Bling Training

The new York Times

March 4, 2009

By Doug Glanville

Spring training has begun. It might be step one of a multiple-step program ...

Dreams start here. They also can end here.

But there is a beauty in the path to major league baseball that few sports can claim. It is the ultimate staircase — slowly, methodically, and with quiet momentum, you gain confidence with each step you climb. Because it’s such a slow road by sports standards, players have to learn to smell the roses at each stage, even if they’re covered in thorns.

I always thought it was interesting that as you go up, the amenities improve. You start in Small Town, U.S.A., in cities like Geneva, N.Y., or Huntington, W.Va., and end up in Miami or Los Angeles. The cities get bigger the closer you get to the big leagues. After Geneva, I went to Winston-Salem, N.C., then Daytona Beach, Fla., then Orlando, Fla., then Des Moines, then Chicago. And in fact the hotels get a little nicer, the stadium gets a little plusher, the clubhouse food tastes a little better.

In many respects it is a good system, even though there are plenty of carrots and sticks in the equation. Players learn a lot about humility and delayed gratification. You could be the best player on the planet and you will still taste a minor league bus ride, or a 6:00 a.m. practice in the Arizona desert. This is your rite of passage. You will advance when the brass is ready for you to advance. You could be ready in one area of the game and still at the high school level in another. So keep working.

Although the adage “have bat, will travel” makes it clear that offensive productivity is king, that doesn’t exempt you from having to improve your base-running, hitting, base-stealing, defense, defensive strategy, offensive strategy, positioning, training ... it just goes on, and if you don’t do all of these at a close-to-major-league level, even if you get to the top, you will have holes in your game that may lead to your being bumped back down that staircase.

Off the field, this dynamic creates a culture of upgrading. You go from Single-A to Double-A and that studio apartment becomes a one-bedroom, or you decide to pick up that new Xbox 360 so you can compete with your roommates. From Double-A to Triple-A, you scoop up that first car you had your eye on, or maybe you can get rid of roommates for once and for all. But there is nothing like going from whatever level to the major leagues. No telling what you might upgrade to.

What you covet as you advance is determined in part by the people ahead of you. It is a hyper-competitive environment and everyone is obsessed with what is happening in front of him. In spring training you cross paths with players at all levels in the organization, so you get to see what the next level looks like: “Oh, that's what Greg Vaughn is driving.” Or, “I didn’t know you could get that kind of jewelry on a Triple-A salary.” Or, “When did he start dating Jessica Biel? What happened to his high-school sweetheart?” Guess she needed to be upgraded, too.
But no one sets the tone like the major leaguers. And to a young and impressionable rising minor leaguer, it is tempting to do exactly what the big leaguers are doing. After all, these are the players you idolized as a kid.

And so, all of a sudden, whatever you have is not enough. In fact, what you thought you wanted is not enough. It was fine in Single-A ball, but it’s not going to pass the test in Triple-A. It is an internal battle to keep up with the Joneses, and it can play out in any area of your life if you are not careful.

Living on “Temptation Island” makes every single player susceptible to these material cravings. Those that don’t fall prey (and there aren’t many) are usually seen as having dedicated their lives to some pseudo-monastic pursuit. It is much easier to jump in and accept the “island,” and then try to extricate yourself from its clutches. Of course, jumping in makes getting out even harder, because it is kinda fun.

My first car was a Toyota Camry (despite my brother’s efforts to sell me on a Porsche). It was a practical and well-researched pick and it drove like a charm. When I reached the highest level of A-ball in Winston-Salem, I had three roommates, one of whom was the first-round draft pick from two years before, Earl Cunningham. He was a super talent, ran like a linebacker with size and power. One of his prized possessions was a white Mercedes-Benz he’d picked up from major leaguer Matt Williams. It even had this alarm system that said, “VIPER! Stand back!” All in all, there was no way my Camry could hold a candle to his car — until one of our other roommates told Earl that my car rode more smoothly. Earl was crestfallen.

New York Times 03/04/2009


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