Player’s View: Tales From the Minor Leagues

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Life in the minor leagues differs greatly from life in the majors, often leaving those who climb the affiliated ladder with a multitude of stories. While some of those experiences are amusing in hindsight, many of them also underscore why minor leaguers fought so hard to unionize in an effort to improve their pay and working conditions. From torturous bus rides to cheap motels and ballpark mishaps, life before players make the big leagues can leave you laughing – and shaking your head. Here is a collection of a few such stories, courtesy of nine people in the game well versed in life on the farm.

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Liam Hendriks, Boston Red Sox pitcher:

“The minor leagues are character building. You go through the adversity to get to the [big leagues], and the juice is worth the squeeze. It’s been a minute since I’ve been down there, but the minors are just a grind. You wake up early in the morning to travel to the next town, then you stay in shitty hotels. You learn to find the silver linings in everything.

“One story I’ll always remember is Chris Colabello getting called up. He had spent [seven] years in indie ball, got signed as a 27-year-old to Double-A with the Twins, and I was with him in Triple-A in 2013. We were on the bus — I think it was Lehigh Valley to Rochester — playing cards in back. I don’t remember what game we were playing, but I had the best hand I’ve ever had in my life. One of the other guys had one of the best hands of his life. The manager, Gene Glynn, comes walking down. He says, ‘Hey Chris, got a minute?’ Tells him he’s getting called up. Twenty-eight years old, all those years grinding in indie ball, and he’s getting his first call-up. Calls his old man, was crying on the phone.

“So, this is while we’re on our way home to Rochester, and our bus gets hit by a car. A lady who was drunk ended up swerving in between the two buses. I remember sitting there playing cards, looking up, and our bus was sideways. This was around three in the morning; it was an overnight bus trip back. We find out that his flight is at something like six o’clock in the morning. We ended up getting there in time, but he didn’t have enough time to go home and pack. He jumped right into his car and went straight to the airport to go to Atlanta. ”

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Rowdy Tellez, Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman:

“Everything I can think of stems from Bluefield. Dennis Holmberg was the manager — he’d been with the Blue Jays since the start of the Blue Jays — and he was a firm believer in aliens. He would wear Hawaiian shirts and alien shirts. We had this award, which he called the half-ass award. It was for if you didn’t do something very well. Like, if you grounded out and didn’t run hard, he would go back and look at how many steps you took to ground out and add them up. Or if you showed up to a hitters’ meeting in a towel because you were late getting out of the shower, you’d get half-ass points for that. He’d tally up everyone’s points, and at the end of the year, someone would win half-ass. It wasn’t an award you wanted to win.

“I never got the half-ass award, but I did have a big one. You know those big green Physio Balls you work out with? Danny Jansen and I were in the cage before a game, and he kicked one to me. I swung at it with my bat, and when I hit it, the bat came back and gave me 11 stitches above my eye. It knocked me out. A few days later, I passed my concussion test and was in the lineup. I tried to steal second, there was a bad throw, the [infielder] jumped over me, kneed me in the head, and knocked me out. I didn’t pass that concussion test.

“Looking back, Bluefield, and playing in some of those Appalachian League cities, defined me as a player. We stayed at places where… I mean, it was bad. We stayed at the Mountain View, on top of this little hill in Bluefield, West Virginia. You went in, and the first thing you did was buy a bug bomb and blow it up. You had to disinfect your room. There were police officers around the place all the time. It was tough where we stayed, as well as some of the places we stayed on the road. The bus rides… we’d be on bus trips where we broke down by the side of the road. There is the old saying, ‘If you don’t like it, play better,’ and that kind of defined the Appalachian League.”

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Fredi Gonzalez, Baltimore Orioles bench coach:

“This was instructional league with the Florida Marlins, somewhere around 1994, 1995, or 1996. Gary Hughes was our scouting director, and he always liked to draft athletes in the later rounds. We drafted a kid out of high school — I forget where he was from — who had played very little baseball. He was a football player.

