Top rookies are taught life lessons

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

LEESBURG, Va. – The woman was in her mid-20s, a little too giggly, altogether wide-eyed. She flipped at her hair, swayed uneasily in her sandals and laughed inappropriately at bland observations. None of the five men seated at the table offered her a chair, instead staring blankly past her to the NFL playoff game in HD. This didn’t seem to bother her at all.

The men were ballplayers in their early 20s, minor leaguers, no-names in a hotel bar in Virginia in the middle of winter. They were ballplayers only if one knew the type. Yet, there they were and, harmlessly enough, here she was. And wasn’t it fitting, this random and convenient collision of forewarning and circumstance.

Two days earlier, about 90 of baseball’s top young players had gathered in the hotel conference room, down a flight of stairs from Stonewall’s Tavern, where they would be asked to consider the risks inherent to the 21 hours spent from the final pitch of a given game to the first pitch of the next.

The other three hours in a day, those spent on the ball field, former big-league catcher John Flaherty told them right off, “will be the most comfortable times you’ll have as a player.”

The rest, well, as union executive Gene Orza said, “Nothing is more depressing to me and the people I work for than the squandering of the talent you have at the altar of the distractions that come before you.”

Instituted in 1991, the Rookie Career Development Program was the first project to be jointly funded by Major League Baseball and its players’ union. It has since been written into the collective bargaining agreement; costs are drawn from the Baseball Industry Growth Fund. And it is here where a historically clunky relationship discovers communion in the education and protection of its young, its future and its reputation.

The tables in conference rooms A and B of the Lansdowne Resort are arranged in three long half-circles, an aisle dividing the American and National leagues. The players are further grouped by division and wear color-coded pullovers, the uniforms of the weekend. They sit shoulder to shoulder, 15-or-so across in their half-arcs, and earn points for their teams based on program participation, stabs at trivia, and earnest questions such as, “Does baseball test for Cialis or Viagra?”

At the rear of the room, in two tiny areas that resemble subway token booths, English is translated into Spanish and vice versa, then transmitted into the ears of the handful of Latin players.

Over four days, the players will be lectured to, ranted at and catered to. Baseball and union officials, doctors and former players, finance whizzes and security men, reporters, drug experts and a one-time mafia capo will stand before them.

The theme will be accountability. The lessons are in adulthood. The players are told again and again, in message and in precise language, “This is your chance. Maybe your only chance. Don’t blow it.”

Among them, Florida Marlins outfielder Cameron Maybin has 49 big-league at-bats, all last season with the Detroit Tigers. Kansas City Royals right-hander Billy Buckner has 34 big-league innings. Baltimore Orioles left-hander Garrett Olson has 32 1/3 innings. Chicago Cubs right-hander Jeff Samardzija has none. Boston Red Sox right-hander David Pauley has 16 innings, all two seasons ago.

The list of prospects in the room runs deep; Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Matt LaPorta, Cincinnati Reds outfielder Jay Bruce, Marlins right-hander Chris Volstad, San Diego Padres third baseman Chase Headley, Royals right-hander Luke Hochevar and Arizona Diamondbacks right-hander Max Scherzer. Late in the summer, MLB and the union asked general managers to each send them three major league-ready players.

Lest they believe four days in a conference room were punishment, the program has graduated the likes of Derek Jeter, Trevor Hoffman, Vladimir Guerrero, Alex Rodriguez, Vernon Wells and Jimmy Rollins. Just last year, Ryan Braun, Phil Hughes, Micah Owings and Alex Gordon sat in this very room and heard the very same warnings, the very same encouragement.

“Don’t let anyone make a sucker out of you,” shouted Michael Franzese, the former “Long Island Don” who did seven years in prison and famously quit New York’s Colombo crime family. “I put professional athletes in trouble and some of them got hurt. And some of them affected the outcome of games, because they had no choice.”

Maybe it happened and maybe it didn’t. But, in that room, it was true. Somebody threw a game. Somebody got his knees busted up.

