It was a warm Friday night in San Diego, and I sat in the bullpen of Tony Gwynn stadium, home of the San Diego State Aztecs, cleaning my cleats in case I got the call to get hot. Next to me were seven other relief pitchers, all of us watching our starter struggle through the second inning of a game against Oklahoma State. San Diego State was not known for its academics, (my father referred to it as “Harvard, without all the smart people”) but it was major division one college baseball and when I graduated from high school in 1998, it seemed like a good stepping stone to becoming a major league baseball player. That was my dream. It was also the dream of everyone sitting next to me. To my right was a lefty sophomore named Royce who was built like Tony Soprano and had a windup that looked like a butcher throwing a 60 pound side of beef on to a table, yet somehow his fastball clocked in around the low to mid-nineties and he owned a nasty slider that darted down and in to right handed batters. He had big plans for his future.
“When I sign I’m gonna buy a fuckin’ Hummer, with fuckin’ four DVD players in it. Every seat’ll have it’s own DVD player AND it’s own screen,” Royce said, leaning back in his chair.
“What happens if everyone wants to watch the same movie?” I asked.
“Then I’ll buy four fuckin’ copies of the movie,” he snapped back.
“Why don’t you just get four screens that hook up to one DVD player. What kind of assholes sit and watch four different movies at the same time?” said Donnie, a tall muscle bound right hander.
“Look, it’s my fuckin’ Hummer and I’ll have a fuckin’ hundred screens with a hundred fuckin’ DVD players if I want, and you can either ride in it and watch DVDs or you can suck a dick.”
“I think I’ll choose to suck a dick. Sounds like more fun,” replied Donnie.
These were the kinds of conversations we had while we waited for a call from the dugout to get loose. But in all the discussions about what kind of car we’d buy, or which beach we’d build a house on, no one ever argued about whether or not we’d become successful enough to afford these things. It was just a given.
Now, it’s fairly common for most college athletes to believe they’ll someday be playing in the pros, driving cars reserved primarily for drug dealers and characters on Entourage. But whereas with other sports you find out very quickly where you stand, baseball drags it out. Major League Baseball is one giant cock-tease. If you’re a wide receiver and you run a 4.8 forty and your name is not Hines Ward, you know right away you’re not getting a shot to play in the NFL. The average major league fastball is 89 miles an hour, so if you throw 87 miles an hour, you have a good chance to get drafted and play in the minor leagues.
The NBA and the NFL expect you to come in the league ready to play. If you can’t hack it, you’re either cut, or traded to the Jets. Major League Baseball not only expects you won’t be ready, they even plan for you to take three to four years to become ready. That’s why there’s roughly 4,000 minor league baseball players, all of whom are certain that they’re just a few hot months away from getting their shot. And it’s not that outlandish, because baseball is a sport of streaks. You don’t have to be Bryce Harper to hit .330 for a month in the minor leagues, or be Stephen Strasburg to have four quality starts in a row. If you’ve made it to the minors, it means you have certain tools, that when fully utilized, could be major league worthy. That’s a lot of “ifs” and “coulds” but a professional team has invested money in you. You’re in “the system.” And not only that, but EVERYONE has to play in the minors first. It’s not like the NBA’s developmental league, where you’re hoping against hope you can be the twelfth man on an NBA team.
Almost everyone on that year’s San Diego State pitching staff had already been drafted out of high school. I had walked on, and was probably the least talented member of the staff, but in two years I’d gone from throwing 82-83, to 86-87, and I thought if I continued to get stronger my velocity would increase, and that, combined with my good late movement on my pitches, might be enough to get me drafted and “in the system.”
“Halpern, get loose,” the bullpen coach barked, as our starter walked back-to-back Oklahoma State batters.
I ended up going an inning and a third in that game and giving up one run when a line drive back up the middle knocked off my shin and shot in to the visitors dugout. I was rarely used that sophomore year but I felt I had a good shot of getting big innings my junior year. That summer I worked out, put on fifteen pounds of muscle, long tossed, and did anything I could to get myself in shape. Then, towards the end of the summer, a friend of mine who played in a men’s baseball league asked me if I could just toss the last two innings of his team’s championship game. Then in the third inning of the game, the starter walked five guys in a row, and I was asked to go in. On the third pitch of my appearance, I felt a snap in my elbow followed by intense pain. I was fairly certain I had torn my MCL, an injury that necessitates Tommy John surgery. Whatever dreams I’d had of playing Major League Baseball were gone. I stood on the mound staring at the overweight balding guy in the batters box who’d been the recipient of possibly the last pitch I’d ever throw. Then I took of my glove and walked off the mound in disgust.
The relationship between major league baseball teams and college baseball players is much like that of a drunken frat guy and a girl at a bar; They only put up with problems from you if they consider you to be really top notch. Otherwise, at the first sign of trouble, they’re gone. I wasn’t top notch. I knew this was end for me. The thousands of hours I’d spent practicing, playing, and learning the game, all in hopes of someday throwing a pitch on a Major League mound were gone. All that was left was a throbbing elbow. Instead of explaining to the coach that I had stupidly torn my MCL in a beer league game, I instead told him I wanted to focus on my studies (which wasn’t entirely untrue). I cleaned out my locker, and later that day after practice, explained to the rest of the pitching staff I was quitting.
“You’re not quitting,” said Chris, a lanky hard throwing right hander who became our ace and Friday night starter his freshman year.
“No. I am,” I maintained.
“No you’re not,” Donnie scoffed.
“Yes. I am. I’m not in the process of quitting. I already did it,” I replied.
“So you’ve already quitted?” asked Jason, a red-shirt freshman.
“Quitted is not the past tense of quit, you fuckin’ retard,” Chris snapped.
I attended a few games here and there as I got my degree but I mostly stayed away because it was like seeing an ex-girlfriend who was now fucking all of your friends. Over the next three years, quite a few of my former teammates were drafted, where they were sent off to towns that you’ll only hear about if someone from the town chews off another man’s face. These guys were talented, played hard, and for the most part dedicated themselves to someday making it to the show. Some of them toiled for seven or eight years, trying to put together a few months that might get them notice, only to be released in their mid to late twenties with little money and no work experience.
Even for someone with as little chance of making it to the major leagues as me, it was difficult that day for them to hear I was quitting. Not because it was going to hurt our team at all, and not because any of them thought I had a shot at the bigs, but because it was something none of them had been prepared to do; face the idea that this doesn’t always end in a Hummer with four TV screens.