Tuesday morning marked the seventh time I've walked into Ripken Stadium for the preseason IronBirds media day blitz. As has been the case in most years, it was overcast outside and uniformed baseball players, who look younger and younger to me every new season, were shuffling in and out of the club level, chatting with each other, having their photos taken by Ripken Baseball staff, and just generally acting like excited young men. They should be, I imagine. They've already ascended to a level of athletics that my teammates and I dreamed about when we were playing Little League and high school baseball.
Yes, they should be excited that they're among the exalted few who are getting paid to play sports, but I realized, after listening to returning IronBirds' skipper Matt Merullo's press conference, the Herculean task that's ahead of them if they intend to keep getting a paycheck from baseball. This is not a new revelation for me. It has come to me several times during my tenure covering the Aberdeen team, usually on media day, or at the point in the season when players start getting released from their contracts (this does not take long; some of them don't even make it two weeks into the season).
Merullo, talking about the Orioles' spring training camp, which he, along with what I imagine is a small army of coaches and trainers, helped to run, said something like this: "There are three fields full of players, and they're going all day, every day. It gets very hard to make sure everyone is getting playing time, getting the amount of at-bats they need to improve." To give that statement some scale, Merullo was only talking about position players. There were just as many pitchers at the Orioles' camp fighting for playing time.
I don't think it's hyperbole to state that every individual who gets invited to preseason major league camp was probably the best player on their high school team, if not the best player in their county (unless they're from Florida, or California, or one of those warm states where three kids from the same team get drafted the same year). So, imagine the best ballplayer you knew growing up (and he might not even have been good enough), multiply them by about 200, and you have some idea of what's going on at extended spring training. Hundreds of hyper-talented, driven young men, and they're fighting just to get enough playing time so they don't see that red card hanging on their locker at the end of the day (I think that's how they tell you you're cut; that's how they did it in the movie "Major League"). It's probably shocking for an athlete who's been playing at another level for most of his life to suddenly be swimming in a sea of people as good as, or better, than he is.
The guys who were walking around Ripken Stadium with smiles on their faces Tuesday morning, they had made it out of the feeding frenzy that is spring training, and, at least for the next few weeks, they're going to be OK. They just have to adjust to better hitters and pitchers than they've seen all spring, produce statistics that will get them promoted to Delmarva, where they'll have to readjust to a higher level of opposition.
As I was re-expriencing this idea, and thinking about what it really takes to get to the major leagues, I looked out the window of the club level and saw a group of players awkwardly tossing a ball back and forth. At first, I thought they might be wearing some newfangled exercise contraption that strengthens your arm, while making you throw like the last-picked kid in gym class. Upon walking over to the window and looking closer, I realized that the players were throwing with their opposite hands, seeing which righty could throw the hardest as a lefty and vice versa. Me and my brother used to play the same exact game in our parents' front yard. That drove it home to me: Those guys are out there fighting for their baseball lives, and are probably dead serious about it, but it's still just a game they're playing.