Bush League Blues: A Decade in Professional Baseball

minor league ballpark

David Eckstein gives sportswriters a boner. This is a proven fact. Type in “David Eckstein” and “scrappy” into Google and you will get 22,500 hits. I don’t blame them – I’d rather write about David Eckstein than, for instance, a guy as talented as Andruw Jones that almost eats himself out of baseball in a contract year. It’s a better story. And baseball fans look at Eckstein and many believe that he’s proof that anyone can achieve anything if they work hard enough, if they’re gritty enough, if they’re scrappy enough. To them, he means that all a player needs is a chance and if they want it bad enough, they can make it to the top. This is some seriously moving 1980s sports movie shit.

But that shit ain’t the truth.

The truth is, there are lots of guys in the minors that want it just as much as Eckstein, work just as hard and some are probably more talented. And yet they will never see an MLB roster. Baseball is a numbers game, but a lot of times it’s the numbers on the contract that make the difference in player development. A big investment is a big investment and teams want to give these players every chance to pay dividends (and to make them look smart). And while David Eckstein will rightfully be canonized as the Patron Saint of Grinders, stories like his are few and far between in today’s game.

As a ballplayer, Gary Bunt was a grinder. Coming from the college ranks, he was a pitcher with terrific stats, an excellent make-up and good stuff, but he didn’t have the WOW stuff that gets players the big money. Dominating the competition wasn’t enough when the radar gun didn’t read $$$. Gary pitched successfully for 5 years in the minors before walking away from the game. He worked hard to get a chance with a team in a Baseball Operations role and he achieved his goal last year, but not before running smack into his share of dead ends. I asked Gary Bunt (not his real name – you’re shocked, I know) to answer some questions about his time in the game as a player, life on the road as a pro athlete, and about his current role in an MLB front office.

DB:  You excelled in high school and at the Division I level in college to the point that you were selected in the MLB Rule 4 Amateur Draft. Walk me through your experience leading up to and during the draft. What was the process like and how did it feel when you got the call that you had been selected?

GB:  The draft sucked for me. My draft year was by far the best year I had in my entire playing career. I won all sorts of awards and led my league in all the major statistical categories, as well as being named player of the year for my position. I had scouts telling me they were going to select me in rounds 7-10. Man, were they full of shit.

The draft started at 2pm. I was in a college dorm before the time when everyone had cell phones, and didn’t even know what the dorm’s phone number was, so I sat by the computer and watched the selections that way. I could hear audio of the draft conference call at the MLB offices in NYC. I sat there for about 5 hours. Rounds 7-10 went by and there was no shout out for me. I heard many guys go that I had better stats than, and in my mind, I thought the call had to be coming soon. The day ended with no phone call.

I woke up the next day to the pounding of steel drums from the fraternity above my apartment. The whole world was spinning. There was an empty bottle of Jim Beam on my floor, that which I vaguely remember opening, although I could still taste it. I was shaking the cobwebs, trying to read the fine print on MLB’s website for my name. Eh, there it was. I was picked over 4 hours before I got up, it was already 3 in the afternoon by that time, and still there was no phone call. The only people [MLB Teams] call are the ones who get taken early and those guys get more chances to make the big leagues than mother goose has stories. Every player taken after round 15 gets a plane ticket and, if you’re lucky, a few bucks to spend during the season.

The area scout for the team called two days later. We planned to meet at my Dad’s house after graduation. I thought I was big man on campus. I spent the next few days acting like I was going to sign for 100K. “Yeah man, I’ll leave you tickets when I reach the bigs…”

Pfffft… When I met up with the scout, he showed me a basic contract for minor league players. He told me I didn’t have to sign it, that I could negotiate for a higher “bonus”, but that I was very unlikely to get anything more than what they were offering. They offered me a $1000 signing “bonus”. I’m putting that in “-“, because in the big world of million dollar athletes, most guys make $1000 before they take their morning shit. It was a take it or leave it offer and I had no fall back plan. I went to college to play baseball. I signed the shit out of that contract and spent every last dime of my chump change on a “fun” filled weekend in NYC at the end of the season.

