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.