Time in the Minors

Movie Review: Time in the Minors

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I got a chance to see a great documentary recently: Time in the Minors, by Tony Okun.  While the film has been around for a little while, it became available on DVD just last fall and, either way, its subject matter is timeless and compelling.  I loved it, I want to tell you about it and, hopefully, you’ll want to see it.

Time in the Minors follows two players: Tony Schrager and John Drennen.  Schrager was a college boy. He began at Yale and then transferred to Stanford before becoming a sixth round pick of the Chicago Cubs in 1998.  Drennan was drafted out of high school by the Indians, a supplemental first round pick by virtue of Omar Vizquel leaving via free agency following the 2004 season. Schrager is a cerebral middle infielder who got an $80,000 bonus and seems wise beyond his years. Drennan, an outfielder, is a seemingly laid back California kid who got a million bucks.  They have one thing in common, however, which trumps all of those differences. It’s a common enemy: the minor leagues.

And I don’t think it’s putting it too strongly to call the minor leagues an enemy. Indeed, the minors and, more broadly, baseball itself is the film’s primary antagonist. How can it not be when it’s a system that, by design, ends the dreams of 90% of those who enter it? When it turns something which has always been a fun game into a tough business? When it relegates the actual playing of that game into an almost secondary concern and elevates other far less exciting things like training and time management and — above all else — failure management to the utmost importance? Indeed, it’s a game altogether different than that which amateurs are used to, and the adjustments it takes in order to survive are things that very few young men are well prepared for.

Not that Schrager and Drennen complain about any of this. Indeed, both of them seem very clear-eyed about the nature of the minor leagues even as they struggle against it, and at no time does either of them seem to feel sorry for themselves when faced with misfortune or struggle.

For example, at one point Schrager has his best shot at making the majors — he’s starting at AAA when two of the Dodgers’ infielders are injured — coincide directly with what is easily the worst slump of his career, leading the team to find replacements in the Mexican League rather than give him the call. Likewise, just as Drennen is starting to make a splash in the Sally League, he injures his hand while trying to stretch a single into a double and, in the process, he learns that the one thing that defined him as a high school star — his insane amount of energy — often works against him over the course of what is a very long professional baseball season.

Schrager and Drennen deal with this stuff. They deal with the fact that timing can be everything. They deal with the fact that, to be a success in baseball, you have to pull off the neat trick of both pacing yourself and playing with intensity. They deal with the fact that they’ve gone from being something very special — their parents are interviewed in trophy-strewn rec rooms and their amateur coaches talk about how unique they were — to being relatively small fish in a very big pond. They deal with the fact that yesterday’s triumph — Drennen’s biggest claim to fame yet was that he hit a home run off Roger Clemens when the latter was pitching in the minors while making his comeback — means almost nothing the very next day. Mostly they deal with a system that, perhaps unexpectedly, requires far more than hitting and catching a baseball well. It’s about being in the right place at the right time. Getting lucky when it counts. Prevailing over boredom and frustration and doubt more than prevailing over opposing pitchers.

But if all this film had going for it was Schrager and Drennen, we might get a little lost or bogged down in the emotion of it all (and if I have one complaint it’s that the tone, often via the background music, is a bit more of a downer than the subject demands).  Thankfully, there are interviews with players, coaches, scouts and a sports psychologist who help provide a frame of reference to it all.

Cody Ross appears in the movie as one of Schrager’s training partners. While he doesn’t provide any grand insight himself, his mere presence reminds us that even a relatively ordinary player like Ross had to have been extraordinary to make it through the battles which Schrager and Drennen may not survive. We also hear from the Cubs’ scout who signed Schrager who reminds us that, for as bad as Schrager’s journey through the minors may have gone, he has actually met or even exceeded the expectations of your average 6th rounder. We also hear from Drennan’s A-ball manager Lee May, Jr., who has seen ’em come and seen ’em go, and reminds us that these two aren’t unique subjects. That their stories are common, and thus the film itself is instructive of the process and not merely a voyeuristic glance into the lives of Schrager and Drennen.