DB:  I, too, went to college to play baseball and ended up with great memories, a legacy of unfulfilled expectations and untreatable hemorrhoids. Back then, if we were trading problems, I’d take yours. To many of us that have never been pro ballplayers, it seems like a charmed existence playing a game you love for a living. However, oftentimes this isn’t the case for minor league players. Was there a particularly sobering moment for you early on that made you rethink your dream of professional baseball? Did your attitude change as your career progressed?

GB:  I had plenty of sobering moments in my career; I was never that good at nursing a hangover. Every two weeks I was reminded of how far from charmed my existence really was. My first summer, I made $870 a month… before taxes. I received $16 a day while on the road for food and clubhouse dues. Basically, peanut butter sandwiches and if I was lucky, watermelon, was my dietary regimen.

I could deal with being poor. The pathetically low paychecks were just a small piece of the pie that provided most of us with a common bond where we had something to bitch about. I say “most of us”, but definitely not all. In the last year of my career, I was in Double-A holding onto my middling career fairly well, making $1800 a month. It was the largest contract I ever had the pleasure of signing. After the draft that summer, the organization I was playing for selected a “can’t miss” relief prospect who was shuttled to Double-A after the draft. When his first paycheck came in, he left the stub on the table in the training room. For two weeks of relief pitching – $87, 923!!! This guy threw 95mph, but looked like a monkey fucking a football when he’d play catch. At that point, I pretty much knew my dreams of making the big leagues, after 5 seasons in the minors, were kaput.

And where’s Mr. Money Bags now? After being traded to the perennial doormats of the National League, he’s shuffling around in the high minors just straight stealing money from that first contract. Hope you didn’t spend all that dough on something in those Ferrari magazines you used to carry around…

DB:  I know who Mr. Money Bags is and I hope he gets, well you can fill in the blank…Mix in a strike once in a while, you waste of skin! Sorry about that. The Tiger Woods incident drew mainstream attention to a lot of troubling issues in our society involving professional athletes such as chronic infidelity, possible drug abuse, paparazzi culture and sex addiction. These are all serious issues to consider, but I don’t care about any of them. I care about Road Beef. What an awesome term for an awesome situation. Did you have any road beef during your playing career?

GB:  It’s funny how these troubling issues come to light when a holier than thou athlete screws up… [Gary makes a well-argued point about America’s hypocritical indignation over Tiger Woods, while your humble author spaces out and fantasizes about Road Beef – whoops.]… Professional athletes have more opportunity and greater capability to mess around, so why is it such a surprise?

That being said, I had some road beef. I played in some shit hole towns that most truck drivers would rather not stop through, so often there were slim pickens. But for most of us, letting off steam after a tough day at the yard was a rite of passage. But you had to be careful. Cleat chasers could be a cunning, spiteful sort. Rarely did the wily vet ever give out his number. There was always the looming threat of Ms. Nice Ass from Allentown wanting to move to your off season home and change her life to be a part of that major league dream.

DB:  ROAD BEEF!!! DETAILS!!!

GB:  Ft. Lauderdale/24 years old – I’m hanging out with an old buddy at a bar, and meet two older ladies (one with a great big rack) who were out celebrating one of their birthdays. We both claim to be on the PGA tour, he’s a big shot and I’m his caddy. He’s buying rounds all night, acting like he just won some huge tourney. As it gets later and the night begins to turn to black, my lady (with the great big rack) says she needs to take her friend back to her house so she can get her car, and that I should come along. As we pull up to her house, there’s like 5 cars in the driveway. I ask what’s up with that? She says her husband is home with some buddies playing poker, giving her the night with her friends for her birthday. I’m literally sitting in the backseat of the BMW in her driveway and can see the guys playing poker though the window. We do a quick switcheroo, I jump in front and we take off before her husband notices. We drive down to Miami and pull up to some ritzy hotel. She says she would really like it if we got a room there for her birthday present. We get up to the top floor of this place, and it’s one of those rooms with double doors opening out to a big foyer – how much does this shit cost? Apparently she worked in the hotel business so she hooked it up a $200 rate for the night. Not for nothing, and I’m no porn star by any means, but we “celebrated” for about 5 hours. She was quite fond of me, but little did she know I was driving a 1991 Jeep Wrangler with a doughnut tire on one wheel and the credit card I dropped for the room would probably be declined. I wake up around 11am to her freaking out. She had slept through some real estate meeting her husband had set up and she had 12 voicemails from him about it. We leave without checking out and she gives me a ride back to my buddies’ apartment. As we’re pulling up she asks which car is mine. Rather than tell her it’s the beat up Wrangler, I say “uhhhh, that black one down there” without knowing what kind of car I’m pointing to. It’s a goddamned Rolls Royce. She drops me off and gives me her card. She says to call the next time you’re in town. As she pulls away, this 79 year old grandma with her grandson or something walks up to the Rolls Royce and hits the panic button by accident, causing my ride home to stop short and see them both getting into their car. Oops.

