AJ Burnett responded quickly to a question this week about his future. He had just finished pitching, fighting a losing battle against the Mariners and his ability to locate. He is in a stretch of not much success, after a start that had him as one of the best pitchers on the Phillies staff. Someone asked if he would pitch next year, to fufill the terms of his 2-yr contract.
He said, “probably not.”
Its a quick simple response. It isn’t written in stone. And yet, it is a quick answer that was written about a lot the next day. It also will be written about a lot this off-season as he and the team struggle to determine their future.
He didn’t need to answer that. But he was emotional, thinking about his performance that night and not really thinking about what the question really was asking. He’ll be asked that at least another dozen times before the season is over, and then more in the off-season if reporters can get a hold of him. His agent will have to field a few of those too.
Its hard to remember, in those moments, that the player can’t be held accountable for answering distant far off questions like that. He’s thinking about if he gets another start this year. He is worrying about what this means to his teammates. He is trying to understand how he, with all his experience and talent, couldn’t find the strike zone. Thoughts of next year aren’t even there, yet. Its his job to stand and answer questions, so routine that he almost is on auto-pilot. He knows what the questions will be for the most part; How did he feel tonight? How did he feel when x happened? What is different now from the beginning of the season? And so when one comes that he doesn’t expect, he answers it without careful consideration. And yet that is the question that will mean the most, both to the person who asked it, and to the fans, teammates, front office and other writers in the months to come.
Auto pilot is a difficult thing to turn off, when you have been doing this as long as Burnett has. But yet the focus that makes one a successful athlete can’t be turned off outside the lines, no matter how much time you have been through the drill.
Are you playing next year? That’s a question for after the season. That is a question for the last day. A reporter can ask a question any time, but a player needs to answer it only when he is prepared to answer it.
One alternate career path that a player can use to make money while playing baseball is to eventually go over to Japan or Korea to play. It isn’t for everybody both because of the cultural/travel differences but also because in many ways it is a different game. And the thing that may be surprising to many US fans is that not everyone who wants to can go.
Japanese teams have a rule that only 4 foreign born players can sit on the roster at any one time. Those foreign born can come from the US, South America, the Caribbean, or even another Asian country. The competition for those spots is fierce, and as we have seen from the World Baseball Classic, Japan has some guys that can play.
Japanese teams have scouts that work for them to scout players in the US, and most of that scouting is done at the AAA level. Players that have expired all their minor league time, are good enough to get some Major league time each season for a few years but aren’t good enough to hold a Major League spot for an entire season might be candidates.
Players have to have a good mindset for it though. They have to be willing to go through formalities that may not exist in the US, due to cultural differences. They also have to show they have the mindset that they can adapt their game on the field to the type of baseball that the Japanese, or Koreans for that matter, play.
If they can do that, then there is good money to be made. Money that is probably better than what they can earn even in one season at the Major League level, depending on the player.
Japanese teams won’t take a player that has tattoos showing outside his uniform, especially the full sleeves. Tattoos are marks of the mafia and other crime ridden populations to the Japanese, and not for an honorable baseball player. No matter how good a player is, teams won’t take him to play in Japan if he is all tatted up.
Just a few things we never think about when we hear a player is playing in Japan.
Last week, I was lucky enough to visit a couple of spots in the Appalachian League, and I kinda fell in love. The idyllic nature of the league, with small parks and communities of fans seems ideal to me. Granted the ammenities aren’t too fancy, and the parks aren’t built for interaction between players and fans, but each fan is very close to the action.
Now the Appalachian League is very remote, and very community based. The teams sit in clusters, and fans move between the fields of the all the teams located in their cluster. They also all know each other, and notice when someone is late or misses a game all together. Its a little like Bull Durham, with some characters surrounding the players. It also is for many players, their first shot a professional baseball. Some of these players were drafted a year earlier, but for whatever reason (injury, surgery, maturation, college language barriers) didn’t start playing in pro-ball last season. Many of these guys won’t make it to the big leagues, but a few will. And their journey starts right here.
The two parks featured in these very short videos are about an hours drive apart, on the Virginia/West Virginia border.
The first is the rookie affiliate of the Seattle Mariners home, in Pulaski, Va.
The second is in my top places to watch a game at the minor league level. I hope you can see just how beautiful Bowen Field in Bluefield, WV is. This is a Toronto Blue Jays affiliate.
I’m a little late here- mostly because I couldn’t figure out what to say or what to write that wasn’t already written. Gwynn was impressive in a way that many many players wanted to be but aren’t.It took me awhile to find something to share that I felt added something or shared something that you couldn’t see in an obit. This Keith Olberman monologue may just do him justice. “What you hoped Tony Gwynn was, he was.”