Friday, May 4, 2012

Pitcher dishes insight into anxious life of a minor league rookie

Imagine the anxiety a fledgling professional ball player faces. At the plate with two strikes battling filthy sliders in front of a hostile crowd. Out on the mound with the tying and winning runs on base and the other team’s best hitter digging in. Maybe the farm director’s in the stands, analyzing his every move as the team weighs who moves on and who moves out.

That’s nothing compared to the stress of reporting for duty in the first place. As Eric Pettis describes his first day with the Williamsport Crosscutters in Just a Minor Perspective: Through the Eyes of a Minor League Rookie, it’s more like your first anxious day at a new school or workplace than you might have pictured.

“Duncan and I stepped out onto the floor of the lobby and saw eight faces with the same look of bewilderment and anxiety,” Pettis writes. “Eight faces so similar, yet so foreign. These were my new teammates. I had been on so many teams before and met so many new players for the first time, yet this seemed different. This time there was no quiet rumble of getting to know one and other. In fact, there was no conversing at all.”

His team, in the short-season New York-Penn League, was a mixture of college kids fresh out of the June draft and others who had already spent a season or two in the system, guys who had signed out of Latin America or high school. They were thrown together in the small-town atmosphere of Williamsport, brothers and rivals, wearing the same uniform but knowing the guy sitting next to them was fighting for the same promotion as they were.

Pettis’ original role as a starting pitcher isolated him further yet. Unlike the guys down in the bullpen, who are forced by their job and location to bond for most of the game, the starter flies solo, going through his own routine before his start and often ignored in the dugout between innings. Even once his work is done he is whisked away to the clubhouse to do cardio exercises and ice his arm.

The role in many ways suited Pettis, who self-admittedly is more reserved than most players. He describes the awkwardness of settling into the home of his host family, where he shared a small bedroom with a teammate and was chauffeured to and from the park each day by a woman in her seventies who had been opening her home to Williamsport players since the ‘90s.

Pettis, who helped lead UC-Irvine to the College World Series as a freshman, arrived in Williamsport as an unheralded 35th-round pick in 2010. A college senior with no leverage, he signed for next to nothing and used it all as motivation to prove he belonged. Despite moving to a relief role midway through the season, he made the NY-P All-Star team and finished with a sterling 8-0 record and 1.37 ERA in 59 innings for Williamsport.

Just when he was ready to for the season to end, he was crossed up with a promotion to low Class A Lakewood to help the Blue Claws in their run through the South Atlantic League playoffs. Once again there was the anxiety of being the new guy, something he never got over despite pitching well in several appearances as Lakewood captured the SAL title.

Minor league playoffs are just another thing interfering with a player’s return to home, his comfort zone, after a long season of being stranded in a small-town, reliant on a well-meaning senior citizen for transportation to the park so he can wolf down his pregame peanut-butter and jelly sandwich while battling his gag reflex as his body tries to reject it.

It’s not glamorous, and it’s certainly not easy to make all of the necessary adjustments in a player’s first season, as Pettis drives home throughout this short ebook. He talks frequently about the efforts he makes to stay focused and not let negative energy penetrate his mindset, even while most of the team is bitching and moaning about less than stellar facilities in certain towns, like Jamestown, where aging Diethrick Park dates back to 1941.

In fact, one of the underlying themes in Just a Minor Perspective is how hard a young player must work and focus to thrive in such an atmosphere. There’s nothing in the way of a tell-all flavor to Pettis’ work. While he received his pink slip from the Phillies organization this spring right about the time the book was released, he sees no connection between the two events, despite his success last year at Lakewood and high Class A Clearwater. Whereas fellow player-turned-author Dirk Hayhurst has hinted that his writing has led to something of a banishment from the game, Pettis hasn’t experienced the same response.

“To be honest I can't really say that I have felt a lot of backlash from my work,” he said via email. “I wish I could try to connect my release from the Phillies to the book in some way, but I just don't think that's the case. My writing has never been the type to badmouth any one in particular. Does it discuss my frustration with the system of professional baseball at times? Yes. But, in the end I always try to bring it around to convey the message that my hard work can trump that which I think is unfair.”

Pettis’ style differs significantly from Hayhurst’s, which he cites as a consequence of ignorance rather than design as he’s not read either The Bullpen Gospels or Out of My League. There are no colorful teammates called Slappy, Maddog, or Pickles. The only real hi-jinks involves a regrettable decision by a relief pitcher to deface a ball with colorful language instead of his signature. Still, Pettis insists he enjoyed his first season in the pro ranks.

“As a professional athlete the ‘fun’ of what we do is not really something that is conducive to making an interesting book,” he said. “It's not the same kind of fun that you get from riding a roller-coaster. The fun as an athlete comes from competing on the field, the everyday interaction of your teammates, and trying to get better. Fun for us is a lot more of a satisfaction than it is an amusement. So there are a lot of ‘fun times’ written about in the book, it just might not be the conventional type.”

Now, unfortunately, he’s got a little unplanned time off to work on marketing the book while he seeks out his next opportunity on the diamond. Unlike Hayhurst, he lacks the muscle of a major publisher behind his effort. Still, despite going the self-published route, he’s found a receptive audience in the month plus since its release. There could even be a follow up, but that’s not been determined yet.

“Whether there will be another book or not is really up to the fans,” Pettis said. “I know that writing will play a role in my life in some way, shape, or form. And if there is a demand for more, I'm more than willing to put my heart and soul on paper again.”

Fear not, potential teammates. Clubhouse secrets are safe with Pettis. This is not Ball Four, or even The Bullpen Gospels. Still, the rookie effort from this rookie minor leaguer provides insight into what every young man who signs a contract faces.

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