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When the dream becomes a reality

By Alan Schwarz
January 8, 1992

Sitting in the stands watching his heroes walk past, cracking open a package of baseball cards or playing catch in his backyard, every American boy at one point fantasizes about playing major league baseball. The glamour, the money, the sense of accomplishment lure them to one of this nation's most enchanting occupations.

Most wake from the dream by the time they learn to drive or notice the celestial benefits of the e. Of the 1,000-plus players who enter the pros every year, just 10.6 percent reach the promised land of hotel valets, fame and fortune.

The pursuit became all the more fascinating when one player, a future Hall of Famer, stood at his retirement press conference in May 1989 and recounted some memories of his 18-year career. He paused for a moment and remembered his roots.

"Eighteen years ago, I left Dayton, Ohio, with two very bad knees and a dream to become a major league baseball player," he said. "I thank God the dream came true."

With that, Mike Schmidt broke down in tears.

Jolten' Joe may have left and gone away, but an endless stream of young men would die to pick up where he left off. Players endure those countless minor league bus rides only in hopes that they finally will stop before a major league park. Then a player can walk down the dugout runway, onto the field and realize he's made it.

"I was playing in Springfield, in Triple-A ball, when I found out," says second baseman Tommy Herr, who was recalled by St. Louis in 1979. "It's hard to describe the elation you feel. Being in a big league ballpark was overwhelming. You're used to a smaller, down-home atmosphere, then it's showtime: big lights, huge crowds, It's a real culture shock, but one that's most welcome.

Persistence often is key. For players who climb the ladder quickly, the final destination is almost an afterthought. But the shock of discovering that you're not the best anymore, that you sometimes have to struggle on the field to move up, bogs down even the most optimistic of athletes.

"I never told anyone before, but I was thinking about retiring after 1989," says Jim Olander, who finally reached the majors with Milwaukee this September after 11 seasons in the minors. "I had lost a lot of time in 1987 and '88 because of injuries, and I thought I'd never make it. I told myself this might be it.

"But so many guys who play never get the chance. Down the road I was going to have to look at myself and wonder if I would've ever made it. I never could have lived with that."

Many players put their whole lives into the game, sometimes from the first time they awkwardly swing a Wiffle bat. Cling Hurdle, who spent nine years with four major league teams from 1977-87, talks of how he gave up most of his childhood playing ball. Boy Scouts? Forget it. And he played foorball and basketball just to keep in shape for baseball.

"I never went to my senior prom," Hurdle says. "I went to a Montreal Expos tryout. I might have gotten lucky three years earlier if I had gone. Everybody gets lucky on prom night, don't they?"

Now a manager in the New York Mets organization , Hurdle understands the hold the game has on his young players.

"I had worked at it and dreamed about it since age 6," Hurdle says. "I didn't go through a fireman stage or an astronaut stage. I wanted to be a big league ballplayer."

A few remain in the game. Others become teachers, other real-estate developers. They're in all occupations, really, randomly dotted about the United States.

They are real-life Moonlight Grahams, players who came up for a cup of coffee and never returned. They rarely seethe about the brevity of their careers. Rather, they thank fate that their careers existed.

They still look forward to sitting their grandsons on their knee and telling them how grandpa once played in the bigs.

"Now I can al least say that I got there," says John Gibbons, who spent 18 games as a Mets catcher in the mid-'80s. "All that work and everything didn't go to waste. Regardless of whether I played one day or 15 years, I got to the top. I hit a home run. It's something to show the rewards of all those long, hard days."

Their stories, remembered fondly, explain their delight at joining the fraternity, and its significance today.

"I was home in 1958, about a week after the Sally League ended," says Jack Feller, now a teacher in Coldwater, Mich. "I had had a good year, and I was on a ladder painting the house. I got a call from the Tigers, saying that I was recalled because the rosters expanded. The only reason I didn't fall off the ladder was because I had to get the phone.

"It was a great thrill. All of a sudden, I had a locker right near Al Kaline and was drinking beer with Harvey Kuenn.

