Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The art of being “sent down”"moved"

I’m sorry. “Sent down” isn’t the right terminology. I was told it’s simply a “roster move.” I guess that sounds less like a demotion than “sent down.”

This has been a particularly busy month for roster moves, it seems. There doesn’t seem to be an emergent pattern in terms of why it’s been so busy; it’s the typical “so-and-so is on the 15-day DL; such-and-such was recalled” or “this guy has completed his rehab stint; the other guy has been optioned to AAA” kind of stuff. It isn’t as if Tonya Harding hired someone to run through clubhouses with a crowbar (although all the broken pitchers of late might not be shocked to hear she did).

In any case, there’s clearly a different arsenal of feelings when a player is called into the manager’s office first thing in the morning in the big league clubhouse than when a player is called into the manager’s office first thing in the morning across town, across the state, across the country in the AAA clubhouse. And it trickles down the levels. When someone is moved from one team, it inevitably leaves a hole on another. That hole gets filled by guys from somewhere, and it’s not always a joyous occasion.

Nevertheless, I was reminded of something recently. As long as I’ve been around the game, I’ve always admired players’ ability to line that cloud with sparkling silver threads even as it carries them back to places like Mobile, Alabama, or Jackson, Mississippi. My conversations with recently-moved players were a refresher in positivity, and I think I really needed that right now. I’m sure some of you might need it, too, so I’ll pass on the wisdom of being “moved” through a couple parables. Names, positions, teams, and details may have been changed for poetic license or to retain player anonymity.

The Interview. A rookie infielder made the big club out of Spring Training for the first time. He wasn’t supposed to be there. At least not this year. The everyday third baseman got hurt, though, and a team needs a third baseman. So it turned into an opportunity, but the rookie knew when the veteran returned, he’d find himself back on the farm. Sure enough, in early May, that very thing happened, and the local television affiliate saw fit to interview the rookie almost the moment he left the manager’s office. It went like this:

-Reporter: “How do you feel about this decision?”

-Player: “Well, I’m disappointed I didn’t play like I’d hoped I would, but I’m grateful I got to open the season with this group of guys. Making the club out of Training was something I didn’t think would happen, so I’m just glad I was here.”

-Reporter: “Will you still play third in AAA, or are you going to go back to second?”

-Player: “I’ll play where they tell me, but Skip said they want me at third to work on a few things—like balls down the line, making the throw every time, you know. Whatever they decide, though, I’ll do it. If I’m in the lineup, I’m in the lineup.”

-Reporter: “Any regrets?”

-Player: “You’re kidding, right? I just played a month of Major League Baseball. I’ve waited all my life for this chance. I can’t regret anything I did, and I won’t. I’m just going to work on a few things, get my body and my head on the right path, and hopefully, I’ll get to come back and help the team again. For now, I have another team to help. It’s just part of the game.”

It is part of the game. We aren’t perfect, and even when we’re playing Major League Baseball, we’re not perfect. Instead of seeing this as a blow, the rookie saw it as a chance to go to a team with a little less pressure on him and make some improvements. Since most of us aren’t baseball players, the best way to live this lesson is to take a step back from time to time. Reevaluate our strengths and weaknesses. Impose a self-inflicted rehab assignment. Like this guy, sometimes there’s something we need to work on, and since no one is going to option us to Triple-A, maybe we should option ourselves.

Call It Being Moved. Another friend was optioned to Triple-A the other day for similar reasons as the third baseman above. He, too, was a surprise opening day addition, included on a pitching staff that needed all the help it could get. When I talked to him about it, he kept referring to the optioning to AAA as “being moved” instead of the “sent down” I'd calling it. I had never really thought about the words used to talk about a player’s movement within a system, but in that moment, it changed the whole way I viewed it. 

Before I talked to him, I was sad and a little frustrated that his Major League service had been interrupted not by his inability to do what he was there to do but simply by another player’s seniority. See, he was one of three guys basically holding spots until the regular pitchers healed and were ready to go. That never changed the excitement nor did it diminish the fact he and those other two rookies got a chance to play in the Show.

I think knowing about his long road to the top made it seem a bit more frustrating when the move was made that sent him to the farm team, but like I said, talking to him took the sting out. He never once said it was a backward move nor did he indicate he was disappointed in himself. I’m sure he was; who wouldn’t be? Nonetheless, he, too, was viewing it as just another part of the job, another thing he had to do to become the pitcher he knows he can be. All of this was evident in one simple sentence: “I knew I was the guy to get moved.” Not “sent down.” Not “demoted.” Not “sent back.” Nothing more than “moved.” He’s still part of the organization, and he knows this is simply a way to ensure he’s an even more valuable part in the future.

