When we think of the Minor Leagues, we tend to focus our attention on the numbers of individual players who could potentially impact their big league ball club. The MLB insiders and Minor League media tweet out the streaking players who are slashing sabermetric lines that make fans excited for the future of their team.
These prodigious players are grinding day-in-and-day-out during their arduous schedule, as they develop their skills and hope to make noise and create a howl from the scouts and the fans about their potential and talent.
The beaten Earth spins itself around the flame-throwing sun, and the baseball culture changes with the times that we all continue to adapt in, as we push forward into our tomorrows.
The romantic feel put forth in Hollywood’s Bull Durham about the life in the Minor Leagues may have (at the time) captured ‘an essence’ of what it’s like to play baseball in the levels that dream of the ‘show’, but it’s far from the truth for these players today.
So if you think that these players ride around in beaten up buses along long strips of worn in highway as they travel to beat up old stadiums in small towns across America - you’re sadly mistaken.
The life on the road for these ballplayers isn’t a poor romantic tale that leads to the big lights and pursuit of the golden flags. But it is romantic in the sense that all these players are on their individual road, which will lead them in different directions, as they play their way to a hopeful career in the MLB, and who knows - maybe even a ‘bobble-head give away day’ at the old Rogers Centre one day too.
Okay so (as we all know) this season Canadian eyes and ears have been tuned into ‘Lansing land’ with excitement and ‘Internet threads’ filled with future is bright thoughts when chiming in on prospects Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, and now Bradley Jones too.
The city of Lansing (the capital of Michigan) mostly rests its borders in the Ingham County of Michigan, and it is home to author and broadcaster of the Lansing Lugnuts, Jesse Goldberg-Strassler, who knows more about this team than any Keegan Matheson ‘Lansing-player-slash-line-tweet’, and I’m not throwing high and inside at Keegan, I love reading these ‘awe’ kind of stat-lines coming from some of these ‘future’ tomorrow Blue Jays stars.
Now one night my mind was in wonder about what life is like in the Minors and what it’s like for these players who are fighting for their baseball careers, so I decided to reach out to Jesse, and he reached back. We had a nice baseball chat over the phone, as we shared some thoughts, and he agreed to help me bring to you a little more than just the metrics and math.
Here’s a little bit about Lansing, the Lugnuts, and Jesse who knows more about this club and its players than even Cesar Martin the Manager of the Lugnuts (okay, well, almost). So let’s cut the hooey and play some word ball with Jesse, so here we go:
Where did the road start for you?
I was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Greenbelt, Maryland. I attended Ithaca College in New York, and went on to work for teams in Brockton, Mass.; Montgomery, Alabama; Crestwood, Ill.; and Lansing. During the offseason, to help support myself, I worked as a substitute teacher in local Maryland elementary schools.
Who was your favourite team as a kid?
Detroit Tigers! I loved Alan Trammell so much. So much.
Where did your passion for baseball come from?
My dad raised me on baseball. I remember reading every book on baseball that I could find, and over and over again. The books I read ragged: Dan Gutman’s “World Series Classics,” Dan Okrent/Steve Wulf’s “Baseball Anecdotes,” Joe Garagiola’s “It’s Anybody’s Ballgame,” Hank Aaron’s biography, Willie Mays’s biography, and Bruce Nash/Allan Zullo’s Halls of Shame. There are likely many books I’m forgetting. I virtually memorized everything I read. And then my grandfather purchased a Baseball Encyclopedia for me, and I set about memorizing it, too.
How long have you been in baseball?
My first season unofficially was in 2003, covering the Baltimore Orioles. My first season officially was 2005 with the independent Brockton Rox, hosting the pregame/postgame (call-in) show. This is my ninth season with the Lugnuts, whom I joined in 2009.
What is it like to cover the Lansing Lugnuts?
It really hit me today, walking around Kane County’s Northwestern Medicine Field and thinking about how much it reminded me of the Bowie Baysox’s Prince George’s Stadium of my youth. I was a kid, going to many Minor League Baseball games every summer, and now I’m working with a Minor League Baseball team on a daily basis, handling the media relations, calling the games, and working personally with the coaches, players, and rovers. It’s amazing. The most important thing, which I need to keep in mind when the summer gets hot and the games drag on, is that I am reminded how much I love this game. Baseball’s beautiful.
Who are some of the players you’ve witnessed before their names made in into the big league lights?
The first big one was Evan Longoria. I was a 24-year-old broadcast assistant with the Montgomery Biscuits, and he had just been drafted by Tampa Bay and sat behind me on the bus. I probably was one of the first people to interview him in the minors. I wonder what happened to that interview… I also sat across from Wade Davis on that same Montgomery team, and I’ve had Jake Marisnick, Noah Syndergaard, Aaron Sanchez, Anthony DeSclafani, Kevin Pillar, and virtually the whole Blue Jays bullpen come through Lansing. (That’s a quick summation.)
What is your perception of life in the Minor Leagues for these players?
These are human beings. Some are quiet, some are loud; some are cool, some uncool; some extroverted, some introverted. Being talented doesn’t mean that a guy is necessarily a good guy, nor does it mean that he’s not a good guy. The idea of a good guy in general is all relative. You can be a good teammate or a bad teammate, a good friend or a bad friend, and a percentage of it is in the eye of the observer. As someone who is married to a proud introvert, I feel like I have an increasing understand of what it means to be introverted – and that can lead to uncomfortable interactions, whether with fans or the media. Heck, take interviews: I know players who are a pleasure to speak with who have a hard time being interviewed, and vice versa.
