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.

Red Sox owner John Henry “haunted” by Tom Yawkey’s racist past, wants to rename Yawkey Way

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The Boston Herald’s Michael Silverman reports that Red Sox owner John Henry is “haunted” by the racist past of previous owner Tom Yawkey and wants to rename Yawkey Way, the tw0-block street that runs from Brookline Avenue to Boylston Street.

Earlier this year, the Red Sox renamed an extension of Yawkey Way after David Ortiz.

Yawkey refused to promote black players from the minor leagues during the 1950’s despite exceptional performance. The Red Sox became the last major league team to integrate in 1959 when Pumpsie Green was added to the roster. Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in 1947, called Yawkey “one of the most bigoted guys in baseball.”

This comes days after racial tensions in Charlottesville, VA where protesters and counter-protesters clashed over removing the statue of Robert E. Lee. A member of a white supremacist group drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring 19. While President Trump has done little in the way of disavowing these hate groups, various city leaders have taken the initiative to remove Confederate monuments and the various other ways in which those people have been glorified. Baltimore, for example, removed four Confederate monuments early Wednesday morning.

Renaming Yawkey Way has been a long time coming and with the current political climate, Henry has finally been motivated enough to take action. He said, “I discussed this a number of times with the previous mayoral administration and they did not want to open what they saw as a can of worms. There are a number of buildings and institutions that bear the same name. The sale of the Red Sox by John Harrington helped to fund a number of very good works in the city done by the Yawkey Foundation (we had no control over where any monies were spent). The Yawkey Foundation has done a lot of great things over the years that have nothing to do with our history.”

Henry added, “The Red Sox don’t control the naming or renaming of streets. But for me, personally, the street name has always been a consistent reminder that it is our job to ensure the Red Sox are not just multi-cultural, but stand for as many of the right things in our community as we can – particularly in our African-American community and in the Dominican community that has embraced us so fully. The Red Sox Foundation and other organizations the Sox created such as Home Base have accomplished a lot over the last 15 years, but I am still haunted by what went on here a long time before we arrived.”

Henry says if the decision were entirely up to him, he would dedicate the street to David Ortiz, calling it “David Ortiz Way” or “Big Papi Way.”

Though racism is a problem throughout the U.S., racism has been a particular problem in Boston at least when it comes to baseball. Earlier this year, Orioles outfielder Adam Jones had peanuts thrown at him and was called racist slurs by fans at Fenway Park. Red Sox starter David Price said he has been on the receiving end of racist taunts from Boston fans as well. After the Jones incident, other players — including CC Sabathia, Barry Bonds, Mark McLemore, and Jackie Bradley, Jr. — spoke up and said that they had been treated similarly at Fenway Park.

Henry’s sensitivity to the issue is quite understandable. And he deserves kudos for doing the right thing in pushing to rename Yawkey Way, but one has to wonder why this hadn’t been done much, much sooner.

The Cardinals believe they are going to get Rally Cat back soon

Associated Press
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The saga of Rally Cat continues to unfold.

To remind you, Last Wednesday the St. Louis Cardinals were propelled to victory via the magic of the Rally Catn. We were calling it “Rally Kitten” then, but now it’s Rally Cat, as we’ll explain in a moment.

Then, as soon as he appeared, he was gone, lost by the groundskeeper who captured him when he went to go tend to his numerous claw and bite injuries. Then he was found again and given to the St. Louis Feral Cat Outreach center! Yay! Now the Cardinals say they’re going to get him back. The Post-Dispatch reports:

The St. Louis Feral Cat Outreach organization has assured us they will be returning our cat to us after a mandatory 10-day quarantine period,” said Ron Watermon, the team’s vice president of communications, who added later that Rally Cat would be “cared for by our team, making the Cardinals Clubhouse his home.”

The Feral Cat Outreach center actually named him Rally Cat. Which, well, fine. But if good, smart people with better taste than them want to start calling him Yadier Meowlina, none of us will stop them.