Chris Valaika is looking forward to the glitz and glamour of Cincinnati. One of the top middle-infield prospects in the Reds organization, the 24-year-old Valaika has played in Billings, Dayton, Sarasota, Chattanooga, and now Louisville, since being taken in the third round of the 2006 draft out of UC Santa Barbara. During that time, he has ridden the buses, and shared living quarters, with some interesting characters.
David Laurila: What is life in the minor leagues like?
Chris Valaika: Life in the minors can be tough. It’s not a glamorous life, but it is what you make of it. If you get too caught up on the travel — the long bus rides — and the pay, I think that it can beat you down a little bit. But if you go out and take it for what it is, you can enjoy the time you have out here because it’s such a short time in your life. If you play 10, 12 years it’s a long career, and what other jobs can you say that about? I don’t have to put on a suit everyday and go off to work; I get to come out here and have fun.
DL: You’re a professional baseball player, so you must draw a huge salary and drive a fancy car?
CV: That’s what everybody thinks. You might have gotten got some money to start, when you got drafted, but if you spend some time in the minor leagues, you’re playing for free sometimes. And some of the cities you’re playing in…I know that Louisville is a great city, but it’s a big city, too, and you have to pay rent. Your paychecks don’t always cover everything.
DL: How do you go about finding a place to live knowing that you might have to move at the drop of a hat?
CV: You try to find places that are month-to-month, or places where they understand your situation, or you can try to get in with a couple of guys. If you do get moved up, or down, or get traded or cut, then you try to find somebody that’s going to be able to take your place. It can be a tough go.
DL: What is it like having roommates at this stage of your life?
CV: At the lower levels it was nice, because it helped to keep costs down. I’ve lived by myself this year, just because you’re around the guys so much that it’s nice to get away and do your own thing. I also have my fiance coming into town, so it’s nice to have my own time with her.
DL: Do any of your former roommates qualify as interesting characters?
CV: Interesting characters? I think that if you play this game long enough, everybody is an interesting character, but I don’t know off the top of my head if there’s anyone I’d say is off-the-wall. I’ve lived with Drew Stubbs and he’s really smart. I’ve lived with Danny Dorn, who is a good dude. No one who is really off the wall, though.
DL: Is Stubbs the smartest guy you’ve played with?
CV: He’s definitely smart. I’d wake up and he’d be up doing crosswords and word searches and things like that, and I’d be like, “Man; I haven’t even turned my brain on yet and you‘re already coffee deep and ready to go.”
DL: Yonder Alonso is one of your teammates here in Louisville. How would you describe him?
CV: Alonso is young. He’s been pushed pretty quickly and he’s doing a great job of adjusting. He wants to learn and I really respect that about him. He’s always asking questions, and he doesn’t act like he’s got it figured out; he’s willing to learn and take everybody’s opinions, criticisms, compliments — everything.
DL: How about Aroldis Chapman?
CV: It’s tough with the language barrier, but he’s a really nice guy. He’s bought us spreads and he’s outgoing. It’s a tough situation for him, though, because in every city that we go into, he gets mobbed. Around us, he’s just a normal guy going out there and doing what we’re doing.
DL: Do you interact with your Latin-American teammates very much?
CV: Sure. At this level, a lot of the guys know enough English to get by, and you’ve been with them — like Juan Francisco; I’ve been with him since rookie ball — so you’ve known guys long enough to get along and to have talked to them.
DL: What are some of the more interesting places you’ve played, including road cities?
CV: I’ve been at every level and there are definitely some interesting places, like Idaho Falls and Casper. After busing all night, especially at the lower levels where you only have one bus — you’re crammed on a bus for eight hours and trying to sleep — you get into one of those cities at two in the morning and you have to try to go back to sleep and then get up and start your day. Those aren’t the things on your mind when you get into pro ball; you don’t think you’re going to have eight-hour bus rides, sitting with 30 guys. You think that it’s glitz and glamour, but then you get here and find that you’re grinding the days out.
DL: Do you ever wake up and wonder where you are?
CV: Sometimes. You wake up on the bus — and it even happens now, where traveling is a lot nicer than it was before — and we’ve pulled into some truck stop in god knows where. You go in, get something to eat, hop back on the bus, and a few hours later you’re in some new city. It’s just part of the job.
DL: To what extent did you know what the life of a minor leaguer is like when you signed your first contract?
CV: I had no idea. I was going into it completely blind, but I was definitely excited about getting an opportunity to play. You sign and it’s “I play for the Cincinnati Reds now,” but, of course, it actually takes a couple of years to get to the Cincinnati Reds. You have to work your way up, and like I said, it’s not all glitz and glamour.