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Minor Reward: Farmhands get big league glimpse
03/25/2013 5:59 PM ET
 

PEORIA, Ariz. -- No one wants to be called into Randy Johnson's office. Not now. Not toward the end of Spring Training. You end up in the office of the Minor League field coordinator this time of year and it's usually bad news.

So you can imagine the surprise 25-year-old Minor League infielder Adam Buschini received on Sunday morning when he was called into Johnson's office, where Randy Smith, the Padres vice player of player development, was waiting for him.

With a solemn face, Smith broke the news to Buschini.

"I like the way you've been going about it," Smith said. "So this is a little reward for you."

Buschini, who played independent baseball the last two seasons to keep his dream alive before spending last winter playing in Australia, smiled and let out a sigh of relief.

"It's a great feeling," Buschini said.

The "reward" that Smith referred to the opportunity to skip a game day on the Minor League back fields, where the crowds are sparse -- wives, girlfriends and scouts and, well, that's about it -- to join the Major League team for an afternoon as an extra player. He was joined by outfielder Mallex Smith.

Buschini and Smith couldn't be more different. Buschini is exactly six years older than Smith (May 6) and is the more reserved of the two. Smith, 19, was a fifth-round Draft choice. He's a chatterbox and smiles a lot. On this day, he has a good reason to.

For one day, Buschini and Smith share a common bond: They get to be big leaguers, with Buschini wearing No. 92 and Smith pulling on a blue jersey, No. 91

If you've ever been to a Spring Training game, you've probably seen players like Buschini and Smith. It's typically late in the game when they get to play. Don't bother looking for a name on the jersey, because it's not there. The numbers run in the 90s, more suitable for defensive linemen than baseball players.

So how does this happen anyway? How do these players who aren't on the radar of the big league team for 2013 get a chance to sit in a big league dugout and, as the case was Sunday for Smith, to play in a Major League Spring Training game?

First, there's a need.

San Diego manager Bud Black huddled early in the coach's office with bench coach Rick Renteria to see if the team would require any "extra" players for the game against the Brewers. On some days, the need is pitching, an extra catcher. Maybe it's simply a few warm bodies for reinforcements.

"One outfielder, one infielder and one bat," Renteria told Black.

Armed with this information, Black snakes his way through the home clubhouse in Peoria, a shortcut he takes nearly every morning. He walked through the laundry room, through the Minor League equipment office and passes a room full of Minor Leaguers who are eating breakfast.

Many of these players have no idea who Black is. But two are about to.

Black steps into Johnson's office and pulls up a chair. Smith pulls out a piece of paper to take notes with.

"Can we get one outfielder, one infielder and one bat?" Black asked.

Smith had a few ideas, one being Mallex Smith, who appeared in a game for the Padres last week and actually stole a base.

"He can fly," Randy Smith said of his namesake.

Before Black heads back to his office, he informed Smith that the team could need a few extra bodies on this day.

"We can call you as the game goes on if we need more," Black said.

It's not uncommon, especially when the team is playing in Peoria, for Minor League players to arrive on a cart during the game. Nick Hundley calls it a day after five innings? Send over another catcher. Maybe a pitcher can't get through an inning? Send over another arm.

Once Black is gone, Smith summoned Mallex Smith to the office where he tells him the good news, just as he did a week ago. That time, Smith's mother, Loretta, was visiting from Florida. After telling his mom the good news, he returned to his locker and saw the jersey hanging there.

"I was excited. I didn't know what to think," he said. "I was like a kid in a candy store."

Once the players are told, Randy Smith gives the information to Zach Nelson, the Padres' Minor League clubhouse and equipment manager. Nelson pulls out a yellow post-it note, writing down the names of the players who will play in the big league game that day.

Next up, Nelson and Kyle Ross, the assistant Minor League clubhouse manager, sort through available jerseys for players to wear that day.

"It's really just based on size," Nelson said. "The lower 90s numbers are the smaller ones. It all depends on how big the guys are. Every now and then you'll see a little guy wearing a number in the high 90s."

Nelson, who somehow keeps track of every Minor Leaguer in the system in his head, gets the highlight of his day -- hanging a big league jersey in the locker of a player.

Players in the Minor League clubhouse see Nelson coming and move aside. Everyone wants to see who is getting a jersey. Everyone wants one for themselves, even if it's for one day.

"It's one of my favorite parts of my day," Nelson said. "When you're in there, walking by with a big league jersey, the guys have a smile on their faces."

Buschini and Smith go through morning drills with their Minor League teams before gathering at the main complex for lunch. Instead of heading to the backfields, they dress for the Padres game against Milwaukee, which will be played at the adjacent Peoria Sports Complex.

Before the game, Black -- who in many cases has never met these players before, let alone seen them play -- made a point to introduce himself to the players. More than that, he asks Buschini and Smith about themselves, where they are from, and their background. It's his way of getting to know these players, but also a way to defuse any nervousness they might have.

Once the game starts, Buschini and Smith take it all in. They watch how the big leaguers go about their business, how they work counts, their actions in the infield and outfield. In the fifth inning, Smith got into the game, replacing center fielder Cameron Maybin.

Smith used his best tool, his speed, as the left-handed hitter drops down a drag bunt that gets past the pitcher for an infield single. He stands atop first base, a grin from ear to ear.

Buschini doesn't get in the game, but Black vows to make it up to him.

"Hey, Buschini, next time I'll get you in there," Black said.

These two are the last to leave the stadium. They sign autographs and talk to fans. Buschini poses for a picture with his mother. His parents, not knowing he would be suiting up for this game, flew in early in the morning from the Bay Area.

Smith is the last to reach the Minor League clubhouse. And no matter how fast he can scoot down the line, news of his bunt single has reached the clubhouse before he has.

"He walked in like it was no big deal and then we all started clapping and hollering at him," Nelson said. "He just started beaming, ear to ear."

 

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.
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