Life On The Road
by Frank Priegue
The ballplayers begin to arrive at around 6:15 AM, many of them rubbing the sleep out of their eyes as they pack their equipment on the bus. The team bus pulls out of the Yale Field parking lot at 7:00 AM. Any player who misses the bus has to find his own way from Connecticut to Maryland—he will also get fined and may get in trouble with the organization.
Minor league ballplayers travel in a different manner that the major leaguers they aspire to be. They do not have equipment managers pack and move the equipment for them, they do not receive 60 dollars a day meal money, and they do not travel by airplane. Instead they carry their own bags and equipment, receive twenty dollars a day meal money, and travel by bus. One of the first things minor leaguers learn is the long bus rides are not fun, just long and monotonous. Despite the illusion this is not a glamorous life, but the ballplayers all know it is one of the many dues they must pay to become big leaguers. The constant traveling is just another part of the job, like hitting and fielding. The biggest adjustment they often have to make is living their lives out of a suitcase for three months a year.
Some players arrive early in hopes of getting their own seat so they do not have to double up with another player. It does not always work. There are usually 44 to 46 seats on the bus for about 25 to 30 people --about half of which will have to share a seat. Having your own seat is a sign of status, usually determined by seniority. Players with Major League, Triple A, or Double A experience have priority; rookies have to double up. In the old days, when busses had overhead racks, smaller players used to crawl up there to get some sleep. Pitcher Mike Kusiewicz remarks, "I'll grab the floor if I have to, put a little blanket down and a pillow and try to sleep on that." He adds, "You get stepped on often."
With experience ballplayers learn to prepare for these trips. As they board the bus they come armed to deal with the boredom. They bring their portable CD players and movies for the VCR. Decks of cards and sets of dominoes, books and magazines, or hand-held video games are some of the weapons used to deal with the monotony of these long bus rides. They dress in sweat suits and running pants, or whatever is comfortable. Pillows and blankets, and sometimes and extra sweatshirt are brought as well, because it can get cold on the bus. Third baseman Jamie Taylor says, "Rookies have to learn the ropes on road trips. I am a veteran so I know before each road trip to buy five or six iced teas, and I'll keep them near me because you never know when you might not be able to stop somewhere, or you might break down.
Second baseman Vicente Garcia describes the bus rides. "Some people sleep, some people watch TV, and some play cards. I used to grab a magazine, but now I have a laptop computer so I can play games on the bus for a little but. When the batteries die, I have to put it in my suitcase and try to fall asleep, bit it's tough to fall asleep. You are sitting for eight hours, sometimes the bus will stop and you can walk around a bit and use the bathroom. Other people are playing cards and it's tough to sleep because they are making a lot of noise. Players are watching movies and it's loud so you can't sleep either. If you want to sleep you have to wait for the TV to go off and the guys to stop playing cards." On the long rides to Akron or Portland, which can last up to 14 hours, most of the players try not to think about how long it will be until they arrive.
The Ravens' team bus arrives at the Annapolis Days Inn at about 12:30 PM. The players check into their hotel rooms, they may take a shower or splash some water onto their face, and then go out to find something to eat. There is not much to do until 3:45 when the bus leaves for the ballpark. The team will arrive at Prince George's Stadium at around 4:15, giving them about 30 to 40 minutes to shake off the effects of travel. At 4:45, it is time to go to work.
At the beginning of every road trip each player is given an envelope containing 20 dollars a day in meal money. Getting three meals a day with 20 dollars is next to impossible, meaning the players have to dip into their own money to eat. Many of them end up eating at fast-food restaurants. Binghamton Mets catcher Eric Morrales mentioned that many of his Latin American teammates will try to find a local Chinese restaurant to eat. "In the Chinese place there is rice and it is more typical to what we are used to. We usually look for these places because it is cheap and the food is good. Fast food is not good food but you have to go there to save money."
Some players find creative ways to eat properly; Reading Phillies catcher Bobby Estalella is an example of one of them. When he began playing professional baseball, he was a prospect with tremendous potential, but was considered undisciplined. To handle the physical demands of being a catcher Bobby discovered bodybuilding. Maintaining the strict diet bodybuilders must follow is difficult—doing it on a limited budget is next to impossible. To remedy this he bought a wok and used it to cook his meals.
