For those lucky enough to be selected in the MLB Draft, the last few days were the ones they have dreamed about since birth. The media focuses on players who grace the cover of SI at 13 or this year’s renaissance kid that does it all.
Baseball, however, has 40 draft rounds, supplementary picks, international free agents, and a college free agency period; all ways in which amateur players could make it into an MiLB system around this time of the year.
The top picks’ first few days are well documented with camera crews, interviews, and social media updates to ensure the world sees their development in real time.
Let’s focus, however, on the first few days of the hundreds of other players that are under the radar, that only their local coaches and fans can identify. Let’s explore the trajectory of a player who gets drafted in the lower rounds or who gets signed after the draft, and then gets immediately assigned to a Short Season (SS) team.
Keep in mind, these players got drafted on June 13th and their teams will aspire for them to be on the SS Opening Day roster for June 15th. That is no typo. Buckle up.
For the players expected to go in the lower rounds, there are no sponsored gatherings or crafted ‘candid shots’. They are waiting for a phone call from a regional scout right before their pick is made public.
Players that do NOT get drafted eagerly await a call from a scout telling them that that they will get signed. This call usually takes place within a few hours after the draft. Some players have even told me that during the draft, teams have told them they will be signed should nobody draft them.
These players are mostly university graduates with little leverage. A reason high school players command such a high signing bonus is that they have options. They can either be signed for a lot of money by the right team or go to a big school for more exposure and an increased draft position…in theory at least.
No matter when the phone call comes, the content is mostly the same: “Congratulations, we want you to be a part of Team X, we are going to email you a ticket to a flight leaving ASAP to get to our spring training complex. Look forward to meeting you and congratulations again.”
For those that receive the call, their options are either to join the roster for a $500 signing bonus and a plane ticket, or join Wal-Mart e-blasts for good deals on khakis to help them survive in the real world.
That decision seems simple.
Insider secret: Teams that have good relationships with their affiliates, or that own them, will sign local stars to boost PR and attendance.
The Flight to the Spring Training Complex
As quickly as possible, the player will fly out to their MLB club’s spring training complex, get a physical, perhaps work out, and meet some of the staff. That player’s local sports radio station or their university athletic department PR will try and get live footage for an interview player as the player boards the plane or picks up some belongings from his local stadium.
There are many emotional moments as girlfriends, family members, and former coaches and instructors share in that player’s joy and achievements with long hugs and tearful goodbyes.
Players from extended Spring Training and those demoted from A Ball have arrived a few days before to work out. These new players are joining them.
Some teams host an open workout or FanFest for the team a few days before the draft. Once a team intern picks the player up from the airport, teams host a media day where players get uniforms, pictures are taken for the program and videoboard, and players will pester the team’s media intern with specific instructions on which second to start their at-bat music.
Their phone is blowing up with congrats, best wishes and subtle hints at free tickets. To this point in their young career, many of these players have done some local media, and have been the best and most sought after player. This is the first intro to being middle or even bottom of the pack. It could be humbling and a good reality check for those still thinking they should have been drafted in the first round.
Meeting their Housing Family
Later that day, after the team’s first on-field work out, they meet their housing families at a picnic or pick-up session. As I’ve previously mentioned, players that have been to that city before will most likely go back to their housing families.
For the new guys, they meet a new family, new room, new house, and are shown around a new city.
It is here where it starts to kick in for the player that they are in a new place in their life. Remember, they have been going to baseball stadiums their whole lives, have warmed up, worked up, and gone through those motions.
Many of them, however, have never left home, let alone their state or time zone. That said, when they take that one suitcase and unpack it, and then subsequently re-pack for that first game the next day or two, they realize life is different.
If the team starts out on the road, they leave the stadium as early as six am to get to the next city, check into the hotel, maybe have time for a nap or a really quick bite to eat, and then head to the stadium.
Most teams travel in 48 seat busses, so with a 35-man roster, and six coaches and trainers, it is a tight ride. That night’s starting pitcher will usually be allocated a seat of two for themselves, but players struggle to stretch and get comfortable in tight quarters. There, the player will catch up on sleep, his texts, and meet some of his new teammates. Players hate the road trips, but love the camaraderie and bonding that occurs.
A few players have quietly told me that the initial stadium experience is rather underwhelming. These players have been dreaming about the stadium experience their whole lives and instead they walk in to an old, outdated short season stadium. Most short season stadiums are controlled by the city, which means, among other things, they need help being refreshed into the twenty first century.
This is relevant because the stadium’s clubhouses, sound system and infrastructure might not even be better than the high school or small university where a drafted player previously played. They want it to the feel like the big time, but they’re not there quite yet.
The MiLB stadiums that fans see on TV are most likely to be the long season A ball stadiums during Spring Training, or AA or AAA stadiums that pop up showcasing the highlights of a prospect or a rehabbing star.
These players miss out on entering a large and professional clubhouse for the first time, playing in front of a big crowd (with a few exceptions), and having their name announced in front of cheering fans. The latter seems like it would be possible despite small crowds, but these stadiums have antiquated sound systems, so players often can’t hear their own names (the speakers are aimed at the crowd and not the field).
This doesn’t exactly paint a picture worthy of making a movie, but these busy first few days are the tip of an iceberg for what hopefully becomes a long and successful MLB career. Drafted players will have a lot to overcome in their first few years in professional baseball, but none of the transition is perhaps as fast as the first one.
Lead Photo: © Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports