Geography isn't always the sole dictator of distance. This is particularly true in minor league baseball stadiums, especially the ones that sit almost tauntingly close to their major-league counterparts. The Kane County Cougars, single-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks, play their games at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark in Geneva, Illinois, an outer suburb of Chicago that lies somewhere around 50 miles from Wrigley Field—an hour drive on a good day, or a trip on two commuter trains. But sitting in either dugout and mulling how best to approach baseball players who are barely drinking age, or standing on the mound facing other players fresh out of the amateur ranks, those 50 miles become relative. Sure, they could easily make the drive or take the Metra to the Red Line and hop off at the iconic stop on Addison Street, but they’re still not really there.
Professional baseball’s minor league system is a crucible that tests the fortitude and passion of players and coaches alike, leaving only an opportune few to summit the highest peak. The hoped-for outcome of time spent there is the same for every player, but for most of them, the distance will never be closed. In stadiums where it’s as much about the spectacle as the game, where the stands usually only fill when it’s dollar beer night in the middle of summer, these players are honing a craft that they hope will get them there, even if just briefly. Getting through this crucible requires a learned humility. These players were all the best in their little leagues, the best in their high schools, even the best in their colleges. More often than not, they’re facing equal competition for the first time, and that requires something beyond just filling up a stat sheet in order to succeed. Some bloom of self-belief has to be there, otherwise the mire of team buses and bad hotels separates the wheat from the chaff.
For minor league pitchers, this self-belief can come in part from the experience of pitches that don’t often fail them and the devotion to putting in the work to ensure that that ‘go-to’ pitch is always an ally. When those things don’t work, even temporarily, a well-tested minor league pitching coach might do the trick. In Kane County, that’s Rich Sauveur, whose value comes in part from his own journey through the minor leagues, both as a player and as a coach.
Sauveur can claim a total of 46 innings logged in the majors, and they are spread across six seasons that stretch from 1986 to 2000. His minor-league career is a labyrinthine path from his selection in the 11th round by Pittsburgh in 1983 to his eventual retirement after pitching a single inning for the Oakland Athletics in a 21-3 rout of Kansas City on June 18, 2000. That’s nearly two decades spent toiling at all levels and in every corner of the county – places like Nashua, Harrisburg, and Sacramento – with only sporadic call-ups along the way to confirm his self-confidence. He’s since spent almost as many years at various stops in the minor leagues fighting to get back there again, but this time as a pitching coach. This has brought him to Kane County, where he’s currently charged with overseeing a step in the development of pitching prospects like Alex Young and Ryan Burr.
For pitchers like Young and Burr, both of whom are in their first seasons of full-season ball, the distance is still great. Well-versed in that plight, Sauveur can easily place himself in their shoes. I recently spoke to Sauveur at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark before a game against the Burlington Bees. When reflecting on his experiences of working to “make it”—both as a player and as a pitching coach—Sauveur said, “You still have to put up results,” which was an unsurprising, if not bland, answer. But he paused for a second, and while sitting with me in the empty seats about two hours before the Cougars were scheduled to play Burlington, I could see him flipping through the memories of past years spent hoping those results were enough. Then he added, “and you need to know somebody—you need to have somebody in your corner. It’s kind of like that as a player. Somebody’s gotta like you in order to keep a uniform on your back.” And that’s probably true. Some players come with pedigree, and some are 11th– rounders who just won’t give up. What keeps a non-pedigreed 11th-rounder at it for so long, though? I asked him about this, and it’s as simple as you might think: “Well, just the love of the game, you know, not to steal the quote from a fucking movie, but that’s what it is. I love this game, man. I’ll spend up to the last minute of my life out on the field if I can.” Minor league baseball tried to grind him out of the game a long time ago, but he wouldn’t have it. Only healthy self-belief can drive someone through so many years just beneath the surface of major league baseball.
For every guy like Sauveur who makes a life of it no matter what, plenty are left with difficult decisions when baseball doesn’t shine back on them. David Andriese, who spent two seasons in short-season ball in the Pirates system and was met with a release in 2015, chose family, in his case a new wife, over trying out for other teams or independent ball. “It’s not an easy decision giving up something that I love and have done my whole life, but I knew it was the best decision to make at the time,” Andriese shared with me via email. He added, too, that he’s not necessarily done with baseball, but it might just look a little different. “Baseball will always be a part of my life in one way or another, I guess it’s just in a different role in different times in life,” he shared, alluding that he envisions himself coaching his kids when that time comes. It’s the same passion that drives Sauveur, but manifested in a different outlet. As a player, Andriese was no stranger to the hard work, putting more time in the cage than what was required and asking his coaches to throw him a few extra grounders. But a wife across the country and the paycheck of a 30th-rounder meant he had to be practical when that release came. Amidst the flair of between-inning entertainment just yards away from the players who are warming up for the next inning, many are wrestling with choices like the one Andriese had to make.
