I threw in my first big league spring training game. 80% of that sentence is spectacular. 20% makes it slightly less spectacular, but still, quite exciting. “Spring Training.” It means so many great things to so many people. Many baseball fans see spring training as a symbol of the end of snow and more importantly the end of every sports station doing its best imitation of the NFL Network. For thousands of baseball fans, it means a vacation to a sunny location and a seemingly all-access pass to their favorite team’s games and practices. It means a baseball atmosphere that truly feels like a “pastime”.
It also means games with players you’ve never heard of, some of whom couldn’t even get a name on their jersey.
On Tuesday, I was one of those players.
During the regular season, our pastime can easily be clouded by high beer prices, busy parking lots, boo birds, player and managerial ejections, slammed bats, and helmets tossed. The relaxing 3 hour break from real life and immersion into an alternate world of keeping score by hand while listening to the familiar voice of your stadium’s PA announcer fade into the sunset is too often a pipe dream for baseball purists. In spring training, though, it is more evident than ever that the game is just that: a game. You won’t see bats broken over knees or managers kicking dirt and throwing bases. You probably won’t hear any “boos” and you many times will see fans cheering for players they like on the opposing team. That’s not to say bat breaking and managerial disputes don’t add to the drama and suspense that makes exciting baseball great, but if the post season is baseball on Red Bull, spring training is baseball on sun tea.
When I found out I would be “backing up” the Major League game, a rush of excitement and nerves flushed through my body. For 3 years I have been walking past the Big League locker room, batting cages, and stadium to get to the comparative dungeon of our Minor League camp (and may I add we are blessed with the nicest minor league spring training facility in all of baseball, but still…it’s not the bigs!). Simply the thought I would have the outside chance of pitching in the Major League game was riveting.
For those of you not familiar with the term “backing up” it refers to pitchers that come from the minor league camp to be a safety valve for the big league game. Each big leaguer has a throwing schedule that dictates how many innings he will throw. On a given day, for example, the starter may be expected to go 4-5 innings, a middle reliever will go 2-3 and then two late inning guys will go 1 inning. If all goes as planned, say the first two combine for 7 innings, then the late relievers will finish 8 and 9. What if it goes extras, though? Or what if the starter runs up his pitch count and doesn’t get out of the 3rd? This is where the minor league “backups” come in to play to eat up the remaining innings. If you are a casual fan, the backup will usually come in after the game is 3.5 hours old or is out of hand and you stand up and ask the rest of your party if they’ve had enough sun and want to head home. You may even point out that some guy who didn’t get a name on his jersey is pitching, it’s a nobody, so let’s head out. And you’d be right. It is a nobody. The outcome of the game doesn’t really matter. As long as everybody got their AB’s and IP’s and no one got hurt, it’s a successful spring training game.
When you were standing up to leave because nothing important was about to happen, my heart was racing and to me, seemingly the entire world was standing right before my eyes.
By Arizona standards, Tuesday was a slightly chilly night with a bit of a breeze. By my mid-western standards, it was a beautiful, glorious night! Though, I’m pretty sure even if it was 10 below with sleet this night would still have been amazing. As the national anthem played, I stood on the left field line with the rest of my bullpen teammates. I’m used to pitchers being taller than me, but these guys were all way taller than me. I’m pretty sure no one from the stands could see me amongst the trees and I’m certain I couldn’t see the flag down the line. They were all about the same height and all kinda looked alike. As Greinke warmed up for the first pitch, I introduced myself to the guys I hadn’t met yet. Everyone was extremely nice and accommodating, perhaps because I was blatantly the new guy evidenced by my constant ear to ear grin. The first few innings flew by and despite a small bump in the road, Zach was cruising. Given the inning breakdowns and the number of pitchers scheduled to throw, after the first 5 innings, I was afraid my chances of getting the all-important back-up inning were slimming.