I think about baseball more than almost anyone, but I don’t know that I’ve really thought about the nature of the minor leagues in the way they’re presented in Time in the Minors. Like a lot of people, I think about them through the humorous and mannered filter of Bull Durham. Or I think of them as a playground where fast-track prospects romp before getting their early callup. Or I think of them as some sort of pastoral and even romantic backdrop for feel-good stories in which long-term grinders finally get their chance.

What I don’t think about — but now always will — are guys like Schrager who never make it or Drennen who, while he’s still plugging away in the Indians’ system, may not. And, more significantly, about a system that, by its very nature, must work thwart their dreams lest it fail to serve its purpose.

Time in the Minors, a film by Tony Okun, can be purchased here, in both a 60-minute and an 85-minute version.

Tim Lincecum to hold long-awaited showcase on Friday

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JUNE 16:  Tim Lincecum #55 of the San Francisco Giants pitches against the Seattle Mariners during the game at AT&T Park on Tuesday, June 16, 2015 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Brad Mangin/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Brad Mangin/MLB Photos via Getty Images
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At long last, the Tim Lincecum showcase has an official date: this Friday, May 6 in Scottsdale, according to CSN Bay Area’s Alex Pavlovic (citing a report from MLB Network’s Jon Heyman). Lincecum, still a free agent, has been allowed to throw at the Giants’ facility in Arizona.

Lincecum, 31, has reportedly still drawn the interest in at least half the league. San Francisco remains Lincecum’s preferred landing spot, however, per Pavlovic.

The right-hander showed better results in 15 starts last season after three consecutive tough campaigns. He finished the 2015 season with a 4.13 ERA and a 60/38 K/BB ratio in 76 1/3 innings. Given how starting pitching is always in demand, Lincecum should walk away with a handful of offers.

Video: J.J. Hardy collects carom off Manny Machado’s glove, converts the out

A ball hit by Chicago White Sox' Todd Frazier gets by Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado during the fourth inning of a baseball game, Sunday, May 1, 2016, in Baltimore. Baltimore Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy, not seen, was able to get the ball and throw it to first to get out Frazier on the play. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
AP Photo/Nick Wass
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Some great defensive plays leave you saying, “Wow!” This one will leave you saying that, and, “How the heck did that happen?”

In the top of the fourth inning at Camden Yards, White Sox slugger Todd Frazier lined a Ubaldo Jimenez offering right at third baseman Manny Machado. The ball skipped and caromed off of Machado’s glove, creating what seemed to be an easy single for Frazier. Shortstop J.J. Hardy, however, was ranging to his right and used his cat-like reflexes to snag the redirected ball. He planted and threw a one-hopper to Chris Davis at first base to convert the out.

The replay at about 21 seconds really does the play justice. Outstanding stuff by Hardy. The Orioles, however, wound up losing 7-1 to the White Sox.

Clayton Kershaw K’s 14 in three-hit shutout, provides Dodgers’ only run

National League pitcher Clayton Kershaw, of the Los Angeles Dodgers, throws during the second inning of the MLB All-Star baseball game, Tuesday, July 15, 2014, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
AP Photo/Jeff Roberson
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You could say Clayton Kershaw had a pretty good day. The Dodgers’ lefty limited the Padres to three hits over nine scoreless innings, striking out 14 while walking none. The Dodgers won 1-0, and Kershaw provided that lone run with a single up the middle in the third inning off of Drew Pomeranz.

Kershaw amassed a game score of 95 with the effort — the third game of his career with a game score of 95 or better. The others: a 97 game score against the Giants on September 29 last year, and 102 against the Rockies on June 18, 2014.

Kershaw improves to 3-1 on the year with a 1.96 ERA and a 54/3 K/BB ratio in 46 innings. He’s had double-digit strikeouts in each of his last four starts and he’s yet to go fewer than seven innings in all six starts this season.