“He was playing right field, a fly ball gets hit down the right field line, and the kid starts running. Then he stops at the line. He reaches into foul territory, trying to catch the ball like a football guy trying to stay in bounds. The ball landed out of his reach, foul. In the dugout, we were like, ‘What just happened?” When he came in, he told us he didn’t think you could catch balls outside of the white line. I can’t remember the name of the kid, but he didn’t make the big leagues.”

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Mark Gubicza, Los Angeles Angels broadcaster and former big league pitcher:

“I had to get four wisdom teeth taken out. This was in Double-A, with Jacksonville. I jump on the bus to go to Memphis — I want to say it was a 14-hour bus trip — to pitch the next day. I wasn’t exactly comfortable on there, having just had my wisdom teeth out. I think Razor Shines took me deep that game, although I recall pitching alright.

“My mouth hurt, but I always tried to make something good out of anything, so I figured, ‘Well, I’ve got blood in my mouth; I might be able to use that on the baseball to make it move more.’ Either that or if I let it drip out of my mouth, these guys would think I’m crazy out there on the mound.

“I remember another game where Jim Presley, who ended up being a pretty good major league hitter, hit a ball against me in Jacksonville. He crushed it. I didn’t give up a lot of home runs, but when I did, they were usually gigantic. I remember seeing the ball hit the freeway on a bounce. I was like, ‘How is that possible?’ I never looked at home runs, especially in the big leagues — I didn’t want to give the hitter the satisfaction of seeing me watching it go — but on that one I happened to look. It was a mammoth home run. And I remember that freeway well. I had a Knight Rider Trans Am, a black one, and I lost one of my hubcaps on that freeway. So there was a baseball bouncing out there, and a hubcap I was never able to find.”

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Austin Hays, Baltimore Orioles outfielder:

“I have some crazy scenarios of things happening with the bus. One time, we were turning down this road to get to the field and the bus turned too sharply. All of the back right tires — you know how there are four tires back there — came completely off the ground, and our bus was stuck over this culvert. It couldn’t move, so we had to wait for a tow truck to come. The tow truck couldn’t move the bus. We had to get three small vans to come get us, unload everything off the bus, and take us to the field. I forget where this was, but I think it was in High-A.

“Another time, in short-season with the Brooklyn Cyclones, we were taking a right-hand turn in the city and hit one of the concrete blocks that protect where pedestrians stand on the side of the road. The driver backed up and tried to go wider, and that thing caught the side door where you load the luggage. It ripped the whole door off the side of the bus. We were all like, ‘You hit something, you hit something!’ Anyway, we make it to the field, get off the bus, and the side door is gone. There are a couple of suitcases missing. There are bags that fell out on the way there.”

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Danny Coulombe, Baltimore Orioles pitcher:

“This was in Double-A. I had some control issues — I didn’t really know where the ball was going — and I hit this lefty in the head with a fastball. All right. He goes to first base and gets his lead, and I see that he’s wobbling a little bit. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t think he’s seeing straight.’ I picked him off. And not only did I pick him off, adding insult to injury, he had to go to the hospital after the game for a concussion.

“Another time — I’m going to leave him unnamed — I saw a player fake an injury at third base. This was also in Double-A. Through a translator, he told our manager, ‘Hey, I’m faking an injury because I’m going to steal home on the next pitch.’ The manager told him that if he tries to steal home, it’s a $5,000 fine. He didn’t do it.”

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Will Middlebrooks, Red Sox TV analyst and former big league infielder:

“I played in the New York-Penn League and one of the teams was the Vermont Lake Monsters. They were in Burlington, which was a great city, a fun place, but the stadium had been there a long time. I don’t know how old it was, but it looked very old. Everything was wooden, the grandstands, like it had been there since the beginning of time.