When the 8th inning rolled around, Jamey Wright was in the game and throwing well. He had pitched the 7th without running up his pitch count too much, so he went out for the 8th. As he was facing the lead-off hitter, the bullpen phone rang. As it had all game, my heart jumped when the phone rang. For the first time, now, it was for good reason. Our bullpen coach hung up the phone and said, “Hayes, go ahead and start throwing, if he gets in trouble, you’re going in.”
I took my jacket off and walked over to the bullpen mound. I began throwing as I always do by having the catcher stand up for the first three throws and then have him squat down behind the plate. By my fourth throw, I was ready. In an effort to make my routine as normal as possible, I kept throwing. As I watched the inning unfold, the A’s managed a runner on first with one out through the first two batters, but both had worked long counts. Our catcher, John Buck went out to the mound and I hoped they were giving me more time to get loose and then bring me in. Little did they know adrenaline had gotten me ready well in advance, so no extra time was needed on my account.
When I left the clubhouse to go to the field hours prior, the MLB Network was on and was showing a replay of the 2007 home run derby. As I walked from my locker to the exit, I passed the TV and heard Chris Berman screaming “back, back, back” on a ball Matt Holliday crushed over the wall. Now a few hours later, with one out in the top of the 8th, Matt Holliday stepped to the plate with a runner at first. It appeared as though I was going to take my turn at getting him to keep the ball in the field of play. Let’s hope Berman has the night off.
I stared like a hawk at our manager, Trey Hillman, to see if he’d budge off his seat to bring me in to the game. To my excitement, he got up! I told the bullpen catcher, “2 more” and was going to get my final warm-ups in prior to entering the game. Matt Holliday!
Trey took a step to his right, picked something up off the ground and then sat back down. Sat back down! If he had so much as scratched his ear, I would have anticipated him making a call to the pen. A full-blown departure from the seat was enough to make my heart skip a beat. I think that bubble gum wrapper (or whatever it was) took a year off my life. Wright got Holliday to hit into a double play and I was told to stop throwing so Anthony Lerew could get ready to go in for the 9th.
Now, I have had a number of “dry humps” throughout my pitching career, but this one stands out as the ultimate. You can’t make this stuff up, but to prove it, here’s a video. As you can see, Buck is talking to Wright and just as he drops back, you can see Trey in the lower right hand corner of the video get up out of his seat and then.. well, you see what happens. I asked our b
ullpen coach if I had a chance to pitch in the 9th and he said no, I did my job by scaring the A’s into a double play. Somehow I hadn’t pictured my debut game being in the role of scarecrow.
By the way, I should clarify what a “dry hump” is. It’s a bullpen term. When I asked a fellow bullpen member how to describe it he asked to remain anonymous but aptly said, “It’s the term for getting all warmed up but not being able to go in.”
Lerew went in to throw the 9th and I was told I wouldn’t have a chance to pitch in the game anymore. I asked if I could just throw a little bit more in the bullpen to get some practice. The downside of backing up a MLB game is you’re a guy who is due to get a few innings in, but more than likely, you won’t get to throw. I hadn’t pitched for 3 days, so decided to keep throwing to a catcher as if I was pitching in a game. Another guy decided to do the same on the rubber behind me in the pen. After only a few pitches in the game, Lerew got 2 outs with a guy on first.
Out of the corner of my eye, much to my surprise and excitement again, I noticed Trey walking on to the field towards the pitcher. Sure enough, he pointed to his right arm, which was at hip level. My first thought was, “Huh? Interesting he always signals to the bullpen with such a low arm angle.” I turned around to find out who was throwing behind me to see who was going in to the game. But to my shock and amazement, it was a lefty! It seemed like it took 10 seconds to process, but in reality it was probably .10 seconds: I was going in the game!
I asked the bullpen coach if I was in the game, but he seemed as confused as I was and shook his head no. Lerew was essentially cruising; he didn’t need back-up. But sure enough, he was walking off the field.
I was going in the game. At least I hoped it was me they were waiting for.
