BASEBALL TAB -- Minor League Life: County players tell of their journeys in pro ranks
By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on March 1, 2013 1:47 PM
It doesn't matter how good you are or how bad you are, if you have a uniform on, you have a chance. I want to keep mine on as long as I can until somebody rips it off and says I don't have a chance.
A 142-game baseball season challenges the top athlete's heart and soul, both mentally and physically. The peaks and valleys a player experiences make him question his abilities, but that little kid's desire burns brightly inside each time he steps between the lines on the diamond.
Stadium lights illuminate their fields of dreams.
Enthusiastic, diehard fans fill the seats, providing an extra boost of adrenaline.
The thrill of getting that game-ending strikeout with the bases loaded, tagging out the potential winning run at the plate or swatting a game-deciding walk-off homer is still relished by every player who competes in either the Minor or Major Leagues these days.
"Baseball is a grind within itself built on failure from my aspect of it," said Sam Narron, hitting coach with the Auburn (N.Y.) Doubledays. "It's physically taxing and mentally, that's the hardest part. Going through those rough patches and coming out on the other side teaches you that you can do just about anything you want to do.
"When you figure everything out, it clicks."
It has for Narron, who is one of eight Wayne County natives currently active as either a player or coach in professional baseball.
The Texas Rangers drafted the lanky left-hander in the 15th round of the 2002 First-Year Player Draft out East Carolina University. Narron then missed the 2005 season due to Tommy John surgery, which changed his perception not only about baseball, but his career as well.
Narron struggled during his return and needed considerable time to regain his focus. He regained some swagger in 2008 when he fashioned a 15-5 record with the Huntsville (Ala.) and Nashville (Tenn.) clubs.
"It's certainly not a lifestyle meant for everybody," said Narron, who spent 10 years as a player in the minors. "It's hard on not just you, but if you have a family, too. I was very fortunate to play so long and have the support I did from my wife and family. They were understanding that this was something I wanted to do and get to a greater goal.
"It gets everyone pulling in the same direction."
That direction is the Major Leagues.
And getting there proves to be a daily chore.
Today Narron prepares the rookies for their experience in the minors. Once used to practice, an off day and one weekday game during college, the players have to adjust to a rigorous schedule.
Daily workouts and games three or four days a week hopefully build a foundation that helps a player advance to either a Single-A, Double-A or Triple-A franchise. A rare few get that long-awaited phone call to attend spring workouts with a Major League team.
"They've got to have that work ethic," Narron said. "In my experiences as a player, you can tell who puts time in and who doesn't. You've got to teach these kids that they have to go at it 100 percent every day whether they play in that game or not. That's what separates the average player from the good player, and the good player from the great player.
"You take a day off, you never get it back."
Minor league life can be comparable to the hit movie "Bull Durham."
The only difference now is those buses that once spewed plumes of black smoke and had the tendency to break down at any time are much sleeker and more friendly to players. Most buses have wireless Internet, TV and sleeping bunks. Players bring along either their Xbox or PlayStation consoles. Several card games break out or the guys just talk about the next game on the schedule.
The real enjoyment, however, comes from the camaraderie developed among teammates. The team becomes a family unit since the players are together six or seven months out of the year.
"People look at it and think it's bad," said Rob Wooten, a pitcher with the Nashville Sounds, the Triple-A affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers. "You've got so many stories, so many relationships that you build. I can't repeat some of the stories, but they're definitely some stories that you'll never forget.
"In minor league baseball, you've got players coming and going all the time so you build 50 or more relationships in a year. I've seen some of my friends go from High-A to Double-A to Triple-A to the big leagues all in one year. It's crazy, but it's cool."
In the lower-level leagues, the bus arrives at the ballpark for pre-game workouts. Players have a small meal, return to the hotel and prepare for the game. Once it ends, they usually board the bus and head for the next town.
Getting the opportunity to spend time on the town or even find a good meal is tough. Some stops on the schedule include just a gas station, while other towns might have a fast-food restaurant or two.
Quality restaurants are rare.
Narron recalled eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches after pre-game workouts with Pulaski (Va.) in Single-A play. Cold cuts were not on the table, so getting proper nutrition became the players' responsibility. That was difficult in a town where everything closed down after 9:30 p.m.
Nutritional changes have been made since then.
"They're catching on that it's very important to fuel these guys because of the investment and time you put into these players," Narron said. "You want to get the most out of them. The last couple of years the nutrition provided at the ballpark before and after the game has gotten better -- not only in quantity, but in quality.