When the Ravens arrive at the ballpark each player has to pay the clubhouse attendant between three and five dollars a day to wash their uniforms and put out a spread of food. Not all clubhouses are created equal however. There are good clubbies and bad clubbies. Jamie Taylor explains, "good clubbies are usually guys who have done it for a few years. Guys will tell them if you want to earn a little extra money, put out this and this. Whereas first year guys who don't know the ropes may throw out peanut butter and jelly, and some watermelon and cantaloupe."
If a player poll were taken as to which city had the best clubhouse and the best clubbie, Binghamton and Jack Prantice would win hands down. Teams have two things to look forward to when they go to Binghamton, one of the best playing surfaces in minor league baseball and Jack's clubhouse. Instead of peanut butter and jelly, Jack has large platters of lunchmeat, fresh fruit and vegetables, and cookies for dessert. After the game Jack puts out a post-game spread of more lunchmeat or maybe a hot meal. The post-game meal is not something all clubbies put out. Jack also does extra things for the players, like sew torn uniforms or repair equipment that needs it. Pitcher Lariel Gonzalez mentioned, "for our three days in Binghamton we had to pay $7.50, but Jack took such good care of us I gave him 15 dollars."
If the clubbie does not put out a post-game meal, the players have to go out to eat after the game. The game may end around ten o'clock at night, after all the players have showered and dressed, the bus may leave for the hotel at around eleven or eleven-thirty. Finding a meal at eleven-thirty on a weeknight in a small town like Norwich Connecticut can be difficult. Players learn to conserve money for such situations. Jamie Taylor explains, "When you get home at eleven-thirty or twelve o'clock, there isn't much open so you have to order pizza. It takes an hour to get there, so you eat your pizza at about twelve-thirty. After you eat pizza and have a couple of drinks, you're wired again. You're up so then you stay up, until two, three, or four in the morning just watching TV."
To stay prepared for the rigorous demands of a 142-game season, many teams schedule weight lifting days. On these days, players will wake up at around nine in the morning and go to a local YMCA to lift for about an hour, and then return to the hotel. On non-lifting days, most players usually sleep in until eleven or twelve o'clock. Some players try to develop a routine, where they wake up at the same time every day and hope their bodies adjust to it.
One of the ballplayers biggest challenges on road trips is dealing with the down time before games. Mike Kusiewicz elaborates, "you try and get out of the hotel. You don't want to get stuck there but you often do because you have no idea where to go or what to do—and you have no transportation. There is not much to do during the day unless you want to go out and catch a movie. The day is yours until the 4:45 stretch."
With little to do until game time, many ballplayers play video games, or watch television until it is time to leave for the ballpark. SportsCenter, or most sports are the most popular, but it is not the only option. Jamie Taylor admits, "I'm a big soap opera fan. I watch my soap operas for as many days as I can without missing them. I know a lot of guys who will do anything to see their soap operas. I'll either eat right before them, or right after them."
Travel days are a difficult part of road trips. One these days, teams will rent three or four rooms for the entire team to stay in between the twelve o'clock checkout time, and 3:45 when the bus leaves for the ballpark. This is done to avoid paying an additional day rate for the entire team.
When the evening's game ends, the cycle continues. The players will shower, dress and pack up their equipment. They load up the bus and it is time to travel again. If there is no post-game meal, the bus will stop at some fast-food restaurant at a rest stop on the way to the next city. Once the team boards the bus, some will play cards or dominoes, some will plug their headphones into portable CD players, and others will sleep. While some players fall asleep easily, others struggle, never learning how to sleep on a bus. It is part of the cycle that continues throughout the season. Arriving in a different town at all hours of the night. Some may arrive tired and have a sub-par game the next day, but they know they have to have the proper mindset. Tomorrow, there is another game to play.
Frank Priegue is a New York-based photographer and author who deals with his baseball withdrawal syndrome by traveling to Eastern League ballparks.