On another topic: Imagine that you are doing something for a living that you love doing – except now you 1) are being recorded, scrutinized, quantified and evaluated in everything you do, 2) are being told every inch of scientific mechanics that goes into something you’ve always taken for granted, to the point that you’re now thinking about your every breath, let alone every turn of your shoulder, and 3) are confronted with teams who are compiling literature on how best to defeat you. And you have to do this every day, to an exaggerated response: adulation if you do it well, ridicule if you do it poorly.
(I would love to write a satire about the introduction of a metric for analyzing baseball writers. Hey, check it, that last essay was written at only 72.6% word efficiency. It’s good, but it’s not as great as this person writing for that other publication. Are you injured? Are you slumping?)
I say all of this – and I still appreciate all of the work that has gone in to evaluating a player’s effectiveness. It’s important. I just wonder how much it affects the players on a psychological basis, the same way I wonder how releasing polling results affects the voting public. It’s tough for a player to play in a bubble. They hear the criticism. Heck, on the other side, they hear the hype – even when they haven’t yet made it. Or even when they do “make it,” they may rest on their laurels instead of keeping on striving forward. Or they push forward too much and become injured.
There are many nuances, because there are many players.
In conclusion, please see players as individual human beings. Seeing someone as an individual, in my opinion, is a cure for a heck of a lot in society. Then you can judge individually.
Is there a ballpark that you guys can't seem to play well in - like the Trop for the Jays?
No, I don’t think there is. When the Lugnuts have talent, they win. If they do not have talent, or if the other team is loaded, they fall. Talent wins, by and large, and every team goes through highs and lows. Every year, someone catches fire and becomes unbeatable – but the next year, they come back to Earth. There are certain stadiums that we certainly look forward to visiting, such as Fort Wayne’s beautiful Parkview Field, and Dayton’s sold-out Fifth Third Field, because the atmosphere feels Major League. Lansing feels the same way, and can get loud. I think that Cooley Law School Stadium actually presents one of the better home-field advantages in the league.
What fast food joints do the players like to eat at?
Chipotle, without doubt. Jimmie Johns is a favorite when it comes to ordering food to the ballpark. But Chipotle is the No. 1 option.
What are the ‘go-to’ movies on the bus?
Because of Netflix/smartphones/etc., players can all watch whatever they please on the road. Netflix binging is popular, as players work their way through “Shameless” or “The Office” or “Walking Dead” or whatever happens to be on the agenda. It makes the bus rides go much quicker. The televisions on the bus, meanwhile, are tuned to either the MLB Network or whatever good movies happen to be on, which provide fun diversions. Games on phones (golf games, for instance) are very popular.
Is Vladimir Guerrero Jr. a real human or an engineered baseball robot?
He’s loveable, an 18-year-old who’s a bona fide celebrity, drawing autograph seekers in throngs. He’s also a well-liked teammate who loves playing baseball and is aspiring to reach the highest level, wanting to be just as good as (or better than) his father at baseball. And he’s a tremendously skilled hitter, who leaves onlookers in awe at his acumen. He’s only 18, and yet he’s so advanced.
How about a little insight on how you see these players develop their skills? What has stood out the most to you about some of these stars that are in Lansing from the mental/physical/skill side of their game?
The top skills that stand out to me, beyond speed or power, are a player’s work ethic, discipline, and ability to stay even-keeled through the worst of slumps. Baseball tests your mental toughness. The players who can withstand that test are the most likely to succeed down the road. An example: Justin Maese allowed 11 hits and five runs in seven innings in a start. I asked him afterward what his self-assessment was. He said he felt it went great, that he executed just as he wanted to, even if the results didn’t indicate it. That’s exactly the attitude a player needs to have, the ability to self-judge beyond what the stats say. The stats in Lansing don’t matter, only the player’s growth matters. And it’s been a constant that the player who works the hardest in improving his strength and conditioning is the player who sees the most success. (Kendall Graveman in 2014, for instance.) A player has to commit himself off the field in order to succeed on the field.
If you were a Canadian wanting to go to Lansing to go check out and watch some of these elite prospects, what's the best hotel to stay at? Breakfast joint to eat at? And local Lansing spot to see?
I suggest the Radisson first, since it’s directly downtown. East Lansing has plenty of hotel options, too. My favorite breakfast joint is the Golden Harvest, where they only accept cash and make you wait outside until they personally bring you in. The food is delicious and at a great price. I also highly recommend The Soup Spoon Café, down the road from the stadium. As far as sightseeing goes, I recommend walking around Old Town, with its awesome restaurants (“Meat!”) and art galleries. There’s also the Riverwalk Trail, the state capitol building, and Michigan State University’s campus (with the Broad Art Museum).
So there you have it folks, I want to thank Jesse for taking the time to hurl some perspective at the Great North who read about these stars playing ball in this Lansing community. I think this city might be a fun little ‘hoser’ summer family trip for some of you ‘double-double’ sipping Canadians who are only a couple hours worth of road away. Go take a look at these young stars in person, as they grow into the dreams they’ve always had.