So when we hit an obstacle, maybe it's more helpful to avoid calling it an “obstacle.” Instead, talking about it as a necessary step in the longer process might make it sting less, might make it seem more beneficial, and might make us view it with more positivity and dedication. For example, those A- grades a lot of my colleagues and I seem to find from time to time don’t mean we weren’t good enough. Instead of looking at the “minus” sign, maybe we should look at the “A.” Call it, “I made an A-,” instead of, “I didn’t make an A.” Our words convey our attitude, our outlook, our confidence; sometimes they telegraph our success. If he calls it “getting sent down,” maybe he doesn’t work as hard as he would if he calls it “getting moved.” Being moved allows him to focus, like the infielder, on the things that need work. “Being sent down” sounds like a failure, and it absolutely is not. When we hit a setback, it couldn’t hurt to take a cue from a guy who didn’t get “sent down” but got “moved.” Our words do matter.

The Money’s a Little Tighter. Instead of a “save for a rainy day” lesson here, I much prefer the other lesson I got from a player who was moved this week. I don’t like to think about money when it comes to baseball because I love the game in spite of the millions and millions of dollars being thrown around in it. I never know what my friends are making in the various stages of their careers, but it’s always the first question other people ask me. I simply do not know. I simply do not want to know.

So when another friend (seems knowing me might be bad luck for rookies) was moved to Triple-A from a Major League roster this month, another (non-player) friend asked if that affected his contract. I said I had no idea in his case, and she was surprised we hadn’t talked about it. I said, “You know, it didn’t occur to me. I was more worried about whether or not he was okay with the move.”

When I did talk to him again, he briefly mentioned that “money is a little tighter,” but quickly shrugged it off, adding, “I still get to pitch, and that’s all I care about.” He’s been in the Minors for a while; he knows what it’s like to ride buses for hours and to toss and turn in half-assed hotels with a snoring roommate. Each lost hour of sleep, each mile, he remembers he plays freakin’ baseball for a living, that he gets to do the very thing he loves every day, and suddenly the hard bed in the La Quinta is just a little softer. The roommate’s snoring becomes a reminder he’s surrounded by other people who love this game. And the bus moves along just a little more smoothly to the next park, the next game, and another day of doing what he loves. 

Money be damned.

While we all want to know our bills are paid, talking to him and to other Minor League friends reminds me that sometimes finding our own personal Zen is far more important than making a pile of money. I’ve never actually made a pile of money, so maybe I’d feel differently if I had, but when I see the dedication and passion he and so many other guys play with—regardless of the level—it’s painfully obvious a pure and honest love of the game is more important than anything else.

Now I’m not stupid. I’ve known many players over time who were motivated by the money first and the game second, and to be honest, there’s a lesson to be learned there, too. If you want something badly enough, keep at it until you get there. If it’s the millions you want, then chase the millions. Being good at baseball for those guys is the ticket to financial success; it's no different than what the rest of us might pursue for financial success. Most of those guys, even the ones who love the money, have put in their hard labor hours and had their hard knocks; all that’s different is their payoff.

For my friend, though, the privilege of getting to do the thing he loves most in this world every single day is worth whatever pay cut comes with his move to Triple-A. More so than that, he knows what it’s like to get there, to play in the Majors. He’s been in the swanky hotels with the all-white rooms, relaxed on the charter jet with his teammates, driven (and almost bought) the fast cars through the city, and he will fight that much harder to get back up there so he can have both the money and the game. But the game comes first.

We should remember that, too. If we do something we love, we do it with more devotion and more care. Instead of looking for a payday, if we look for happiness, the payday will be there. For most of us, a payday will never have seven—or even six, for the most part—digits, but there will be success. There will be peace.

In any case, these three guys and the rest of the players who were moved this week have gotten to do something great, if only for a moment thus far, and most of them have a career still ahead of them where they might get to do it again. The rookie infielder will start to haul in those hot shots down the line. Maybe the pitcher will add another pitch to his arsenal. The guy with the money will wake up happy in a nicer hotel. But if not, they can always tell Meat to keep his head on straight because “I was in the Show.”

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