Most Minor League players are able to make their professional debuts in relative obscurity, plying their trade in off-the-beaten-path locales that are largely free from overenthusiastic fans and prying media hordes. Markets such as Bluefield, W.Va., Billings, Mont., or Jamestown, N.Y., might be lacking in big city amenities and excitement, but at least they provide a distraction-free haven for athletes adjusting to the relentless daily grind of a professional baseball career.
And then there are clubs such as the New York-Penn League's Lowell Spinners, a Boston Red Sox affiliate located in the heart of Red Sox Nation. Amid such a passionate fan base, even those on the lower rungs of the Minor League ladder are going to get a thorough looking-over. There is no escape.
But this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Far from it, in fact. Every player's goal is to get to the Major Leagues, and part of being a Major Leaguer is knowing how to deal with fan and media attention on a day-in and day-out basis. Spinners players learn that from day one.
"Playing [in Lowell] is a great way to get the feel of what it's going to be like [in Boston]," said Jon Boswell, the Spinners' director of media relations. "You're going to have to deal with that pressure, so you may as well start learning to deal with it now. We're here for development -- not just on the field but off the field, in the clubhouse, with the media, every step of the way."
Boswell remarked that the attention surrounding the Spinners received a noticeable uptick during the 2003 season, the first after a new ownership group took over the Red Sox. That year, David Murphy was the team's first-round Draft pick, and he started his professional career in Lowell.
"From there on, people really started to pay attention," he said. "Our fans will talk about Murphy, about [Jonathan] Papelbon, about [Will] Middlebrooks. They remember seeing them in Lowell to start their careers. And this season, not a day has gone by without people asking me when they're going to see [supplemental first-round Draft pick] Pat Light. He hasn't pitched at home yet, but the fans, they want to see that first-rounder on the mound."
Red Sox prospect Deven Marrero has quickly learned to adjust from the college season.
But even once Light does make his Lowell debut, it'll be for a frustratingly short amount of time.
"These guys are on strict pitch counts, so the fans will only be getting to see them for two innings at most. So when you look back at the top pitching prospects who have been here, guys like Justin Masterson, you'll see that they didn't get any wins with us because they were never in line for the decision," said Boswell. "In time, our fans came to understand this -- that's it's always about development here -- although that can be tough to take when you're in the middle of an 11-game losing streak."
Big man on campus
Light is one of two supplemental first-round Draft picks on this year's Spinners squad, along with southpaw Brian Johnson. But the biggest name on the roster is Deven Marrero, a shortstop out of Arizona State University who was taken by the Red Sox with the 24th overall pick of this year's First-Year Player Draft.
"Every afternoon, when I take that turn into the clubhouse, [Marrero] instinctively looks up," said Boswell. "Because he knows that it's going to be him, getting asked to do another interview. Every year the top guy is going to have that weight on his shoulders."
After visiting Lowell earlier this month, and, following established media protocol, this writer requested to do an interview with Marrero. He answered my questions -- variations of which he'd surely been asked many times before -- good-naturedly.
"Life is definitely different, after coming from college where you only play four games a week. This is the everyday grind," said Marrero, who hit .282 and stole five bases over his first 17 games. "But it's been awesome. These fans just love their baseball, and they love their Red Sox. ... [The media and fan attention] is what I'm going to go through throughout my career. I just take it all in."
And, really, that's a large component of playing baseball at this level -- simply taking it all in.
"I just want to get my timing down and see how this Minor League life is," he said. "Just go out there and have fun. ... that's all I can ask for."
The Spinners will do everything they can to facilitate this, with the goal of creating relationships that will last throughout the player's career and beyond.
"Every time we do a bobblehead giveaway here, we tell our current players, 'Remember, this is gonna be you one day, and we want you to come back and be a part of it,'" said Boswell. "Hopefully, in 2015, we'll be able to put a Deven Marrero bobblehead on the schedule."