Time in the Minors, Produced and directed by Tony Okun
Oh! Show Productions, 2010
List Price: $24.95
Minor league baseball is the ultimate weed-out class. Ninety percent of players who sign a professional contract won’t reach the majors. Whether from injury, inability, lack of discipline, or bad luck, most young hopefuls will never make The Show.
Collectively, these young men are numbers. Individually, they each have a story. They all enter the game with different backgrounds and move through the farm system at different paces. Their ultimate goal is the same, but how they go about reaching it—for the lucky few who do—varies widely.
Tony Okun does a wonderful job of personifying the struggle in his documentary “Time in the Minors.” The video, which was mostly shot during the 2006 season, follows the progress of veteran minor league infielder Tony Schrager and Indians ’05 supplemental first-rounder John Drennen, an outfielder.
Nothing comes easy, even for a top pick with a million dollars in the bank like Drennen. Both players devote countless hours during the offseason to training. We follow Schrager through a typical day, working out at the gym all morning to improve his strength and agility, then hitting, throwing and fielding with other local players all afternoon. This is just to get prepared for spring training.
It quickly hits home that physical conditioning is less than half the battle. As a high school draftee, Drennen must adjust to life away from home and the daily grind of a 140-game season. He learns early that there are no easy days, and if he doesn’t learn to pace himself he’ll burn out.
“It’s really a necessity for a player to understand that it’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint,” advises Brad Kelley, then an advance scout with the Cubs. “So the way they go about it in a 50-game schedule may not work in the pro environment. But that’s what the minor leagues is for, to learn how to pace yourself, to learn how to prepare yourself properly, to take the ups and downs emotionally as well as physically in the game and to be able to handle those over the course of a long season, a six-month season versus a three- or four-month season.”
A nine-year veteran, Schrager is well acquainted with this concept, having climbed from short-season Williamsport to the brink of the big leagues since being selected by the Cubs in the sixth round of the 1998 draft. Despite his track record as a productive infielder who can play short, second, or third, his future is up in the air as spring training approaches in 2006.
The big leagues aren’t calling. Unable to find a home in an affiliated league, Schrager detours through the independent Atlantic League. After hitting .297 and making the all-star team as a member of the Long Island Ducks, he gets a call from the Marlins, who are looking for some infield depth. Florida starts him at Double-A Carolina, moving him up to Triple-A Albuquerque after a .391 start. Instead of the springboard to the majors that he’s hoping for, it turns out to be Schrager’s last stand.
With the organization’s investment in him, Drennen’s job is more secure. He opens his first full season at low Class A Lake County in the far-flung South Atlantic League. Here he fights the boredom of 16-hour bus rides and night upon night in anonymous motels. But the stadium is “pretty sweet” and the Californian with the surfer-dude persona maintains a positive approach, at least until a dislocated thumb sidelines him for a month.
Drennen provides one of the highlights of the film shortly after his return, when he faces off against Roger Clemens, then working his way into form after signing late with the Astros. The Rocket hangs a split-finger fastball and Drennen crushes it over the right field fence.
“It was a good time,” says Drennen. “I got around the bases and my teammates were pretty stoked about it. ‘You just took Clemens deep. You’re going to be on ESPN.'”
Drennen’s parents were there in Lexington, Ky., for the momentous shot, and were supportive throughout his first full season. No one embarks on this journey alone. Okun splices in interviews with both players’ families, as well as Kelley; John Farrell, former director of player personnel with the Indians; and Dr. Kenneth Ravizza, a professor of sports psychology, who talks extensively about the mental challenges posed by a journey through the minor leagues.
“I think sometimes we get this New York Life Insurance approach to sports psych and it’s ‘Every day is a great day! It’s a great day!'” Ravizza says. “Well, when you’re playing the number of games that a minor league baseball player is playing, every day is not a great day. So you better get used to dealing with it.”
Though the footage wrapped up with the conclusion of the ’06 season, “Time in the Minors” updates the status of both players. Schrager spent the following winter waiting for job offers that never came and finally retired from the game. Drennen has slowly moved through the Indians system. He hit .300 this past season at Double-A Akron.
The delay in the release of the production is largely attributable to the budgetary constraints Okun faced as an independent filmmaker. He also was forced to trim the release in an attempt to gain interest from film festivals, which are a common launching point for many documentaries. There is now an 85-minute version, as well as a shorter 60-minute version he’s trying to shop to broadcast outlets. Okun’s message, however, is just as relevant today as it was when the footage was shot.
“I set out to make an independent film that is a baseball film, but really goes beyond baseball in that it is also an intimate, human-interest story of struggle and perseverance and mental discipline,” Okun says. “The goal was to keep things simple enough so as to not insult, or talk down to the true baseball fan, while at the same time educating the audience on the process, and keeping things simplistic and easy to understand for the non-fan.”
Even aspiring players (or perhaps especially aspiring players) will learn from “Time in the Minors.” It won’t frighten anyone out of wanting to pursue their dream, but at least they can dive into it with a better sense of what awaits—and the understanding that even their own dogged determination might not be enough to overcome the odds they face.
James Bailey reviews books for Baseball America. He can be contacted at [email protected].