Triple-A Is OK for Career Minor Leaguers : Baseball: Although chances of making the majors are dim, these veterans don’t dread life in the minors.
When Chris Cron was a pup in the Angels’ organization, he recalled seeing a 30-year-old triple-A player and thinking, “Why is he sticking around when there’s a good chance he’ll never make the major leagues?”
Now Cron, a 29-year-old first baseman for the triple-A Nashville Sounds, admits youngsters in the Chicago White Sox farm system are probably saying the same things about him.
When Steve Springer was coming up through the New York Mets’ organization in the early 1980s, he marveled at a pitcher named Rick Anderson, who spent nine seasons with the Mets’ triple-A team in Norfolk, Va.
“I was thinking, ‘How can you spend nine years in triple-A?’ ” Springer said.
He’s about to find out. The 32-year-old Norfolk Tides third baseman, who played at Marina High School and Golden West College, is in the midst of his ninth triple-A season.
Springer and Cron, who played at El Dorado High and Santa Ana College, are among Orange County’s oldest minor league players. They’re hardly deadbeats--Springer has a .277 career minor league average, and his teams have reached the playoffs in 10 of 11 previous seasons; Cron has a .273 career average and had two 22-home-run seasons.
But they’re not major league prospects, either. In 12 professional seasons, Springer has played in only eight major league games, garnering four hits in 17 at-bats; in 10 years, Cron has played in 12 major league games, with two hits in 25 at-bats.
Springer and Cron think they have the talent to play in the big leagues--it’s the main reason they’re still playing--but it has become obvious their employers don’t agree. The evidence:
Springer was named most valuable player of the Tides in 1992 but didn’t even get called up when the Mets expanded their roster in September. When Met third baseman Howard Johnson went on the disabled list earlier this season, the team called up second-base prospect Doug Saunders and kept Springer in Norfolk.
Cron thought he’d crack Chicago’s lineup as designated hitter in 1992, but one week before the season, the White Sox traded for Chicago Cub outfielder George Bell, who has been the team’s DH since.
Springer and Cron seem destined to play out their careers in the minors. They may never make outrageous major league salaries. They may always be small fish in small-pond cities such as Pawtucket, Toledo and Des Moines.
What a miserable life, huh?
“I always say it could be a lot worse,” Springer said. “I could be doing something I don’t like to do. I’ve made a zillion friends in the game, I have a beautiful family, I golf in the off-season. There aren’t a lot of jobs that pay you to sleep till 11 and get six months off.”
When most people think of the minor leagues, long, steamy bus rides, cramped clubhouses in creaky old stadiums, four-to-a-room in cheap motor inns, and $700 a month salaries come to mind.
But the minor league landscape, especially at the triple-A level, has changed considerably the last 10 years, making minor league careers a whole lot more palatable for players such as Springer and Cron.
Triple-A players fly on most trips, and new minor league stadiums, complete with state-of-the-art facilities, are popping up all over the country. The Norfolk Tides, for instance, are playing their first season in a $15-million, 12,000-seat stadium.
Triple-A salaries also have jumped about 50% the past 10-15 years, according to several minor league executives.
Cron said he makes about $50,000 a season, and Springer said he makes about $40,000. Dave Rosenfield, Norfolk Tide General Manager since 1961, said many triple-A players are in the $30,000-40,000-a-year range, compared to $10,000-20,000 a decade ago.
Sure, San Francisco Giant outfielder Barry Bonds makes about as much per game as these guys do in a season, but considering their salaries are for six months and players can make additional money in the off-season, and the cost of living in minor league towns is usually pretty reasonable, the wages aren’t bad.
“Heck, we’re only working six months out of the year and making that kind of money, so as long as we can keep getting the job done we’re going to stay,” Cron said. “I’ve worked the past four off-seasons at Nevada Bob’s Golf and Tennis Shop. I play ball half the year and play golf and talk golf the other half. It’s a great life.”
Years ago, when a player logged seven, eight seasons in the minors with little progression, he usually retired and got a real job.
“My brother, Gary, played six years with Detroit and they kept sending him to double-A,” Springer said. “He was making $1,500 a month, had a wife and kids, so he had to get out of the game to make more money.”
But if a player can establish himself at the triple-A level, he can take advantage of rules that give minor leaguers more leverage, and of a growing market for such veteran players, to make a decent living in the minor leagues.
In the early 1980s, baseball granted free agency to minor leaguers with six years’ experience, so players who felt stuck in one organization could try another.
“If the Tides don’t need you, Toledo does, so these guys can sell their services to the highest bidder,” Rosenfield said. “Before six-year free agency, if you belonged to a club, you were theirs. You took what they offered or you retired.”
Management also looks a lot more kindly toward players such as Springer and Cron, who may not be able to help major league clubs but are a force in the minors.
The mission of the minor leagues is not only to develop major leaguers anymore. Minor league ball has become big business, with team owners investing millions into franchises--Ottawa and Charlotte were purchased for about $5 million last year--and new stadiums.
They want a return on these investments, and the best way to ensure profit is to fill stadiums with fans. And what attracts fans? Winning teams. And what makes winners? Proven, quality players--such as Springer and Cron.
“We have bigger investments, so you have to draw more people to justify the expenses,” said Max Schumacher, general manager of the triple-A Indianapolis Indians since 1961.
“These guys are benefits to the organization, they give you stability, you can look at their record and see they’ve hit in the .300 range year after year. You know what you’re going to get. It’s also important to have players who develop bonds with the fans.”
Schumacher’s team has benefited from having baseball’s ultimate career minor leaguer, Razor Shines, a 35-year-old first baseman in his 16th minor league season and ninth at Indianapolis.
Shines, a player-coach this season, has been a fan favorite in Indianapolis--”He could run for mayor in that town,” Cron said--he lives there year-round and makes off-season public appearances on behalf of the team.
There’s nothing like a hot, up-and-coming prospect to stir interest at a minor league park, but players such as Shines can be valuable marketing tools and be good for player development, too.
“They’re stabilizers,” Schumacher said. “We like to have a blend of veterans and rookies. I think you develop better playing with experienced guys. They help you win in triple-A, and we think development is better in a winning atmosphere.”
The pay and the life style have made triple-A life more bearable for today’s minor leaguers, but don’t let them fool you: they’d give it up in a second for a shot at the major leagues.
The big leagues are still only a phone call away, and there’s always hope. Just look at Rich Amaral, the former Estancia and Orange Coast College infielder who, at 31, is being touted as a rookie-of-the-year candidate with the Seattle Mariners after spending 10 years in the minors.
“He reconfirms my belief that, as long as we’re playing, there’s always a chance,” Springer said. “In management’s eyes, we’re here to help three or four guys get to the bigs. They have to build a team, and they don’t want to put prospects around a bunch of losers who might be bad influences on them.
“I understand what they’re doing, but you can’t tell me I don’t have a chance. It’s just a matter of catching someone’s eye, getting someone in your corner.”
Springer may not know it, but there are people in his corner. Maybe not the right people, but they are there.
“To be frank, Steve should have gotten some chances to play in the big leagues, but he hasn’t given up that dream,” Rosenfield said. “The guy’s chasing rainbows, and there’s a certain charm to that. That’s one of the things that makes some of these kids good players--they haven’t given up the dream, so they continue to play hard. And Steve is definitely a gamer.”
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