“It was the Nationals short-season team at the time, and I remember vividly the locker room being almost termite infested. The benches were falling part. There were old lockers. There was a field hockey stadium behind left field, and you would have to walk down a dirt road behind the foul pole to this old raggedy locker room where we changed. I remember it being postgame, and I was super dirty and wanted to shower. They said we couldn’t shower there, but I needed to at least get rinsed off. The shower was just shooting out brown water; there was that much dirt in the lines. I mean, you didn’t even want to take your shoes off in that place.

“But I hit my first professional home run there. There is a big press box over the stands of the field hockey stadium, and the home run went off the roof of the press box. I vividly remember watching the ball, my first professional home run, and this is where I was. I couldn’t shower after the game.

“I could never sleep on overnight bus trips. I would be miserable the whole next day, because we weren’t traveling overnight and then having the next day off. You had a game that day. I remember being at a Walmart, getting sandwich meat and peanut butter and jelly for the house, and I saw this pool blowup raft. It was pretty narrow, but I thought, ‘That would fit on the bus floor.’ So, I always traveled with a pool float in my backpack. I would blow it up on the bus so I could sleep on the floor, in back, because I couldn’t sleep sitting up on a seat. I would get stepped on every hour by someone going to the pisser, but I could at least get some type of sleep. That saved me. The next day, I would feel okay because I hadn’t been up all night twisting and turning in my seat, counting the lines on the road.”

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Mark Canha, Detroit Tigers outfielder:

“In 2013, I was in Double-A, playing in the Southern League for the Jacksonville Suns. The bus trips in the Southern League are miserably long. They’re just horrible, like 10-plus hours nearly every time. One day — it was the dog days of summer — music was playing on the bus, and ‘Wagon Wheel’ came on. Someone started singing to it, then the whole bus kind of joined in. We all started singing ‘Wagon Wheel’ together.

“From that point on, for the rest of the season, it became like the team song. It became a tradition to sing it every time we were going on a road trip, at least once. ‘Wagon Wheel’ is kind of a fun sing-along song, and it kind of guided us through the pain of those bus trips.”

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Lucas Giolito, Boston Red Sox pitcher:

“That’s how I developed such a good relationship with the guy who caught me throughout the minor leagues, Spencer Kieboom. We both got Tommy John surgery around the same time, with the Nationals organization. At that point — I don’t know if the rules have changed — but you had to live in the team hotel unless you had at least Double-A experience, or you were married. Neither of us were married and neither of us had been to Double-A. This was actually before I’d even pitched for an affiliate.

“We lived in a La Quinta hotel, off the highway, in a strip mall with a gas station, for 9-10 months straight. We were in the same room, with two queen beds. That’s what we called home, this La Quinta hotel in Viera, Florida. We decorated the room. We became friends with the cleaning staff. It was quite the experience for me as an 18-, 19-year-old from California. Kieboom is from Georgia and had gone to Clemson — he signed out of college — so it was good to have him around and kind of help me mature up a little bit.

“Some of the activities we would do included going to the nature preserve and messing with alligators — we’d be holding sticks out, and stuff like that — and fishing. There was a Target across the street, and behind that there was one of those Florida fake-lake things. We’d go fishing behind there and catch these nasty catfish.

“We were also next door to a Walmart, and this very old woman was there every single day, pushing this shopping cart around the parking lot. It was very strange. She had gray, long hair and looked like a witch, so we called her the witch of the Walmart. We were all scared to approach her. So yeah, that was a minor league experience, a young minor league experience before I even got to an affiliate. My best stories from an affiliate are all too inappropriate to share.”





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Cool Lester Smoothmember
1 month ago

WMB speaking blasphemy about Centennial Field…and I absolutely believe him, haha!

RIP the NYPL – was my absolute favorite level of baseball to watch.

Bradmember
1 month ago

And the Appy League as well. We lost some gems when they reorganized MiLB

Cool Lester Smoothmember
1 month ago
Reply to  Brad

Might genuinely be the worst thing Luhnow did to the game…and his is a long list.

Competent teams had been buying up affiliates in the years before re-organization, so that more of their lottery tickets could get meaningful, competitive playing time.