Ryan O’Rourke on Life in the Minor Leagues

Ryan O’Rourke experienced life in the big leagues. The recently-retired left-hander appeared in 54 games with the Minnesota Twins between the 2015 -2016 seasons, and in two with the New York Mets last year. But the bulk of his career was spent in the minors. A 13th-round pick by the Twins in 2010 out of Merrimack College, O’Rourke toiled down on the farm in each of his 10 professional campaigns.

He experienced a lot. The minor leagues are an adventure, and while often fun, they are by no means a bed of roses. The pay is bad, the travel and accommodations are arduous, and for the vast majority of players, crushed dreams are inevitable. Moreover, success and failure aren’t always dictated by talent alone.

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David Laurila: How would you describe professional baseball at the minor-league level?

Ryan O’Rourke: “Now that I can look at it from a helicopter point of view, I’d say that it’s a crapshoot in the truest sense of that word. If you don’t end up with the right organization, and your development isn’t a priority, your path to the big leagues is so much more difficult than it already is.

“I was fortunate to be with the Twins, who were very good about taking care of people, but I’ve heard horror stories from other teams. If you’re a nobody — anyone outside the 10th round is probably a nobody — and don’t show promise right away… let’s just say that guys who get big money in rounds one through 10 are given countless opportunities over someone who may have deserved it more.

“That’s the sad nature of the minor leagues, which, from a business standpoint, I do understand. If you gave one guy $400,000 and another guy $4,000, it’s obvious who you’re keeping. And sometimes it’s a matter of a coach liking you or not. Sometimes you’re cut because you didn’t impress one guy.”

Laurila: How much jealousy and resentment is there of high-round guys? For instance, Byron Buxton is a talented player but he also got a $6 million signing bonus.

O’Rourke: “For someone like Byron, there was never jealousy, because when he was walking into the stadium, it was like, ‘Yep, that’s the guy.’ And he was humble about it. He put in the work, and along with his talents showing through, he cared about being a good teammate. I’ll never be jealous of that person.

“But there were people that got more money than I did, and got more opportunities than I did. And they took it for granted, and were bad teammates. Those are the guys you resent. They’d come back from the offseason out of shape, while guys on my tier were having to work offseason jobs, and grind, just to pay for another year of chasing our dreams.

“And as much as the minor leagues have a team aspect, you’re all still competing against each other. You can ask any guy, and if they tell you any differently… if they weren’t at times rooting against people, they’re liars. Not that they’d openly want them to do badly, but if that happened, they weren’t upset.”

Laurila: A veteran player once told me much the same thing, that the priority in the minors is outperforming your peers and getting to the big leagues.

O’Rourke: “Oh, yeah. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Pitchers will be in the stands, will be charting, and they’ll put down a lower reading than what the radar gun said. That’s like a slap in the face. When I saw that happen, I grabbed the pencil out of the kid’s hand and told him, ‘Look, I’m not going to say anything now, but if you do that again I’m going to make this widely known amongst the team.’

“There was this player who didn’t like me, for whatever reason. We were both left-handed starting pitchers, so obviously he saw it as a rivalry. With him charting, I’d be 87-90 [mph], and my next time out, with someone else charting, I’d be 89-92. Same gun — the team Stalker — and I’m always a few miles per hour slower with him? Come on.”

Laurila: One of your teammates in Elizabethton was a 46th-round pick who went on to pitch in the big leagues.

O’Rourke:A.J. Achter! He was my best friend there, too. A.J. joined us a little late — he’d gone to the Cape and upped his stock — so when he got there, not knowing anyone, I said, ‘Hey, come move in with us.’ Elizabethton was a Bible Belt area, and our landlord had a no-guest policy — male, female, it didn’t matter.

“We might have had a little bit of a party the night before. The landlord walked in that morning, and A.J. was sleeping in our living room, with the furniture rearranged all over. She wasn’t happy. She was like threatening to kick us out, and A.J. was kind of caught in the middle. We eventually got it figured out. I put on my lawyer hat and argued our case, and she let us stay, with A.J. on a reduced rate. After that day, he said ‘Dude, we’re going to be best friends.”

Laurila: What was the apartment like?

O’Rourke: “We were paying something like $450 a month, which for Elizabethton, Tennessee was frivolous living. They were making out well on us, which wasn’t cool considering the cockroaches and bugs. I lived in the basement, with no rug, no nothing. It wasn’t the greatest living conditions, but when it’s your first year in the minor leagues you don’t want to ruffle any feathers. You’re just happy to be a professional baseball player, so you kind of don’t worry about it. Looking back at it now, we were getting hosed.”

Laurila: Did the team arrange the apartment?

O’Rourke: “It was set up by the team. It was like a host family. You’ve basically got these housing units for the players, and the team probably walked in, saw different rooms with beds, and were like, ‘Yeah, good enough.’

“In the minors, when you land in a different city each year, you have three days to find housing for the next five and a half months. And it’s hard coming out of spring training, because you might not know which team you’re going to be on. There are nightmare stories of guys getting housing lined up, signing a lease, and then they end up getting assigned somewhere else. It’s not exactly easy to break a lease.”

Laurila: Given all the time you spent in the minors, you’ve lived in a lot of different places…

O’Rourke: “I lived next to a halfway house. I lived above a bar one year. I’ve lived with host families and in condo units. Every type of housing you could live in, I’ve done it. And it was usually with roommates — as many as you can stuff in to keep costs down. You know what it’s like in the minor leagues with the salaries. I felt like I was particular about my living space, but some of the Latin American players were in a two bedroom, with five guys.”