“Let me tell you,” Franzese snapped, “when I was your age, I thought I was invincible.”

The inference: He was not. And neither are they.

Be their pleasure point spreads, or horses, or cocaine, or Winstrol, or HGH, or Coors Light, or ladies, or media feuds, or clubhouse rifts, it’s all out there waiting for them. There was no mention of NFL star Sean Taylor and the violent home invasion that cost him his life two months ago. That will be covered during spring training in security briefings with every MLB team.

The climate in baseball is changing, same as in the real world. Inject steroids, get exposed. Go to the track, get photographed. Spit at reporters, get headlines.

There are fewer secrets, particularly for those becoming rich and getting famous, like every boyish man in the room. They’ve never known a professional baseball season without drug testing, or camera phones, or blogs.

I spent four days in Leesburg last weekend, served on a Saturday morning “Working with the Media” panel, laughed along with the ridiculously talented Second City comedy troupe that lent the program its personality, and felt the mood darken when baseball executive Rob Manfred introduced a session on performance-enhancing drugs by saying, “There is no topic that will be discussed during your time here that will be more important than this one.”

On Friday morning, Orza had asked them to consider the player to their left, the player to their right.

“Half the players who have one year of major-league service,” he said, “never get two years of major-league service.”

He asked, therefore, that they allow that determination to be made on the field, competing for a job, doing what they love. In four days, I saw maybe two or three baseball gloves, belonging to pitchers getting their throwing in on the resort grounds. Almost 90 ballplayers and not a single round of batting practice, not a single infield drill, not one discussion about driving a slider the other way.

When a financial advisor preaching portfolio diversity displayed a fictional National League lineup card of nine Alex Rodriguezes and asked what was wrong with it, a wise guy in the front row suggested, “They’re all right-handed?” It was as far as the baseball talk went.

Instead, former major leaguers such as Bob Tewksbury, John Flaherty, Dave Gallagher, Billy Sample and Dave Valle revealed relevant parts of the games around the game; tip your clubbies, honor your veterans, respect your beat writers, trust yourself.

We assume they arrive from Triple-A as baseball robots, knowing the game and its rhythms, the life and its hazards. Some do. Others have a new wife and baby at home, both feeling the loneliness of a long baseball season. Others can’t leave the old neighborhood behind. Others already have found that drugs and alcohol can fill the time between games. And many have serious doubts whether they belong in a big-league clubhouse, surrounded by baseball lifers, hardened men who figured it out a decade earlier.

“I do not exclude the possibility there’s a lot of insecurity out here,” Orza said. “I sense in these young people a lot of trepidation for the future.”

Two summers ago, David Pauley made three starts over 15 days for the Red Sox. In the middle one, he pitched two outs into the seventh inning at Yankee Stadium and allowed two runs. He lost when reliever Rudy Seanez walked in one of the baserunners he left behind.

Pauley will be 25 in June, on the older end of the spectrum for rookie orientation. He is bright and seemingly secure. Yet, he said, the initial major-league experience is daunting. The large, full stadiums. The intimidating clubhouses. The organizational expectations. And then the game starts.

“You’re at the major-league level,” he said. “Learning’s over.”

John Flaherty caught in 14 major-league seasons, all of them after attending the 1992 rookie orientation. He serves the program now as a resource player, which involves a little coaching, a little confiding, and some mothering.

He remembers standing among them. They are, every one of them, on the brink of something. There will be long careers and short ones and some where the finest days were spent in these conference rooms, that close. They have survived the minor-league assembly line to discover the hardest work remains. These orientations used to be about protecting your money and fitting in, Flaherty said. Now, they are about the ever-expanding media, competing honestly in a drug-warped age, and the diminishing areas of their lives they can honestly and appropriately call private.

He stood before them early Friday morning, looking into sleepy postures and perhaps brilliant futures, and said, “I’m excited for you. You have everything in front of you.”

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