As for Sauveur, who stood in the same shoes decades ago, he still has results to put up now, though not of the same type that he did back then. Alex Young, one of Arizona’s top pitching prospects, was recently promoted to High-A Visalia after just 50 innings in Kane County, so perhaps Sauveur’s results are there. I was able to catch Young just before this promotion, and he vouched for the challenges of transitioning from college baseball to the pros. “It’s just playing so many more games than you do in college. And people don’t realize how much more stress it puts on your arm just because you’re throwing every day, you’re throwing bullpen two days after, three days after you just started.” Young has ridden the success of his curveball so far, a pitch that he knows requires intricate mechanics. He works on keeping his hand over the ball, not turning his wrist, and relying on a grip that’s worked for him since high school. When he strays from this grip, he said his curveball becomes “a spinning fastball.”
We stood outside the stadium about a hundred yards from a line of fans waiting for the gates to open (because it’s Kyle Schwarber bobblehead night). Young pantomimed this motion for me, showing the difference between a wrist that’s turned in and one that’s over the ball like he wants it to be. In that spot, it looks simple, but even the most basic movements in any sport require constant repetition to hone them and a willingness to keep at it even when the ultimate reward is still so far away.
There’s something to be said, too, for confidence in that “go-to” pitch as well, and Young knows this. In his case, that confidence comes from experiences like standing on the biggest stage in college baseball and trusting his hook to miss the bat of a future number-one overall pick. With a bit of a grin Young recalled that moment: “When I was in the World Series last year, we were playing Vanderbilt, and I was facing Dansby Swanson and I had a 2-2 count on him, and he probably knew, and I knew that I was throwing a curveball in that count. And I struck him out, and I just knew that I could get him out with it.”
Young’s counterpart, Ryan Burr, expresses similar confidence, but in his fastball. For him, it comes from success in big-game situations, and the feeling drawn from his experiences to this point that he can use the heater whenever it’s needed. “I just feel like I can play my fastball up to anybody that I face.” Even at just 22-years-old, Burr has seen enough of what his fastball can do to know that it is the pitch that guides all the rest.
Confidence carries a lot of weight, though it’s harder to measure than things like pitch mechanics and grip. Sauveur has seen plenty of this, and as a coach, he’s tasked with sometimes just encouraging his players. “I’ve seen through the years where a guy could have the best stuff in the world, but he doesn’t have the confidence in himself, he’s not really – he’s not good,” he says. It seems simplistic, but for pitchers, there’s not always the advantage that hitters have of being able to head back to the batter’s box after a bad day at the plate.
With this in mind, I asked Sauveur about what weighs on pitchers the most, expecting something relating to the travel schedule, being away from family and home, or maybe the part about it being the first time facing such a long schedule. But the answer, instead, came down to failure. The kind that threatens self-belief. “When you have a bad outing. A starter, it’s five days before he pitches again. So for four days, that outing lives with him. A reliever, if they have a bad outing, their bad outings are magnified because they’ve only thrown one inning. Starters threw five innings and had a bad outing, this guy threw one out, maybe two outs and had a bad outing, so it’s magnified that much more.” He added something else, too, hinting at an element that doesn’t get reflected on a stat sheet. “The thing that wears on Triple-A players more than anything is when guys get called up in front of them. That’s a huge, huge downfall for guys. They hate it when they see a guy go up in front of them that they don’t believe should be going up. That kills Triple-A guys. You see the attitude change, it’s like an on/off switch.” Even in recent years as a pitching coach, Sauveur has pushed through similar frustration. He spent seven years as the pitching coach at Triple-A Pawtucket, hoping to get the call to work for the Red Sox, only to have to move on and start over in Kane County. Like his days as a pitcher, sometimes someone else gets the call. But he keeps going, because he wants to get there again. Speaking of the players he now coaches, but easily also of himself, he said, “You just have to say, ‘alright, let me do what I can control.’ Don’t worry about other things, don’t worry about anything negative. Negative stuff is strong. If you let it in, it’ll eat you alive.”
The players, then, are sometimes left to trust the organization that employs them—an altogether different confidence than what they can control on the field. Joe Gatto, one of the top pitching prospects in the Angels system, summed that up. “It’s understanding the organization. Trust them and understand that they have the best process to get there.” Gatto shared this with me following a game in Kane County, and standing outside the visitors’ clubhouse, he also laid out what many of us probably suspect about these players: “In the grand scheme of things it’s all about the final product. Everyone in the minor leagues wants to make it to the big leagues. Everyone. I don’t care who you ask, that’s everyone’s goal.” For as much as it’s about the microcosm of fine-tuning mechanics, developing consistency, staying healthy, and putting up results, it’s about getting The Call, making it to The Show, getting there. Neither pitchers nor their coaches will get there without the belief that they will, and the persistence to keep pushing back when baseball pushes them. Sauveur put it this way, “If you want it bad enough, you stick it out.”