Breaking into pro baseball means leaving behind the press clippings that proclaimed a young man perhaps the best player in his region.
One of the tasks for rookie-league managers like Dennis Holmberg of the Bluefield Blue Jays is to “sell” the new reality to players just out of high school.
“They were the best of the best on the lot,” he said after a recent game at Bowen Field. “They were better than anybody else in the area, or among the best. Now they’re playing against everybody who is the best, or was the best, from their areas.”
“The speed of the game is a little faster.”
“The game of baseball, and hitting, is a game of failure. It’s easy to handle success. It’s how you handle failure. And that’s tough, that’s tough to sell to a high school kid.”
He volunteered a story, one that he’s used before to provide personal context to what these inexperienced athletes are coping with.
“I was drafted by Montreal out of high school,” Holmberg said. “If I would have signed, as much as I wanted to, and gone out and played rookie ball, in the same environment that these guys are kind of thrust into, I might have been in over my head.”
He amended that last thought. “There’s no question,” he said.
“I went to junior college for one year. And one year of age, and maturity, and a little next-level-of-competition, seemed to prepare me a little better to come into pro ball.”
That said, he started listing young players who seem to have figured out quickly what it takes to endure the everyday play of the Appalachian League.
He said, “There’s a lot of kids here (like) Mitch Nay, (Dawel) Lugo. Matt Dean is two years removed from high school. You have to learn to get it up, and go out and play every day.”
“A lot of these guys haven’t been through a short season like this. They’re coming from the Gulf Coast League. Mind you, Matt Dean and Niko Taylor have been through this before.”
Once they are promoted up to the level of, say, the Lansing Lugnuts in Michigan, he said, “You go out now and play 140 games and not 70. You start the game in cold temperatures, and then you thaw out ... and then the heat sets in, and you’re playing 100, 110, 120 games.”
Relief pitching in particular becomes a much bigger responsibility as players climb the minor-league ladder.
“We’ve got a 30-man roster, and we can go up to 35,” Holmberg said. “When you get to Lansing, you don’t have a 30 and maybe five. You’ve got 25. So accountability and durability is so very important. You can’t go out and pitch one inning. You’re going to be expected to pitch anywhere from two to three innings, maybe even four.”
“It’s a learning process all the way around.”
The “piggyback” system for pitchers adopted this season in Bluefield is designed to put two starters on the field almost every night. That often doesn’t leave a lot of innings for relievers — but last week’s stretch of three straight doubleheaders got them some work.
Holmberg said, “Under the normal circumstances, with the piggybacks that we have ... we have the tandems, two guys a night, each guy is five innings or 65 pitches.
“On a good night, two guys should be able to complete a ballgame. On a maybe not-so-good night, maybe they throw four and four and you’re looking for one inning, and (Brett) Barber’s been our guy out of the bullpen, with the lead.”
“So six games in three days gave everybody an ample opportunity to pitch. We had some guys coming into the series that had not pitched ... seven days, maybe eight days, because our starters, our piggyback guys, were throwing so well.”
Not that he’s complaining. Bluefield has won eight of nine contests and is still leading its division.
And, more importantly from a player development standpoint, when pitchers and position players get to Lansing, or Vancouver, or even Toronto, they will have been prepared in Bluefield by someone who knows what they’ve come from, and what they have to do in the bigger city they’re going to.
Tom Bone is a Daily Telegraph sports writer and cartoonist. Contact him at tbone @ bdtonline. com.