DB:  That could be one of my stories, except I’d be the guy accidentally hitting the panic button with his grandma, not the cougar-banging ballplayer. And the car would be a Chevy Corsica, not a Rolls Royce. And both my grandmas are dead. Moving on. We talked about the excitement of being drafted earlier. Let’s cover the other end of the spectrum: Describe for me the process of being cut.

GB:  I was cut a few times. Never once was I offered a real honest explanation of why or what I had done that wasn’t good enough. Just tell me I suck, what I need to work on, and thanks for your time. Don’t sugar coat it, be real, and move on.

The last time, I was cut during extended spring training after I spent the entire off-season training at the complex and had been dominating with the Double-A team during camp. After three weeks of throwing in intra-squad games against kids pretty much right out of little league, I asked a coach to see if he could find out why the hell I was still there. He agreed, said that I had definitely pitched well enough to move to an affiliate. The next day a piece of paper was faxed from the Farm Director with 12 names on it, including mine. All 12 were released.  No explanation.

At this point I was ready to say fuck baseball. Before I left, one of the executives from the team that just released me called. They wanted to know who had released me, what was said, and what the reason was for it. You gotta be shitting me, right? Apparently, the Farm Director wanted the GM’s job real bad and was getting rid of anyone and everyone that any of the GM’s guys had brought in, myself included. They had no idea I was being released. But they couldn’t do anything about it now. Thank you very much you piece of shit franchise. But that’s an example of the uglier side of front office politics.

DB:  Ironically enough, now you find yourself in a front office role. How many dreams have you crushed? Do you like it when they cry?

GB:  Actually, I’m in an office full of great people.  Maybe it was just my perspective now that I’m on the other side, but it seemed like when I was playing there were a lot of dishonest people making decisions in upper management.  I don’t want to name names, but there was a guy who recently resigned as a GM for speculation over some serious fraudulent claims involving signing amateur players.  I had first had knowledge that this guy was a very shady individual.  There were a lot of bad things happening behind the scenes on the players side of the game when I was involved, and there had to be a significant amount of maneuvering on the business side to try to promote the game in a positive way.  These days, it’s getting closer to being more honest of a sport, but there’s still some work to do.  The fact that I didn’t partake in the “reality” of the game during that era might explain some of my resentment at how my career came to fruition, but I had the same choice as many others to be or not to be. I’m happy with the one I made and the person I am because of it.

Now that I do work in the game, I do whatever I can to help the right people realize their dreams.  Take that with a grain of salt, as I’m pretty low on the food chain concerning anything involving new hires. At the same time, I know what it’s like to have your dreams crushed at every attempt of the slightest chance of an internship.  It’s not like I retired then all of a sudden had a desk and a salary waiting for me.  I had to build my resume volunteering in other avenues, trying to stay involved in the game.  I was out for two years sending resumes, emails, making phone calls.  I paid my own room and board around the country on many an interview.  I was at my wit’s end and finally something broke for me.  Call it luck, call it perseverance, call it hypocritical, but I knew baseball had to be a part of my life and I’m extremely fortunate to be where I am.

DB:  Nice save and well said. Still, I choose to believe you meant “Of course I like making them cry” but fair enough. A lot of people wish for the opportunity to work for an MLB team, but not many realize what’s involved with the job. Can you describe an average day for you?

