Developing young talent is pivotal for Major League clubs. When done successfully, they are able to control the salary of younger players for up to six years, saving them large sums of money once these players reach the MLB. But this is easier said than done, molding young draft picks into Major League players is no small task. The road to the Majors is long and grueling; and for many players, it all starts at Spring Training.
To gain more insight into how the Orioles develop their young talent, I sat down with former Aberdeen IronBirds catcher, Jack Graham , to chat about his experience at Orioles Spring Training. Jack played for three years in the Orioles Minor League system, where he progressed from the GCL Orioles, all the way up to the Single-A Delmarva Shorebirds. Graham played his college ball at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. Drafted by the Orioles in the 2012 draft in the 38th round, Graham now works for the IronBirds in the front office as the Game and Team Operations Manager.
In this interview, Graham shares what the culture of the Orioles spring training was like, from a Minor League player's perspective.
Q: How would you describe the culture of Orioles spring training camp?
A: Spring Training is a special time for players, especially with the Orioles. They do a really good job of helping players understand that they're part of a larger whole, regardless of what level they play.
Q: How are Minor League and Major League camp split up?
A: There's Major League camp, which for the Orioles is at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, and then there's Minor League camp which takes place at Buck O'Neil Baseball Complex at Twin Lakes Park.
Most of the Orioles baseball coverage that fans see and hear between February and late March revolves around big league camp at Ed Smith Stadium. What doesn't get as much attention is Minor League camp at Buck O'Neil Baseball Complex. The complex is massive - four fields are positioned close together, with games being played on them all day. On each of these fields you can see prospects from all levels of the organization in action.
When you're not playing games, you're spending your time at the indoor facility. In this center, you have your cafeteria, locker room and weight room. Keep in mind, at the start of camp there are close to 200 guys in Minor League camp, which means you need a TON of space for all of these guys to eat, get dressed and work out.
Having all of these players of various experience levels in pro-ball at one facility during camp is important for the development of young players. You get to learn from guys who coach in, and have played in the big leagues, many of whom you wouldn't normally have the chance to interact with during the season. That's the beauty of baseball - whether you're a grizzled Major League veteran, or if you're a kid right out of college, everybody is at camp for the same reason - to get ready for the long grind of the baseball season.
Q: Was there anyone in particular that had an impact on you during Spring Training?
A: I got to work a lot with Don Werner. Don was one of 'those guys' - like most of the instructors in the Orioles system - he played the game at a very high level. Don was an exceptional Major League player, having caught a no-hitter for Tom Seaver back in the day. Don's role in the Orioles system was Catching Coordinator. In this role, Don would float between all levels of the Orioles Minor League system to work with and help develop the Orioles catchers. Don got to work with guys like Matt Wieters, Todd Hundley, and Caleb Joseph, for instance.
Q: What made Don so effective as a mentor, in your mind?
A: Don never lectured or talked down to us, and he never talked like he was some sort of big-shot. When he would talk to us about catching, he would talk to us as equals. He did this by simply sharing his own experiences from back in his playing days.
The insights he was able to provide me not only improved the physical aspects of my game, like framing technique and footwork, but even more so, my mental approach. What made a guy like Don so effective, was his ability to work with players of all different skills levels and personality types. He was able to communicate just as effectively with me, as he was with other catchers in the system like Chance Sisco, Austin Wynns or Caleb Joseph. All of these guys have very different skill sets and personalities, yet, Donnie's coaching was still able to resonate with all of us.
Q: How was he able to help you improve your mental approach?
A: One of the biggest things for me as a young catcher was that up until I got to the Minor Leagues, I was only concerned with how to get out the current hitter that I was facing, and what pitch that I was going to use to get him out. It had never occurred to me that, maybe, the pitch to get him out would have to do with: A) How many outs there were in the inning, B) What the score of the game was; C) If there were any runners on base; or D) What pitcher do I have out there on the mound? These were questions that I had never thought about before getting to the Minor Leagues until Donnie was able show me how to take my mental approach to the next level. This deeper way of thinking about each and every pitch and situation during a game, is what separates the pros from the amateurs.
Q: What was your experience at Orioles camp like after getting drafted; does anything stick out?
A: Back when I was drafted in 2012, I was assigned to the GCL Orioles. I remember at the same time, MLB veterans, Joel Pineiro and Dontrelle Willis were with the team. And right after I arrived in Sarasota, after putting on my professional uniform for the first time, I was told that "Dontrelle and Joel need to throw live BP, so they're going to face you, for real." As a kid who remembered being at Game 6 when the Marlins clinched their World Series title in '03, and recalled watching Dontrelle dominate the MLB back then, you could say that I was a little intimidated (laughs). I went 0-4 against those two, with four strikeouts. The closest I came to putting the ball in play was when Dontrelle left one pitch up and over the plate, which I barely fouled back into the catcher's glove. I remember Dontrelle telling me 'nice swing' before throwing a filthy curveball to strike me out.
While the result wasn't great for me, that experience was incredible. There's really nothing like watching a guy pitch on TV when you're little, then getting to step into the batter's box to face the same guy when you're older.
Q: Do scenarios like these happen a lot in Spring Training?
A: Yes, these scenarios are quite common in Spring Training, particularly in Minor League camp. With so many players at the big league level that need to get in their reps, it's not possible for every pitcher or position player to get their work in during the big league game. This is why many times you'll see big league players getting their work in at Minor League camp.
I experienced this firsthand back in 2013, when David Ortiz from the Boston Red Sox was down in Minor League camp for a game that I was catching. I remember he led off three times in a row in the first three innings of the game. What was so cool about that experience was that Big Papi, when he stepped up to plate, just like you see him do in the big leagues, he tapped my shin guards with his bat, and asked me "How are you doing," and told me "good luck," before proceeding to rope a ball into right field.
The moral of this story is, if you find yourself in the Sarasota area for Spring Training, take a trip down to the Buck O'Neil Baseball Complex. You'll get to see the future stars of the Orioles play, and who knows, maybe you'll get to see someone like David Ortiz lead off three innings in a row.
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Also important for the development of young players, are host families. Most of these players are living out on their own for the first time, and transitioning into professional baseball isn't easy. The Aberdeen IronBirds are looking for thoughtful individuals and families who would be willing to share their home with an IronBirds player this summer - for just three months.
I also chatted with Jack about his experience living with host families as both a collegiate and professional ballplayer.
Q: What were you most thankful for when living different host families?
A: It was the sense of comfort. Living on the road is hard. As a Minor League player, you're living out of a suitcase the majority of the time and you're constantly on the move. And when you're around the same people for 12 hours per day for up to six months out of the year, it can become exhausting. Having a place that is clean, comfortable and safe to go back to after a long day of travel really helps you to relax and unwind. This quiet refuge from my busy schedule is what made it possible for me to perform my best on game days.
Q: Were there any common traits you noticed between all of the host families that you have lived with over the years?
A: I've lived with all types of people. I've lived with young couples with no children, I've lived with a single mother who had a 12-year old that loved baseball, and I've lived with retired folks that were empty-nesters who loved to watch baseball and loved being around baseball players. What all of these people had in common were two traits; they were extremely generous, and they were true fans of baseball.
Becoming a host family is a real unique opportunity for fans of baseball to gain more insight into the life of a Minor Leaguer, and to help out a young man that is chasing his dream. At the end of the day, it's not about whether or not he makes it to the big leagues, it's about knowing that you were able to have an impact on that young man's life.
If you are interested or know someone who may be interested in hosting an IronBirds player, contact Jack Graham at email@example.com.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.