger's ears are continuing to emit steam and not a lot of interesting writing is going on.

For every engaging and readable Curtis Granderson or Greg Oden or Curt Schilling, there are dozens of banal exercises along the lines of:

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What's up everybody! I'm really excited to be going to the All-Star Game, so let's take a question from a reader.

"Dear Star, what do you do when you're not playing? -- Joe Blow, Tulsa, Okla."

Well, Joe, I like to chill with my family ...

You just lost 38 brain cells and that wasn't even real.

One area that seems to be a reasonably fertile ground for interesting blogging is minor league baseball. It makes sense. As players rise through minor league systems, they're in a new environment every year or so, they're learning, and they haven't hit the big time yet, so they tend not to be quite as full of themselves as big-leaguers. They also haven't had their public personalities flattened by image management and they haven't been scarred by too many interactions with big-time media.

Baseball America, the bible of minor league ball, has a feature it calls Prospect Diary that at one time had contributions from then prospects such as Jon Lester and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. But since spring training of last year it has mostly been taken over by Dirk Hayhurst, a pitcher in the San Diego Padres organization.

A 27-year-old right-hander in his sixth minor league season, Hayhurst renamed the column "Non-Prospect Diary." It's really good.

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This spring he mused about whether baseball is, in fact, a team sport, as preached by his coaches dating back to Little League, or one that's all about individual matchups by individual players who, in the minors at least, are trying to play their individual way up to the big money.

He ultimately decides it is a team sport, along the way providing a vivid description of the final tense moments of the final game of the 2007 Texas League championship series, which his team, the San Antonio Missions, won over the Springfield Cardinals. The Cardinals, down 11-0 heading into the bottom of the ninth inning, had scored seven times:

A four-run lead seemed so fragile after enjoying the safety of 11. In the pen we relievers paced, clinging to the chain link fence, squeezing it in frustration, leaning on it for support. We cheered for our teammates but it was futile. We were too far away for them to hear us, our voices drowned in a sea of roaring crimson. We talked nervously amongst ourselves, asking how we offended the baseball gods. Did we put the balls away too soon? Did we talk too confidently about being victorious? Were the Cardinals just toying with us? We were clueless, helpless and sick over a dream fast turning into a nightmare.

The Missions hung on to win. "It's good to see my old teammates come spring training," Hayhurst wrote in March. "Those men may go on to greater things than I, or disappear into the blur of life, but they will always be my teammates."

Last year Hayhurst wrote about getting angry at the kids who constantly hassle pitchers in the bullpen for baseballs, which they're not allowed to give out, though Hayhurst says they occasionally do.

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A home run lands in the bullpen and the kids and their parents jostle and bray for it. Hayhurst decides to give it to a boy who has been quiet and respectful through it all. "Yeah, you young man," he tells the boy, "because you were the only one up here acting civil. You deserve a ball." He congratulates himself, writes that he feels "like I made some great children's book-style parable on manners come true."

Then the boy takes off his cap and shows off her long hair and earrings. She's a girl, the whole section is laughing at him, and he's got a date in kangaroo court for the faux pas.

In another piece this year, his most recent, Hayhurst tells a moving story about climbing into the stands to give a baseball to a boy in a wheelchair. But the story isn't moving in the way you'd expect. The boy is so severely disabled he doesn't realize what's happening. Hayhurst writes that the boy's sister took the ball and talked excitedly about it to her brother -- not for the boy's benefit but so that Hayhurst wouldn't feel bad.

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"I can't shake any magic out of my uniform for this child," he writes. "No smile is going to beam across his face while I play benevolent baseball star. I might as well have given the boy a stone."

Hayhurst is pitching for the Portland Beavers in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League this year. He might never get to the big leagues, but if he published a book tomorrow, I'd buy it.

Minorleaguebaseball.com, the official Web site of the affiliated minor leagues, runs a section of what it calls Player Journals, and while Shakespeare isn't roaming the outfield for the Lansing Lugnuts or anything, there's some good stuff there too.

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You still have to wade through a fair bit of "What's up everybody!" and surface-level descriptions of the season -- "Our team has had a tough start these first few weeks as we have struggled to win several close games" -- but at their best the journals contain nuggets of insight as players describe inside-baseball stuff they're learning, interesting characters they're encountering and various aspects of the baseball life that fans don't often see.

