Yesterday afternoon a tweet appeared in my mentions, more or less out of the blue, about a particularly impressive crop of former college baseball players in last night’s game between the Lakeland Flying Tigers and the Brevard County Manatees.
That shouldn’t be too surprising, considering that most good SEC players will find their way to High-A sooner or later, and the Flying Tigers are the Florida State League affiliate of the Detroit Tigers, who have pretty much drafted all my favorite college players over the past few years: In 2014 alone they picked up South Carolina catcher Grayson Greiner and his teammate Joey Pankake, whose three years in Columbia I followed and chronicled obsessively. They added Vanderbilt pitcher Adam Ravenelle and Virginia pitcher Artie Lewicki, both College World Series standouts that year, in the same draft, and a year later picked up Tennessee outfielder Christin Stewart and TCU pitcher Tyler Alexander with their first two picks in 2015, then added LSU catcher Kade Scivicque in the fourth.
All seven of those players are now in Lakeland, where last night they beat the Manatees 3-0 in front of an announced crowd of 704.
Brevard County is 3-16, despite the presence of even more of my college favorites: South Carolina and Miami infielder George Iskenderian played second for the Manatees, alongside Jose Cuas, who was until recently the primary source of power in Maryland’s lineup, and Dustin DeMuth, who reached base in 45 straight games while hitting behind Sam Travis and Kyle Schwarber at Indiana in 2014.
Following college baseball is kind of a bittersweet affair, because when a player you’ve seen a lot of—Schwarber’s a good example—goes to the big leagues and succeeds, you know that for every Schwarber there are five Justin Smoaks—otherworldly college players who turn into mediocre big leaguers—and dozens of others who never make it at all.
As a baseball fan, the opposing player who scared me the most was a University of Florida pitcher named Hudson Randall. Randall was a tall, skinny right-hander with a furious crop of red hair and an 88 mph fastball that he could throw wherever, whenever and however he wanted. He made college hitters look like children, and I have no idea how anyone ever hit him.
That’s going to happen to at least some of the guys who played in Lakeland last night, and to countless other college stars I’ve loved to watch over the years. They go pro after their junior year and are never heard from again.
I didn’t set foot in a major-league stadium until I was 14 years old—it cost a lot of money to take a family of five to a Phillies game, even back in the days of the Vet, and my parents, who liked baseball well enough but didn’t obsess over it, never made it a priority.
So my first taste of professional baseball came at Harbor Park, home of the Norfolk Tides, then the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate. We’d go down to Virginia several times a year to see family, and if the Tides were in town, we’d catch a game. I was 8 or 9 years old at the time, and while I knew there was some dropoff in quality from the big leagues to even a good Triple-A team, which the Tides were in the mid-90s, I figured that the players I saw in front of me would all make good in the big leagues.
Back home, I had a piece of plywood with a strike zone painted on it. My mom drilled holes near the corners so I could anchor a bungee cord to it and set it up against a tree in the backyard and throw tennis balls at it, pretending that it was 15 years in the future and that I was a big-league pitcher. The opposing lineup always had a bunch of would-be former Tides.
My first trip to Harbor Park, my aunt told me to watch out for Butch Huskey—he was leading the International League in home runs, and that night I saw him hit one of his eventual 28 dingers. I thought he’d end up as the Mets’ cleanup hitter, which he did, for 77 games.
I remember Paul Wilson being the first top prospect I recognized as such at the time—I don’t remember how he did the night I saw him pitch, but I knew that he was supposed to be at the top of the Mets’ rotation soon. He started their third game in 1996 and allowed three runs in six innings. His ERA didn’t drop below 5.00 at any point after that for four years.
Most of the big names on those Tides teams grew into at least competent big leaguers—Melvin Mora, Matt Franco, Benny Agbayani—but apart from Jason Isringhausen, who needed several years in the wilderness and a move to the bullpen, none of them became stars.
The one that hurt most was Alex Ochoa. I loved Alex Ochoa—he looked so much like a ballplayer ought to look, as evidenced by his four appearances on the Baseball America top 100 list. His name sounded like a ballplayer’s name—the PA announcer could roll into it and hop aboard the stress on the middle syllable of his last name like that one jump on the Mine Cart Carnage level of Donkey Kong: “Now batting … the right fielderrrrr … number 22 … AL-ex o-CHO-a!”
He sprayed line drives around the park like a landscaper absentmindedly walking his power washer over a patch of sidewalk, and when he wanted to, he could make the entire stadium go “Ooooh” when he threw the ball.
He was indescribably cool. I wanted the Mets to trade him so I could still root for him once he got called up to the big leagues. Which they did, eventually, sending him to Baltimore for Rich Becker in 1997. Ochoa was a decent fourth outfielder for the better part of a decade—about an average hitter without much of a platoon split, and a good enough defender to play center in a pinch, he played for six teams over eight big-league seasons.
The arm played, and he got to double-digit homers once, and hit 30 doubles once, and hit .300 twice, but he was a terrible percentage basestealer, and just not enough of a power threat to hold down an outfield corner at the turn of the century. It’s a big gap from Triple-A to the majors.
Millions of kids dream of being star baseball players, and from the time they first pick up a ball, the next 20 years represent a set of leaps—gaps that you have to jump over in order to make it to the big leagues. Some get all the way to the majors but can’t get off the bench. Others flame out at Triple-A Norfolk, or High-A Lakeland, or at the University of Florida, or in high school, or while throwing a tennis ball against a piece of plywood in the backyard. At every step, players are culled from the herd and forgotten, until Major League Baseball is a game played by survivors of attrition.
The attrition rate is, in a way, what makes pro baseball great. It ensures the quality of the game at the highest level. It separates the wheat from the chaff. Just don’t get too attached to the chaff.
 To Detroit. No, I am not secretly the Tigers’ scouting director, much as Occam’s Razor might make it look so.
 The throwing arm thing is no figment of my faulty childhood memory—I brought up Ochoa on Twitter a couple years ago and got almost liturgically reflexive responses about how good his arm was.