I'm at the end of my week-long stay in extended spring training, where I've been acclimating myself to the game in order to diminish the likelihood of doing something ridiculous on the field when I rejoin the team this weekend.
So far, I've been taking an approach to this writing exercise as if the people who comprise the readership of these journals know little about baseball, so I won't stray from it this time, especially since I know about 15 of you personally. And you're each just as capable of asking me whether at any point during the season I'll be in the city this weekend to go to your party, or the rhyme and reason of not only learning how to hit left-handed but when to do it: "Do you just feel lefty sometimes?"
Extended spring is made up of the youngest players in the organization, roughly 16-21 years old. Just about every college player who signs a professional contract gets sent out to a Minor League team while these players here are preparing to make their mark, waiting their turn to be sent out somewhere in the country, to find an apartment in the three days before the first game and play for a team with a hat that has a crosseyed Egg McMuffin.
This is baseball at just about as unadulterated a level as it gets. Besides the raw talent, it reminds me of a rec league in a suburb somewhere -- quiet and unattended. No bells and whistles, no scoreboard, no stands or fans, no Friday fireworks, no baby-crawling races or anything else that's designed to entertain overcaffeinated children but has nothing to do with playing baseball at the Minor League level.
Just players. So the coaches, I realized, have a huge responsibility taking in every move these youngsters offer. It's as much character-building as it is developing craft. Most especially, it is the lesson of professionalism, showing the players exactly how everything is done at the pro level: teaching them how to wear a uniform, how to respect the umpire or how to be mindful of their body language.
I fit into the mix here as a player on rehab, and it's typical for these teams to have rehabbers on a part-time or full-time basis. The guys I'm living with here are friends I've played with in previous seasons who are rehabbing long-term injuries.
If you can't play all season, you don't get to stay at home or get a job or live with your wife. You essentially lose money paying rent wherever you live in order to get to the complex in the morning to do some exercises and have some treatments before you head back home before noon to get ready to do it all over again. All for next season.
A few guys here have subscribed unflinchingly to this purgatory, refusing to let go of this game until it lets go of them.
The degree to which resolve of these 18-year-old kids is tested in this highly structured and minimally exciting environment is really impressive to me. It's probably not how they pictured it when they signed up and left home in Washington or Venezuela or wherever. I remember being pretty good at 18 at the projection of delusions of grandeur.
The community of foreign-born Latin players is especially interesting to me, because with a few simple twists of fate I could be just like them, visiting this country on a baseball visa.
My family snuck out of Cuba just before they'd have been killed if they were caught. It might just as easily never have happened. My late grandfather might just as easily have been less heroic or frozen by the sentiments of leaving his land and our family behind.
I woke up not in a Third World country, as perhaps I should have, but here in the American middle class that's virtually impossible to fall from if you make a modest effort.
These kids, most of whom look like they could be my brother, awoke somewhere else. The plunge that's taken by foreign-born players is remarkable. Even more, the cultural implications of setting out to do what they do is fit material for a book. The number of "stars" and "heroes" in America is somewhat overwhelming.
In the Dominican Republic, nothing means more to a kid than the ballplayer from his town. He is royalty, he is hope personified -- but not "Be Like Mike" wanna-be-a-star hope plastered all over suburban walls. It's far graver. So much more is at stake. It's "food for everyone with my last name" hope.
The play of the day was made by a young Yankees infielder wearing No. 21. It was unbelievable. He ranged to his right like his life depended on it, knocked the ball down within a few feet, pounced and threw out a plus-plus runner by half a step. It beat every one of those plays that made the top 10 today -- and only 40 or so people know it.