By: Josh Jackson
Anybody who is involved in Minor League Baseball knows that there is a certain theme affiliated with the sport. It does not matter if you are a player, a coach, a front office employee, or a lowly intern such as myself. Everyone is trying to push themselves to the next level, however possible. This concept especially pertains to me, as a recent college graduate currently seeking full-time employment, as the competition in the industry doesn’t exclusively take place on the baseball diamond. Of course, this is what I expected when I started my internship back in February, but I did not get to fully experience the fluidity of the industry until taking a trip with the team to Sacramento.
The June 17th game against the Sacramento River Cats marked the beginning of the 2011 edition of what is known as the Highway 99 showdown series. It also represented my first experience on the road with a professional baseball team. I sat in the press box during the game and really tried to take everything in. It was a beautiful day at Raley Field, and I was admiring the performance of Grizzlies starter Matt Yourkin, who was having another solid outing. At a certain point during the game, River Cats Media Relations Director Rebecca Brutlag peered through her binoculars as she saw an unfamiliar figure warming up in the Sacramento bullpen. “Who the heck is that warming up in our bullpen?” she asked to the press box at large. I turned to my boss, Director of Media Relations with the Grizzlies, and he jokingly replied, “It’s probably Doug Mathis.”
Doug Mathis had opted out of his contract with the Fresno Grizzlies just two days prior. Despite six quality starts in 13 appearances as a Grizzly, Mathis was never able to find the win column for a variety of reasons. Anyone who paid any attention to the season that Doug Mathis was having in Fresno would be understanding of his frustration and the decision he made. Mathis needed a new start in order to get to where he wanted to be.
So as it turns out, we looked through the binoculars and confirmed that the right-hander warming up in the home bullpen was none other than Mathis himself. We eventually found out that Mathis had been signed by the Oakland A’s and was set to be placed on the Sacramento roster. Mathis made no appearance that day, but the sighting of one of our best pitchers in a rival uniform served as a wake-up call. It showed me just how quickly things could change on a day-to-day basis.
The situation became even more of a reality when we were down in the River Cats clubhouse the next day. As I waited for my boss to finish an interview with Major League rehabber Mark Ellis, I stood just a few feet away from Mathis, who was wearing a Sacramento River Cats warm-up shirt. He sat there quietly as he ate the food provided to the players. Guys were coming up to him and introducing themselves, which drove home the fact that Mathis was still a stranger in the clubhouse. None of it seemed out of the ordinary, though. It was evident that scenarios like this are played out on a constant basis.
After the near no-hit performance put on by the Grizzlies pitching staff that day, we headed back to the hotel in downtown Sacramento. As we walked into a lounge area near the lobby, we noticed a few of the Grizzlies players and coaches sitting at a table, sharing food and cocktails. It took me a second to realize it, but Mathis had joined the group. This was not shocking to me by any means, however being a witness to the scene reminded me of my recent college experiences.
The baseball world is just like one big fraternity- everyone seems to be connected to each other in one way or another. In fact, we ran into Grizzlies reliever Geno Espineli and River Cats reliever Joe Bateman at a local Irish Pub later on that night. The two pitchers had played together at Double-A Connecticut when Bateman was still with the Giants organization. We sat and talked about baseball in general and what it was like to work in the sport from each of our own perspectives.
At one point in the conversation, Espineli made a statement that I felt was really representative of what playing at the minor league level is all about. “It’s crazy how much players move around. Everywhere I go, I’ll run into people I used to play with and I’ll be like, ‘Wow, you’re playing here now?’ It’s just crazy how often it happens.”
Bateman was also venting his frustration that comes with the strenuous environment of the minors. After a couple of drinks, it was hard for an athlete like himself to conceal his competitive nature. “I just feel like I deserve a shot. I should at least get the chance,” he explained. Bateman got off to a good start in the beginning of the year, but has struggled as of late. He did, however, strike out four Grizzly batters over two innings the previous day. Bateman seemed overly eager throughout the conversation, and at one point he had inquired to see if we had heard his name get brought up in any trade rumors. We laughed and joked about it even though his request was somewhat serious. The conversation eventually ended and I returned back to the hotel having gained a new perspective on the world of baseball.
In business school, we always talked about the importance of developing good contacts and maintaining healthy professional relationships along the way. I saw over that weekend that this is not a foreign concept in professional sports, regardless of how you are affiliated with the industry. What I learned and experienced could not necessarily be achieved in a classroom setting, I had to see it for myself. I don’t know if there is any real conclusion to a baseball story, but I am excited to say that my story is just beginning.