"You try to stay away from the fast foods, but sometimes that's not easy when you're on the road. You try to eat chicken as much as you can and avoid the burger and fries."
A cheeseburger and fries, ironically, is Wooten's favorite meal.
However, when Wooten and his teammates are at home, they have a certain menu that is approved by the trainers and the strength/conditioning coaches. No chips. No soda. No burgers. No fries.
Wooten says his nutrition level has improved drastically the last three years. He consumes coffee and water daily, and maybe a Gatorade during the game. He also knows that ballpark fare on the road is not necessarily the best, but it's important to replenish your body once you've played a game, no matter the amount of energy you've expended.
"You have to eat," laughed Wooten.
When players are fortunate to sit down at a restaurant or walk around a town, they experience the different dynamics that the country has to offer -- pace of life, language dialects and other fascinating qualities that define each state on the map.
Narron and Wooten also have played baseball outside the United States.
Wooten recently returned from a short stint with Caribes de Anzoategui of the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League. He made his first relief appearance in the season-opening game against Caracas and retired the final two batters he faced on strikeouts.
Caribes fans threw beer from the stands and rushed the field in celebration of the 1-0 win.
"The fans were chanting 'strikeout' in Spanish ... 25,000 strong and I've never experienced that before in a regular-season game," Wooten said. "Their fans are as passionate as Yankees or Red Sox fans over here. You won't play in regular-season games with that much pressure over here in the Major Leagues.
"I'm glad I had the opportunity to do it ... was a great experience, fun."
Narron played in both the Dominican Republic or Venezuela from 2008-11. He agrees with Wooten that the country's passion for the sport is not matched in the United States, and can be comparable to soccer in the European countries.
The natives are fanatical.
"They go through their daily grind that is maybe a little bit more challenging than what it is here," Narron said. "They come to the game, have a great time, pull for their team and pull against the other team. When it comes to baseball, they give it all they've got and you can tell they enjoy it.
"They are some of the nicest people you will meet down there."
But there's no place like home.
Especially when a wife and child waits to greet you.
Or when a father shows up on an off day to see his son play.
Connor Narron, who signed with the Baltimore Orioles out of high school, doesn't go a day without talking to his father, Jerry, or uncle Johnny, who are on the Milwaukee Brewers' coaching staff. Jerry often sneaks into the clubhouse to get the latest update on Connor, who plays with the Delmarva (Md.) Shorebirds, via his cell phone.
"I just absorb the knowledge they have," said Connor, who grew up in Major League ballparks around the country. "It's a blessing having guys like that. Sometimes I take it for granted because it's my dad. He's got all the knowledge in the world when it comes to baseball and having those two guys (Jerry and Johnny) in my corner is a big blessing."
Delmarva competes in the South Atlantic League and occasionally makes stops in North Carolina, which gives Connor the rare chance to play in front of family friends.
Wooten's wife, Katie, packs up a bag and heads to Nashville after she finishes teaching dental hygiene classes at a community college in Lee County.
Erin and 2 1/2-year-old Lillie have traveled with Sam in recent seasons.
Having family with you provides a calming presence.
Wooten confessed he plays better with his wife in attendance and loves to spend off days with her, even if they relax by the pool for just a couple of hours. Baseball doesn't dominate their conversation.
Sam also gets to see his daughter grow up, though he doesn't attempt to replace what he's lost. He learned some life lessons from his grandparents since his grandfather played professional baseball.
"It takes a special person to be able to put up with us," said Sam. "It can be a strain. It's a wonderful life to live. We just moved (to Gibsonville), so in the offseason I work to get our house in order and try to live a normal life. I do the daily things you don't get to do when you're in season.
"I've never been so happy as when I get to cut my lawn for the first time in September."
The unknown, however, is just how long a career will last.
Wooten has bounced back from injuries and considers them a blessing in disguise since they prolonged his career. He discovered things about his inner self and understood that one day he'd get his shot at the Majors while some of his friends had already advanced to the sport's highest level.
The Milwaukee Brewers have invited Wooten to spring training in Arizona.
"I'm always open to learning something new and can't wait to get there," Wooten said.
Connor doesn't know his third-year destination.
He's played different positions in the minors, which are extra tools in his box that will undoubtedly improve his chances of advancing in the Orioles' organization.
"It helps your stock rise a little bit, but only they know where you're headed and sometimes keep you in the dark about it," Connor said.
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