On July 20, 2013, the Everett Aquasox defeated the Boise Hawks in a midseason Northwest League game. On the club’s way back to the team hotel, the players learned that the Vancouver Canadians had lost earlier that night, giving Everett the first half championship and a ticket to the playoffs. Players roared in celebration and broadcaster Pat Dillon snapped a photo of the happy ball club.
Not everybody was elated, however. Toward the back of the bus, a few teammates shared a quiet conversation. “Aren’t you guys excited?” a player asked, joining in. “Nah, not really,” one responded. “Now we have to go to the playoffs.”
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Most baseball fans tacitly understand that there will always be a few players who don’t really care whether they win the games they play or not. In the minds of the common fan, these are the clubhouse cancers of the sport, men saddled with a sickness of character. Such an illness, the thinking goes, can either be corrected when exposed to the right blend of personalities or shuffled elsewhere if the behavior proves immutable. The fragile assumption that the pursuit of victory is a motivation shared by the vast majority of the league’s players goes largely unquestioned.
At the major-league level, this makes some sense. The players on the field during a major-league game have graduated from the ranks of the malnourished and underpaid. Their team’s express goal is to win games, and players are compensated handsomely to help achieve that objective. There are also powerful incentives for an individual to play well and ultimately help his team: young players dread the thought of returning to the minors, while veterans often have performance-based incentives in their contracts. Even the most selfish player can recognize that a successful team lifts all boats. Better teams will attract more All-Star Game appearances, more awards, and more opportunities for personal glory in the playoffs and World Series. Ultimately, players at the big-league level have a strong impetus to win, whether they personally care about their teammates or not, and a fan at a major-league game can reasonably assume that most of the athletes on the field are emotionally invested in the outcome of the game beyond the ramifications for their own personal statistics.
Minor-league games, on the other hand, are played on a much different landscape, and the same assumption doesn’t hold. Many minor leaguers view their teams as stepping stones, and understandably their focus is on improving their skills so that they can graduate through the system. Additionally, it’s rare for a minor leaguer to spend more than a year or two in the same town. The brevity of a player’s tenure in a particular place robs him of the chance to connect with the city and his teammates, and it can be difficult for a player to care about the league standings when he might be somewhere else in a week or two. There’s very little enduring loyalty from a player toward his team in the minor leagues.
Moreover, team success can potentially be harmful to individuals competing with teammates for playing time and promotions. Often, players will fight for playing time with someone a few lockers over, a recipe for conflict and a difficult situation for coaches and players to keep calm over the course of a long season. Someone may find himself battling with a teammate from a different culture, one who may not speak the same language, and whose sensibilities or mannerisms might be offensive. It’s a potentially toxic environment—particularly if cliquish minor-league clubhouses fracture along geographical or racial lines—and the tension is exacerbated by long bus rides, poor nutrition, cramped living quarters, and small salaries. It’s not hard to see how winning games soon becomes a tertiary concern for everybody involved.
Often, there is also an acclimation period for new professionals adjusting from the amateur game, where team successes are wildly celebrated and selfish players often find themselves isolated in the clubhouse. Former Royals farmhand Nathan Johnson was one player who found the transition jarring at first.
“Losing doesn’t sit well with me, just being the competitor that I am,” Johnson said. “And I had a couple of players on my teams openly say they didn’t want to win so we would miss the playoffs and go home early.”
Over the course of the year, that initial recalcitrance towards winning grew into something more cynical.
“Those same players were the ones that would openly root for teammates to not get hits or to give up runs when it was someone else’s turn to pitch,” Johnson added.
It was difficult for him to play with his more combative teammates, who added a layer of animosity to an already competitive environment, and he found that their disinterest in team success harmed clubhouse morale.
Colin Young, a former farmhand in the Rockies organization, estimates that about half of his teammates felt indifferent about winning, a stance that inherently isolated them from less insularly-focused players.
“It was the prima donnas that didn’t care,” Young said. “The types that were always told they were great and never had to fight for a spot to play.”
Everybody strives for personal success, of course, but nobody likes hanging around guys who only care about number one.
“Teammates love guys that want to win,” Young continued. “It makes everyone better, it’s infectious. Indifferent attitudes will make the whole season drag and feel like slow hell.”
Not all indifference toward winning is created equal.
“I hated losing games no matter what,” Johnson says. “But I’d be lying if I said that the games I pitched in didn’t mean more to me than games where I just sat in the bullpen.”
That’s only natural, and it should probably be expected, especially in a developmental setting. Johnson also adds that, to some extent, players also have to learn how to lose in a whole new light. In college and high school, games are much more sporadic, and individual defeats are bound to sting.
“When it comes to professional baseball, when you are playing every day, you have to get over losses and come back to the park ready to play again the next day,” Johnson stated.
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It was about an hour before game time on a warm August night, and the dog days of summer had arrived in Everett. Fewer players were showing up for early work with each passing day. Conversations around the batting cage, once heavily focused on baseball, had shifted toward post-season plans and fantasy football draft talk. I was feeling the weight of the season too. As an intern, I had spent the past few weeks pouring over whatever footage I could grab from the Mariners video library, studying the club’s prospects throughout the system. On this night though, I was checking Twitter, Gmail, and Facebook while nibbling at the pregame spread in the coaches’ wing of a quiet clubhouse.