In a July 3 entry, Philadelphia Phillies pitching prospect Joe Savery wrote about "a very important, yet comical part of the Minor League lifestyle that most people may not know much about. I'm not sure if 'important' is necessarily the best word to describe this activity, but it is certainly significant."

He meant bus rides.

Savery, a lefty who pitches for the Clearwater Threshers of the Class-A Florida State League, describes a tough decision tree for players who are already out of their element because the bus ride means they've had to wake up early, which ballplayers otherwise don't do. They work mostly at night, after all.

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"Players have to consider first: What time do I have to wake up, and where am I going to get breakfast?" he writes. "Then, when you get breakfast, you have to decide on coffee or no coffee -- because you have to figure whether or not you want to try and sleep during the ride.

"Do I bring a pillow or not? BIG decision!"

So is whether to wear long pants or short, because the bus might or might not be air-conditioned. And then, how do you pass the time? Will you want to watch the movie a coach puts on? Will the movie's sound work if you do? What do you do if not? Crossword? iPod?

Big decisions!

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Sean Doolittle, a slugging first baseman in the Oakland A's system, writes about a subject closer to the field in an entry dated Thursday. Doolittle was just promoted from the Stockton Ports of the Class-A California League, a league very friendly to hitters, to the Midland Rockhounds of the Double-A Texas League, which is a pitchers league.

"The pitching is definitely a step up and if you tuned into the Futures Game you would have seen about half of the Texas League toe it up for one side or the other," he writes, referring to Sunday's all-minors All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium. "The way they attack the strike zone and use their off-speed pitches has definitely been a big difference thus far. And the overall speed of the game almost caught me off guard in my first game ...

"The bottom line, however, is that it's the same game as it was in the Cal League -- just a little faster and with a little more wind and less homers ... And longer bus rides."

Slugger Matt LaPorta, whose next entry should be pretty interesting because it'll be the first one since he was traded from the Milwaukee Brewers to the Cleveland Indians for C.C. Sabathia, wrote about getting drafted three times in his June 3 entry.

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He was picked in the 14th round out of high school and in the same round after an injury-damaged junior year at the University of Florida. He went back for his senior season, "which seemed like a forbidden thing to do because everyone said I would not make any money coming out of the draft." He was taken seventh overall last year and received a $2.3 million signing bonus.

The best writer of the bunch at minorleaguebaseball.com is Jordan Brown, a first baseman for the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons in the Indians system.

"We just finished up a doubleheader today in Syracuse on a travel day," he writes in his most recent entry, from July 10, "and my body feels like a fat kid who just chased the ice-cream truck around the city all day for a 'choco taco.' Trust me, I know how that feels."

Brown won back-to-back MVP awards in the Carolina and Eastern leagues the past two years, but he has struggled at the minors' top level this season, managing just a .710 OPS and four homers in 74 games. That's not good for his big-league future, but it has allowed him to work a self-deprecating Bob Uecker-Joe Garagiola vibe into his writing.

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On June 24 he wrote about some past All-Star Games he's played in, then mentioned the then-upcoming Triple-A All-Star Game, which was played Wednesday in Louisville.

"I will probably not be going," he wrote. "Pretty sure .280 with a lack of production doesn't cut it, although I hear the All-Star team needs a towel boy and someone to rush Gatorade out to the umpires. So I'm crossing my fingers."

On a more serious note, Brown mentions that a feature of playing at Triple-A is that, unlike lower levels, teams are stocked with veteran former major leaguers. Brown's Buffalo teammates this year have included Morgan Ensberg, Tony Graffanino, John Halama and Jeff Weaver. To a fan, that sounds like a list of mediocre or faded journeymen. To a prospect, it's like a grad school faculty.

"It seems like those guys have an innate ability to notice little things throughout the course of the game to give us an advantage," Brown writes. "Whether it's watching a pitcher tip his pitches, noticing certain patterns or getting on an umpire so much that calls start turning our way, it helps us win."

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Brown wrote in June that he was about to become a father and that "it really puts things into perspective for me."

"Suddenly an 0-for-4 day doesn't hurt as much as it used to because there are more important things in life," he wrote, "like playing good defense and running the bases! Ha ha, just kidding -- pretty sure the missus isn't going to like that one."

She would if she'd just been reading Ben Roethlisberger's blog.


King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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