I've mentioned on here several times about having to write two stories for Sunday editions because of the Observer-Reporter's early deadline on Saturday nights. A feature story runs in print if the Saturday night Wild Things home game runs long. If the game moves quickly and ends before deadline, like it did last Saturday, then the game story runs in the Sunday edition and that early feature or notebook that I rush to complete usually doesn't see ink.
Such was the case with this story about travel in the minor leagues:
By Chris Dugan
Ask a professional baseball player, from any level of competition, what he dislikes most about his job and the answer will surely be the travel. It often can be grueling, it’s always tiring and it’s all part of the job.
Traveling in the major leagues means chartered flights, no bags, no airport check-in and a lavish getaway meal. It’s a comfortable process.
In the low minor leagues, which includes the independent Frontier League, traveling means long hours on a bus, sometimes sleeping on bus floors, stopping for quick meals at fast-food restaurants or gas station convenience stores, and lots of bumps on the highway.
After the Pirates completed sleepwalking their way through a forgettable 9-2 loss to the Los Angeles Angels Friday night at PNC Park, some of the discussion on a Pittsburgh postgame radio show was about the theory that the Pirates’ lackadaisical performance was caused by players being weary from travel. Pittsburgh played an extra-innings game Thursday night in Miami and the team charter didn’t land in Pittsburgh until about 3 a.m. Friday.
At that same time, the Wild Things and Evansville Otters, who began their three-game series at Consol Energy Park Friday night, were both somewhere near the Ohio-Indiana border bussing to Washington. The Wild Things, who played Thursday night in Normal, Ill., arrived in Washington about 7:30 a.m. Friday. Evansville, which played a home game Thursday night, followed 90 minutes later. Both teams lost an hour of potential sleep because they crossed from the Central to the Eastern time zone.
The Wild Things and Otters would have loved to have been at their destination at 3 a.m., but they understand life in the minor leagues doesn’t come with chartered flights.
“People don’t understand the travel that is involved,” Wild Things manager Gregg Langbehn said. “It’s not always fun. One of the first things I thought about when I took this job was having long bus rides again.”
Langbehn spent the last two years as the Cleveland Indians’ replay coordinator. He worked every Indians game, home and away.
“In the major leagues, it’s chartered flights, no line at the airport, though you do get checked by (Transportation Safety Administration),” Langbehn explained. “With the Indians, on travel day, 45 minutes after the game the first bus leaves for the airport. Thirty minutes later, the second bus leaves. Players don’t have to carry their bags, unless its a carry-on. Twenty minutes after the second bus gets to the airport, you’re taking off.”
For a minor league team, traveling means spending hours on a bus en route to the next city. And trying to find a comfortable spot in your seat that will allow for a few hours of sleep.
Though the independent Frontier League has outposts in Washington, northern Michigan and St. Louis, the travel for its teams pales in comparison to many other minor leagues. In affiliated baseball, the Class AA Texas and Eastern leagues and Class A South Atlantic are considered the worst for travel. In independent ball, nothing rivals the American Association, which stretches from Winnipeg in Canada to Laredo, Texas, on the U.S./Mexico border.
When Winnipeg began its season last month, the Goldeyes traveled to Kansas City, Kan., for two exhibition games, went to Joplin, Mo., for the regular-season opener, then to Laredo before heading north to Lincoln, Neb., and back to Winnipeg for the home opener. There was no travel day between the games in Lincoln and Winnipeg. The Goldeyes’ entire road trip covered more than 3,700 miles.
“The American Association by far has the worst travel,” said Evansville manager Andy McCauley, who also managed in that far-flung AA. “Going to Winnipeg took hours, but crossing the border was always a crapshoot. You might get through the checkpoint in 30 minutes, other times it might be two hours. If you swept Winnipeg, it always took longer to get back into the United States because security might make you take every bag off the bus at the border and that would add two hours to your trip.”
Wild Things center fielder Jamal Austin played in the Southern League while in the Seattle Mariners’ system, but he says that league doesn’t compare to the travel in the independent Can-Am League, in which he played last year. The reason? Again, the U.S./Canada border.
“We had eight-hour trips to Canada,” said Austin, who played for two Can-Am teams that were based in New Jersey. “Sometimes, you’d sit for two or three hours at the border.
“All trips in the minor leagues are tough. You never get used to them. You know it comes with the lifestyle but that doesn’t make it any easier. You put up with it because you love the game.”
Sometimes travel plans change because of delays of more than just a few hours. The Hartford Yard Goats, the Class AA affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, have played the first 53 games of the Eastern League season on the road because their new ballpark is still under construction. There is no timetable for the park’s opening. The Yard Goats are managed by Darin Everson, who held the same job with the Wild Things for two years (2010 and ’11).
From a player’s standpoint, one of the nice things about the Frontier League is it rarely plays games on Mondays. Sometimes teams have Monday and Tuesday off. Two teams – River City and Evansville – each have one strech of three consecutive off days.
“This league is the Club Med League because you have almost every Monday off,” McCauley said.
The other six days of the week are a grind. And that’s if everything goes smoothly, which doesn’t always happen. As McCauley says, you can count on the air conditioner in the bus to break on the hottest day of the year.
“Everybody has those stories. My first year managing in Evansville, we had a bus that broke down three times on a trip to Kalamazoo,” McCauley recalled. “Before each game, it was pot luck as to whether we’d make it to the game. Then, after the last game, the driver backed the bus into a sandpit behind the ballpark. The players had to push the bus out of the sand before we could leave.
“But those aren’t the things you remember during the offseason. You know the hours on the bus come with the job description.”