Wanna work as a baseball broadcaster for free?

Two drake Mallard ducks fly over Lake Erie near the Cleveland shoreline, Tuesday, April 1, 2014, in Cleveland. Warming temperatures have brought a variety of waterfowl to the area as they stage for the northern migration. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)
AP Photo/Mark Duncan
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(Hat tip to @ItsTonyNow on Twitter for pointing this story out.)

The Madison Mallards are a collegiate summer baseball team in Wisconsin. College players join the league to have an opportunity to showcase their talents for scouts. Though they’re not exactly the New York Yankees, the Mallards do relatively well for themselves. In 2013, they had the highest average attendance among amateur teams, per The Capital Times.

That makes one of their latest job postings seem rather curious. The Mallards are looking for someone to handle both play-by-play broadcasting duties as well as media relations, as seen in this post. Only one problem: the position is unpaid. Here’s the full description (emphasis mine):

The Madison Mallards are looking for an enthusiastic and ambitious individual to join the front office as the Radio Broadcaster.

This position will manage all day-to-day media relations duties and act as the traveling secretary on all road trips. This is a seasonal position, beginning in May 2016 and ending in mid-August. This position is unpaid. The candidate will serve as the full-time radio broadcaster, traveling with the team during the season.

Duties and responsibilities include but are not limited to:
* Write press releases promoting team initiatives including post-game recaps for the team website.
* Coordinate all aspects of team travel including notifying restaurants, hotels, and other teams, getting team orders, room assignments, etc.
* Broadcast all 72 Northwoods League games on 1670 The Zone including pre- and post-game shows, during the regular season (and playoffs if necessary).
* Ability to work long hours, including weekends, as business indicates.
* Strong written and verbal communication skills
* Produce radio commercials for the Mallards and business partners
* Work closely with GM and Corporate Service team to include all sponsor and promotional live reads each gameUpdate the Mallards website daily
* Other duties as assigned by GM

The habit of baseball teams looking for free labor isn’t exactly new. The U.S. Department of Labor investigated the Giants and Marlins in 2013 for possible wage law violations. That included the Giants being investigated for “possible improper use of unpaid interns.” The Giants ended up paying $544,715 in back wages. In a memo that year issued by Rob Manfred, he cited the Department of Labor believing that MLB’s habit of taking advantage of unpaid interns was “endemic to our industry.”

According to U.S. law, a for-profit company can hire an unpaid intern by meeting each of six criteria, according to FindLaw:

  • The internship is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment
  • The experience is for the benefit of the intern
  • The intern does not displace regular employees but works under close supervision of existing staff
  • The employer providing the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded
  • There is no guarantee of a job at the conclusion of the internship
  • Both parties understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the internship

It would seem that the third and fourth criteria wouldn’t be met.

The Mallards are almost certainly looking for a college student — not a well-credentialed media veteran — looking to add to his or her resume. They are also very clearly looking to take advantage of that student given the plethora of job responsibilities with no pay. Current college students are part of the millennial generation which has increasingly been taken advantage of through unpaid internships. Steven Greenhouse wrote for the New York Times in 2012:

No one keeps statistics on the number of college graduates taking unpaid internships, but there is widespread agreement that the number has significantly increased, not least because the jobless rate for college graduates age 24 and under has risen to 9.4 percent, the highest level since the government began keeping records in 1985. (Employment experts estimate that undergraduates work in more than one million internships a year, with Intern Bridge, a research firm, finding almost half unpaid.)

In a capitalist society, businesses are always going to search for the cheapest source of labor. Considering how bad the economy is and has been for millennials, they’ve had a pretty good time finding it. It’s hard to fault college students jumping at the opportunity to work in an industry they like in the hopes of one day landing a dream job. But as much as those businesses might loathe admitting it, that labor is worth something whether it’s for an amateur baseball team or a major league team.