Laurila: There are a lot of long bus rides in the minors. Can you share any stories from those?

O’Rourke: “There’s a bunch on the bus, but the plane rides [in the majors] were actually some of the better ones. There are card games going on, and sometimes some gambling. I was a rookie, and was playing with guys who have enough commas in their bank account that they’ll forget about them. I was there sitting on my meal money, thinking, ‘I can’t lose that.’

“There was a time I might have got either Trevor Plouffe or Brian Dozier on a big hand. We’re talking a lot of money, and I won it. He got so pissed. He was like, ‘You’re just here to win money from your friends!’ I was like, ‘Guys, I’m just playing cards.’ He gets up to go to the bathroom, and the other guy is like, ‘Don’t worry about it, he’s just down four or five thousand. That’s all.’

“One of the funniest bus rides ever was in Triple-A, where you’ve got the players bus and the coaches bus. Trevor Plouffe may have been with us on a rehab assignment. I believe we were going from Rochester to Lehigh Valley after a day game, and the next game was the following day at 7 pm. Usually those big-league rehab guys will fly, or some bigwig thing, but Plouffe took the bus with us. He said, ‘I don’t mind riding the bus.’

“We had tie-dye shirts for everyone. I’m sure there were a multitude of things to enjoy ourselves with. It was one of the funnest bus rides ever. Our bullpen catcher — his name was Brett — he’d [had a few drinks]. We’re gambling — he’s playing — and he doesn’t even know what he was doing. At the end of the bus ride he’s like, ‘How much do I owe?’ We were keeping track, and he’s probably up $400. He doesn’t remember one second of the entire Plouffe-a-palooza bus ride, and he walked away with $400, even though he couldn’t see straight. Brett was the best. If you’re going to give your money to anyone, the bullpen catcher is not a bad guy to lose to.”

Laurila: Let’s circle back to A.J. Achter. Did the two of you ever sit down over a beer and talk openly about your respective chances of making it to the big leagues?

O’Rourke: “We did. I mean, we played every year together from short-season to Single-A to Double-A to Triple-A, and then in the big leagues. Given our friendship and our backgrounds, it was really special when we got there. I remember us being on a plane ride once and just kind of looking at each other. It was like, ‘Man, this is great.” It seemed so surreal at the time.

“But back to your question, one offseason — this would have been after the 2012 season — I had a job, and they ended up offering me a full-time position with a good salary. I called A.J. and was like, ‘Hey man, what do you think? Am I just kicking rocks with no real chance of having a career?’ He was like, ‘Hey, I’m in the same boat as you.’ But he was straight up with me. He said, ‘Ryan, I think you could make it. Give it another chance.’ My parents said kind of the same thing, that they were going to support me through everything, to allow me to chase my dream. Plenty of Twins officials that I called told me the exact opposite. They basically told me to take the job.”

Laurila: People in the org suggested that?

O’Rourke: “Yes. I had this good finance job lined up — they were offering around $60,000 — and at that point it was life-changing money for me. I was making about $1,400 or $1,500 a month playing baseball, and that was for five months only. That’s why I called a bunch Twins officials, and I’m not talking about Joe Schmoes. I talked to pitching coaches and pitching coordinators. I think I even called [then-GM] Terry Ryan. He didn’t tell me I wasn’t going to make it, but he did say that it was going to be a very tough road for me to make it. I actually saw that as a good thing. They were being honest, as opposed to telling me, ‘Oh, you’re going to make the major leagues, don’t worry about it.”

Laurila: Fortunately, you kept at it, and eventually did make it.

O’Rourke: “I did, although I nearly didn’t get that chance. The next spring I came into camp in good shape and threw pretty well, but it wasn’t enough to really open any eyes. At that time I was a still starting pitcher.

“The way the Twins did spring training, there was this one big cut day. You’d know that day when you walked in, because it would be six in the morning and all the staff would be lined up, waiting to grab guys. They’d be like, ‘Hey, Jim Rantz wants to see you.’ He was the minor-league director, so you’d know what was going down; you were getting released.

“A month or so ago, after I’d retired, I called a few Twins officials to thank them for having my back over the years. One of them, Brad Steil, told me that the night before that cut day, all of the coaches gathered in a conference room to set the rosters. When my name came up, they went around the room, and I was cut. I was released. I was gone. There were apparently only two or three people — this was out a few dozen — who said I shouldn’t get cut.

“Brad thought I was a lot better than what I’d been showing, and that I needed a role tailored to me in a way that it would shine through. Moving to the bullpen so I didn’t have to face so many right-handed batters was part of that. The next morning he came in and argued my case with Jim Rantz. I guess he left that meeting not knowing if I was cut or not, but there was a plane ticket with my name on it, going back home to [Massachusetts]. Later that day he saw me on the field pitching in a game, which is how he learned he’d convinced Jim Rantz not to cut me.”

We hoped you liked reading Ryan O’Rourke on Life in the Minor Leagues by David Laurila!

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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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Josh
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Josh

I’m fascinated by these stories, the pain and fear of chasing a dream, but also the fight and the deep satisfaction of fleeting success at times. These are such wonderful vignettes and I wish the reality of minor league life (across many sports) were one of the topics we, as fans, were as steeped in as we are about the minutiae of major league clubs.

These pieces are fantastic and I look forward to more of them.

Curtis Granderson's Moon Landing
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Curtis Granderson's Moon Landing

There’s a good series on MetsMerized written by 13th round draft pick Ty Kelly that you might like: https://metsmerizedonline.com/2018/12/my-baseball-life-part-1-draft-day.html/

Josh
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Josh

Thank you! Also, nice user name.