Just in case, I threw another pitch and cautiously walked to the gate to enter the field. All signs pointed to me going in, but for some reason, I wasn’t certain enough. I completely expected to open the gate, my heart racing with excitement and anticipation, only to find everyone with their hands up in the air telling me to stop and turn around because I wasn’t supposed to enter. At this point, I would turn around and run back to the bullpen and make it clear to everyone in the stands why I was so confused and overly anxious: I didn’t even have a name on my jersey. And number 72 may be immortalized by Carton Fisk (ironically my favorite player growing up), but it’s not exactly commonplace amongst superstar pitchers.
In the minor leagues, all Royals players are required to pull their pants up and show at least 6″ of stirrup above the shoe tops. Since I was in T-Ball, for whatever reason, I’ve always worn my pants up at my knees. Even when I wasn’t required to, I always preferred it. In 2006, when I started with the Royals, it wasn’t a requirement and I was always the only guy to wear my pants with socks showing. It seems everyone else hates it. Manny Ramirez has done to baseball lower-half attire what Michael Jordan did in basketball. It is now “cool” to have baggy pants down to your shoes if not over them. I’m convinced there are some minor league guys who yearn for big league pants more than the big league paychecks.
This past season, I was talking with former Royals catcher Duke Wathan and he told me when he used to catch Dan Quisenberry, some hitters would say they lost the ball in his pants and socks. Our arm angle is quite unique and after releasing the ball, instead of the batter’s eye being the background, we actually assume the role. After googling pictures of how Quiz wore his jersey, I noticed his stirrups were so long, he had white socks showing, which gave the batter a white backdrop to pick up the white ball as it spun towards them. And he seemed to have some decent success throughout his career… So, do I stick with my roots, steer clear of vanity, and wear the pants up? Do I give in to the “big league style” and wear them down? If I wear them up, am I missing out on a tiny edge Quiz took advantage of for years? After a long internal debate, I came up with a solution: gray pants up on the road, white pants down at home. Best of both worlds.
This night was a home game and so, for the first time since I can remember, I ran onto a baseball field with my pants down by my shoes.
I had always pictured the gate opening up to a Major League field awaiting my arrival to be one of the greatest thrills of my life. I had always dreamed of what my thoughts would be for the half a minute I would have to myself as I jog across the outfield to the mound. Tonight, the gate opening was filled with confusion and my thoughts were of long pants and their feel on my ankles and how they looked. Regardless, I ended up on the mound without tripping over my pant legs or having to get sent back to the bullpen because it wasn’t my turn.
After my 8 warm up pitches, the PA announcer said my name. A group of probably 10 friends along with my beautiful wife, Tracy, and my brother-in-law erupted in applause (if you couldn’t tell, my wife proof reads these). The stands had been silent up until this point and clearly I had my own little fan club (even if it was only family and friends). Gregorio Petit stepped up to the plate and my first big league appearance was under way. The first pitch was a fastball that split the plate perfectly. Next pitch, fastball on the outer half of the plate, flied out to right.
2 pitches. My big league debut lasted only about 45 seconds, but I’ll gratefully and elatedly take it!
It’s hard to imagine how much fun 2 pitches could be. I don’t know how to describe it for you. As I was high-fiving the team and the coaching staff I was on cloud nine. We had won. And I realized I just played in my first game where they play “Going to Kansas City” after a win. I couldn’t help but sing “I might take a train, or I might take a plane, but if I have to walk, I’m goin just the same.” (And no, I didn’t have to look those lyrics up, I really do know the song…I blasted it in the car the entire day after the Royals called me and offered me my first contract) Obviously I hope there’s many more of those lyrics during my departure from a baseball field, but I’m so grateful to have been there for that moment and enjoyed it as much as possible. If only I had a memento or some sort of keepsake from the game…
Shane Costa caught the last out of the game and turned to the beer garden and chucked the ball into the stands. Usually on the last out of the game, the fielder brings the ball in and gives it to the pitcher. Add the fact it was my first ever big-league game and this offense is even more egregious. If I ever get a name on my jersey, maybe I’ll give Costa a hard time about it so he at least knows who’s giving him crap.
PS. If you’ve made it this far on the blog, you’re obviously enthralled by me and wanting more, so here’s a video some lady in the stands took of me and then sent my way.