"The only game I caught in was on a Saturday afternoon when we were beating the hell out of Baltimore. Out manager, Bill Norman, sent in all the guys who had been called up. I never got to hit. Funny thing was, Baltimore sent out all its new guys, too, so I played against a lot of guys from Knoxville whom I had played against that year. It was like a big reunion.

"I've been teaching for 27 years, and each new batch of kids always wants to know about it. And I have a grandson who plays Little League. They had photographs taken of them that were made into baseball cards, and on the back it asks for their favorite major leaguer. You know what? He put my name down."

Some slump in their chairs, some get angry, some just cry. When a minor league player gets released, his emotions surge stronger than the adrenaline that before had kept him going.

Nearly every player who puts on a professional uniform suffers this fate, but few are prepared to deal with it.

"I get calls all the time from guys who are released who just want another chance, please, please," Phillies farm director Del Unser says. He often has to relay the sobering news. "They ask me, 'What did I do wrong?' I've had a couple of calls from people I think were emotionally unstable.

"I've been confronted in the ballpark by a guy, a pitcher maybe 38 or 40 years old, who still can't believe he didn't get an opportunity to play in the majors. We went so far as to give him a tryout, and when we told him we couldn't sign him, he said that the speed gun was lying. It's an inability to let go of the dream that possesses them."

Many leave the game thinking they've failed. They have to go home and face their families, as well as the adoring local fans who shared their hopes and aspirations.

"Two of my roommates in spring training got released, and they had to empty out their lockers in front of everyone," says Brian bark, 23, a lefthander for Double-A Greenville in the Atlanta Braves organization. "That's something I never want to go through. I spend every single day making sure that doesn't happen to me."

If a player never reaches the majors, the years of hard work often seem wasted. Never will he take a grounder in Yankee Stadium or pitch before 50,000 fans. He won't have a baseball card or be included in the Baseball Encyclopedia. He'll be forgotten without ever really being known.

Nine out of 10 players who sign professional contracts leave the game without reaching their goal, but the rarity of ultimate success is what makes the quest so magical. While the proliferation of money has divorced the game from its modest roots, players don't keep at it for the profit or pension plan.

It's to satisfy a fantasy that stands excruciatingly close.

If I can just get one more season . . . one more hot streak . . . one more game . . .

"this is what I've lived for my whole life," Bark says. "It's hard work, but I wouldn't trade this job for anything in the world."

The numbers game

The most frequently asked question to National Association headquarters in St. Petersburg, Fla., is, "What are the chances of a minor leaguer reaching the major leagues?" This and other related inquiries also light up the switchboards at Baseball America.

We’ve heard baseball executives say that it’s 6 percent, 8 percent, 12 percent, even less than 1 percent. We’ve usually quoted 7-8 percent. Well, we decided to sit down and figure it out once and for all.

Baseball America editor Allan Simpson examined all players who signed professional contracts from 1982-84, including drafted players, non-drafted free agents and foreign players not subject to the draft. Those years were chosen because the number of players who make the majors after more than seven minor league years is negligible.

The results? Of 3,809 players examined, 405 played in the big leagues. That comes out to 10.6 percent, a little higher than most people expected, including us. It just turned out that there are far more players who make it for a day or two than anyone cares to remember.

But in terms of this study, their contributions are just as significant as Will Clark and Frank Thomas.

WHILE WE WERE AT IT

Simpson had a couple dozen extra hours on his hands, so he broke down a player’s chances once he reaches a certain minor league level. Certainly, a second baseman in the Pioneer League has a long way to go compared to another in the Pacific Coast League.

Triple-A: 73 percent (1,293 out of 1,770)
Double-A: 33 percent (556 out of 1,706)
Class A: 15 percent (500 out of 3,260)
Short season: 9 percent (244 out of 2,700)

A FINAL WORD

From information on first-year signings from 1982-84, Simpson also researched the odds of players passed over in the draft and signed as free agents, and foreign players:

Nondrafted free agents: 4 percent (36 out of 995)
Foreign players: 7 percent (44 out of 605)

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