Suddenly, the silence broke, “VSL and DSL won today boys! We’re 2-0 today!” The booming voice belonged to pitching coach Rich Dorman, who gave a high five to manager Rob Mummau, celebrating wins for Seattle’s Venezuelan and Dominican summer league teams.
“Dime (dee-may), Raffy, dime!” he says to hitting coach Rafael Santo Domingo, a sort of catch all phrase he often shared exuberantly with the bilingual coach. “Dime!” filled the air for a few seconds. Even I joined in, drawing a laugh or two, before everyone went back to their business of the hour.
If there’s a group in the baseball world largely immune to burnout, it’s minor-league coaches. They’ve been through the grind as players before, and they have the special kind of mindset required to voluntarily sign up for the long rides, one-horse towns, and low upward mobility toward the major leagues for a second time. They are quintessential baseball men: sunburnt, motivated, and ever-present. They don’t use sick days, and they’ll spend the whole summer prodding kids less than half their age to develop good habits and to get better. ‘Put down the Pepsi.’ ‘Get into the video room.’ ‘Make sure you’re doing your lifting.’
Coaches are also very competitive people. It takes more than just a good company man to get a kick out of the Venezuelan affiliate’s success, particularly considering how often a coach will bounce between organizations from year to year. For many of them, their drive to win remains an inextinguishable part of their character long after their playing days are over. Where there’s a minor-league game, there are coaches who want to win it, and the players know that. Major-league teams treat their coaching staff’s wiring as an invaluable resource for their minor leaguers, and they rely upon them to foster a winning mentality from the ground up. There’s no music in the clubhouse after a loss, and managers will sometimes impose team-wide punishments—such as requiring pants instead of shorts for batting practice attire—following a stretch of poor play. Players may have their eye on the big leagues, but coaching staffs can turn winning into a carrot too.
For many organizations, developing a winning attitude is particularly important in the lower levels of the minor leagues. Young experienced the best of this when he played for Dave Collins in the Carolina League.
“Dave was the best manager I ever had,” said Young. “He emphasized the importance of team and winning. We had a prospect heavy team, with Matt Holliday and Aaron Cook, and instilling a winning mentality was very important to Dave.”
Young said that he and other players on that team found that the team-oriented culture under Collins created a more inclusive clubhouse. “We wound up winning the championship because everyone pulled their own weight. It was the one team I played on where everyone felt like they were on the same level as the prospects.”
The extent to which clubhouse chemistry can instill a ‘team-first’ attribute in young players is debatable, but a healthy appreciation and respect for one’s teammates can certainly make a minor-league clubhouse a better place to learn and develop.
While all clubs would prefer that their teams win rather than lose, some place more value on that side of the game than others. One National League scout I spoke with de-emphasized the importance of winning minor-league games.
“Our club is focused primarily on development,” the scout said. “The teams that tell Baseball America how good their system is by referring to won-loss records usually have problems in the big leagues.”
To him, and many similarly minded people in the industry, winning is a by-product of a healthy farm system, but not a primary objective in itself.
But some executives feel pressure to win in the minor leagues from an unexpected source: the owner’s box.
“General managers and farm directors know that the owners read prospect rankings, and then put pressure on them to win in the lower levels,” a former NL executive says. It isn’t always easy to explain to upper management why an organization’s minor-league won-loss record is largely independent from the strength of their prospects, or that winning games makes a poor substitute for skill development. Appeasing ownership essentially becomes one of the main drivers for winning in the minor leagues. “It helps the GM sell the owner that they have great players coming.”
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On the penultimate day of Everett’s 2013 season, I sat behind the charters for the Spokane Indians (these are the pitchers tasked with recording pitch locations, movement, and results from the stands). Charters are generally stoic. At most, they’ll offer their teammate quiet words of encouragement in difficult innings, or before crucial pitches. Spokane’s, by contrast, were uncharacteristically enthusiastic, and loudly cheered each strikeout as if they were fans. I figured they were just good friends with the starter at first, but as the game wore on, and they greeted their team’s first run with similar gusto, I realized what was happening: Spokane needed a win to remain in playoff contention and these two pitchers were very invested in getting there.
Alas, it wasn’t Spokane’s year. One of the charters emitted an audible, “No!” above the crowd noise when Chantz Mack homered to give Everett the lead in the bottom of the eighth. He looked similarly despondent after Marcus Greene’s groundout ended Spokane’s playoff ambitions an inning later. Seeing such passionate reactions was strange, and at first, I didn’t know what to make of the cheering. I suspect that some of the scouts and front office members in our section found their behavior unprofessional.
Over time though, I’ve come to appreciate their rooting. There are plenty of dynamics in play at a minor-league baseball game, many of which detract from the contest itself. There are players who don’t care what happens, and guys who actively want their teammates to play poorly. Managers often punt in-game strategy—there’s very little pinch hitting or situational match-ups, particularly at the lower levels—to ensure that everybody gets to play regularly. Farm directors think nothing of recalling the best player from a minor-league team in the heat of a pennant race. Even the organizations that want their farm teams to win do so under the pretext that “learning to win” will pay off for the big-league club in the long run. The games often feel like a sideshow, a vehicle for talent development at a subsidized cost.
For those two pitchers though, winning meant the world on that particular day, and there’s some comfort in that. Baseball is a much less satisfying game to watch if played uncompetitively. It was nice to see that winning can be an end in itself, even if it was nothing more than a minor-league game on a Sunday afternoon in September.
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