GB:  I spend a lot of my day sitting at a desk, like most of corporate America. We don’t really have set work hours, you just have to get your work done when it’s due. Of course, there aren’t many that show up late and leave early; it’s just not that type of environment. If you do approach your day in that way, you won’t last long. This game is all about grinding it out. Typically, I work from about 8am to midnight, 6-7 days a week during the season. The time flies by though.

I usually start the day with a workout and breakfast. I have full access to the facilities in our stadium and I try to get something done before everyone gets there. I’ll spend most of the day going over current reports from the previous day’s games, both on our team and the team we’re about to play in the next series. I have a few search engines and databases I run through so I’m up to date on all the injury updates, transactions, and stats on the team we’re about to play. I’ll spend a few hours during the day putting some things together for our reports on the next series.

Usually I’ll watch our home games in the stands or in the suite with the other members of the front office. Sometimes, I am asked to track specific trends throughout the course of the game so we can measure our team’s performance based on ideas we come up with that could improve our team. After the game is over, we usually meet with the front office after the GM and assistant GM have met with the coaching staff. It’s a good way for everyone to be on the same page about roster moves or possible player acquisitions that might need some due diligence.

My job is a job without weekends or vacations. Anyone who wants to try to work in baseball has to be willing to make a lot of sacrifices and salvage whatever social life they can make of it.

DB:  Sounds boring (says the guy with ten fantasy baseball teams and a baseball blog). I think I’d clean clubhouse toilets if it meant I could say I worked in baseball. Speaking of fantasy, you play fantasy baseball and you also work in baseball. How popular is fantasy in clubhouses and/or front offices? Give me one under the radar fantasy player you like for the rest of 2010. I promise not to pick him up in either of the leagues we’re in together.

GB:  “Fantasy baseball?  No, I don’t play that, man. I don’t have the time, and besides, what I do for work is pretty much fantasy baseball anyway, right?”

That’s what most guys will say if you ask them.  And I’m sure the majority of front office and especially clubhouse guys don’t partake, but there’s definitely a few that do.  I don’t see the harm in it, as it’s a good way to keep up on player news and hot / cold streaks.  It’s not like it’s distracting you from most of your work, as it still keeps you relentlessly informed on what’s going on in MLB.

As for an under the radar player, I’m a big fan of June rookie call ups.  I can see Starlin Castro, Cubs SS, coming up and providing some value at a shallow position.  And watch out for Jhoulys Chacin, he’s already made his debut and been heralded with power stuff for a while.  He’s still 22 so there may be some growing pains, but it’s not his first taste of the bigs and I think you could see some nice production there.

DB:  I already own Chacin in both our leagues because my brain is terribly large, but thanks. PED abuse has marred the last two decades of MLB baseball. Some of the game’s biggest stars have been implicated. In just the past year, Manny Ramirez and EdinsonVolquez have been suspended for violating the league’s PED policy, both reportedly for testing positive for fertility drugs. I’m going to cut the b/s and ask you the BIG question: Is there a fertility problem amongst MLB ballplayers?

GB:  Good question.  I can’t really speak for the majority of reproductive systems for MLB ballplayers, but from my experience, I’ve never been around more unwed mothers in any other line of work.

DB:  This guy in Little Rock, AR was telling me the same thing about unwed mothers in that city in general. There is a Double-A team there. Weird. Follow-up Question: Do you feel that boxer shorts be made mandatory for the good of the game?

GB:  Oof!  Can you imagine the chafing?  How about sliding into second head first, getting dirt down your crack, and now you gotta go play OF with clay crumbs stuck to your grundle.  No thanks.

DB:  Indeed. Thanks for your time, Gary. Hopefully, this has been fun and informative for our readers. My last question might be the most important one so I’ll set it up. In a conversation with Brad Ausmus over ten years ago, he mentioned to those of us present that Moises Alou was absurdly hung, more so than even The Big Unit, Randy Johnson. In all your years in pro ball, biggest unit – who you got?

GB:  Hmmm… Deliberating on male organs isn’t really my forte, but I did once see [former Toronto/Chicago AL/Oakland/Florida reliever] Billy Koch tie his dick in a knot.  That was impressive.

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