Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 6, 2021

Book Review: An Inside Look At Life In The Minors

The focus of the baseball world on that September Tuesday was on places like Los Angeles, Houston, and New York.  At famous big league stadiums in each of those cities, the Dodgers, Astros and Yankees all sent their fans home happy with victories that put each franchise on the cusp of 100 wins for the 2019 season.  At another well-known ballpark in St. Louis, the visiting Nationals slipped by the Cardinals 6-2 to improve to 83-67.  While Washington’s record was and would remain well short of the impressive marks of those other glamor franchises, the victory continued the Nats’ recovery from a dreadful start to the season, and in the end 2019’s MLB championship parade marched through the nation’s capital, a reminder that titles are about more than just the count of regular season wins and losses. 

But while most fans were following those headline-generating games, at the much smaller and decidedly less famous AutoZone Park in Memphis, a baseball championship just one step below the World Series was decided.  Located just a short walk from the Mississippi River, the regular season home of the Memphis Redbirds was the site of that year’s Triple-A national title game, in which the Sacramento River Cats blanked the Columbus Clippers 4-0 to become kings of the highest level of the minor leagues for the third time in franchise history.  What was unimaginable on September 17, 2019, when the Clippers’ Mark Mathias swung and missed at a 2-2 offering from the River Cats’ Steven Okert for the final out, was that after the last pitch of that game between the top affiliates of the big league clubs in San Francisco and Cleveland, there would not be another one thrown in a minor league contest for 597 days, or that by the time the brutally long hiatus forced by the pandemic finally ended this week, the structure of Minor League Baseball would have undergone fundamental change.

The Great Game in its minor league form returned on Tuesday, with more than 100,000 fans making their way to little ballparks in small cities and large towns across the country for the opening tilts.  But there are many locales where such a trip, often a relatively inexpensive family excursion, is no longer an option.  The reorganization of Minor League Baseball was essentially imposed by MLB, which used its financial strength and superior bargaining position and capitalized on the economic distress of many MiLB franchises after a season lost to the pandemic to get everything it wanted out of “negotiations” after the old Professional Baseball Agreement expired last year.  The result was the elimination of 40 minor league clubs and the reassignment of others to different levels of play.  The Short-Season Single-A and Rookie league levels were eliminated, ending the New York – Penn League, which had been in operation since 1939. 

Reducing the number of teams by 25 percent eliminated 1,000 roster spots, so MLB in turn slashed its Amateur Draft from 40 rounds to 20.  In addition to removing a familiar source of summertime entertainment and a direct connection to the sport from twoscore communities, the obvious impact of these changes is to narrow the path to the big leagues, thus saying to hundreds of young ballplayers that their dreams are not worth pursuing.  But every argument has at least two sides, and the counterpoint to this is the harsh but absolute reality that most minor league ballplayers are pursuing a pipedream.  While the road to The Show has been made more difficult, it should not be forgotten that it was already akin to the trail leading to the summit of Mount Everest – steep, arduous, and littered with the desiccated corpses of others’ dead dreams.  And, as MLB commissioner Rob Manfred would surely point out, one goal of the streamlining of MiLB is to put the remaining teams on a more secure financial footing and allow for improved pay and working conditions for players.

It is far too early to say if that laudable objective will be met, but the start of a new minor league season in a structure that ensures finances will be part of an ongoing discussion makes the publication of Greg Larson’s “The Clubbie – A Minor League Baseball Memoir” especially timely.  Now a stand-up comedian and owner of Apollo Media, a publishing company in Texas, Larson was just out of Winthrop University in the spring of 2012 when he was hired as the clubhouse attendant, or clubbie, for the Aberdeen Ironbirds, then the Short Season Single-A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, playing in the New York – Penn League.  While he readily admits to being largely adrift at the time, Larson’s choice of job applications wasn’t entirely random.  A lifelong fan of the Great Game, he hadn’t let minor obstacles like an .091 batting average as the backup shortstop during his senior year in high school entirely squash a childhood dream of becoming a professional ballplayer.  While he couldn’t make the college squad at Winthrop, Larson did work as the team’s equipment manager, so he came to his new position with some relevant experience.

“The Clubbie” recounts Larson’s two years working for the Ironbirds at the stadium complex named for team owner and Orioles legend Cal Ripken Jr., which overlooks I-95 half an hour north of Baltimore.  Often funny and always heartfelt, it pulls aside the gauzy curtain of hopes and dreams to show the reality of minor league life.  Charging players “dues” of $7 a day for food and his services, Larson winds up making more during the season than most of those on the team’s roster, especially when he saves on living expenses by moving into the equipment closet in the clubhouse, and learns the trick of selling broken bats in the team store that somehow always seem to have been used by the one or two recognizable players on the roster, since the only identification is the name Larson writes on a piece of tape affixed to the bat.

Camden Yards may be just a short drive down I-95, but like that 2019 Triple-A championship game, the world of the Aberdeen Ironbirds is very, very far removed from the Great Game as most fans think of it.  And yet while always aware of that distance, even when at his conniving worst Larson was also mindful of the connection between the two.  Perhaps that is why “The Clubbie,” which is recommended reading for any baseball fan, is ultimately a story of loss.  Losses on the field, for until a late surge in his second season, Larson’s Ironbirds are generally a woeful team.  But also, the loss of relationships, of youthful ambitions, and of the childlike naivete that allows even a grown man to believe that this time, a foul ball will surely come his way.  But if the dreams of youth are most often fated to be lost, then perhaps, as Joni Mitchell told us so many years ago, “there’ll be new dreams, there’ll be better dreams and plenty, before the last revolving year is through.”  In the minor leagues, as in life, the seasons still go round and round. 

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