Cal Poly Baseball Players Persevere through the Minor Leagues

(This was originally an article for JOUR 203)

On June 4, 2019, Cal Poly pitcher Bobby Ay was drafted in the 9th round by the Arizona Diamondbacks. He now gets to add himself to the list of Cal Poly baseball alumni who are fighting through the grind of minor league baseball, going all the way back to 2011. Over the past decade, Cal Poly has had plenty of success in Baggett Stadium, but often times we see our favorite baseball players’ names disappear after graduation.  

This arduous process is not unheard of for most college baseball players, as the game of minor league baseball produces far more losers than winners.

In most sports it takes time to get to the top, which is why almost all major sports have lower talent leagues. Whether it’s the G-league for the NBA, the CHL for the NHL or even the former European League and soon-to-be XFL for the NFL, new players can almost always come to expect this addition to their professional career. 

Nowhere is that more true than the MLB, which has eight different levels of minor league teams, not including independent or international leagues. This, combined with over 1200 players being drafted each year (not including international prospects), means that to get to the MLB you have to prove you belong.

In the 2010s, 36 Cal Poly alumni have been drafted and played minor league baseball. The final addition to this list, Bobby Ay, was the only player drafted from Cal Poly in the 2019 MLB draft, the smallest number of the decade. The year before in 2018 three players were drafted, including Alex Mckenna, who recently was involved in a car accident. 

These players are Cal Poly’s new wave of talent, and are still looking to establish themselves in the minors. Teams typically give their prospects two years after being drafted to evaluate before releasing them, so once they survive this their minor league career is much more solidified.

As simple as it sounds, making it more than two years in the minors is far from a given. Twenty of Cal Poly’s 36 prospects couldn’t make it past this two year milestone, including every Cal Poly player drafted in 2016. With the high number of prospects entering the minors yearly, talent alone isn’t enough to stick around. To make a career out of baseball, you gotta have the intangibles.

Larry Lee, coach of Cal Poly’s baseball team since 2002, believes that coachability is a crucial part of making it up the minor league ranks. “Work hard, open minded, continue to get better on a monthly basis, it’s an impossible game to master so you just have to keep making small improvements. 

He also mentioned how unpredictable the success of certain players can be, saying that “there are very few sure things in baseball”. If you were drafted in the first round, you wouldn’t really be any more likely to make the majors than someone from the tenth round.

However, where you get drafted does determines the amount of money you make in your minor league career, which makes it more difficult to stick around if you get drafted in a later round. The 2015 Cal Poly draftees have found ways to defy this, with three people drafted after round 10 still playing in the minors. The five active players from this draft class are the most of any year.

If 2015 was the year of quantity, then 2012 was the year of quality. The two most successful Cal Poly baseball players from this decade were both drafted in 2012; Mitch Haniger and Mike Miller are the only two players this decade to have played in the MLB from Cal Poly. 

Mitch Haniger is one of the MLB’s rising stars, being rewarded an all-star appearance and Most Valuable Player votes in his only full year of MLB baseball. His 2019 season was cut short due to a ruptured testical and strained back. He is the only prospect to be drafted in the first round from Cal Poly this decade.

Mike Miller was drafted almost 300 spots later, but worked his way up to AAA ball in only 4 years. On June 27, 2016 he achieved his dream of playing in the MLB. After coming in as a defensive replacement in the top of the 9th inning down by 6, he grounded out to the shortstop. 

The game ended quickly thereafter, and so did Mike Miller’s MLB career. He has not played in the major leagues since that at-bat. He’s back in AAA ball now trying to get back to the show, but as of right now, his MLB career reads one game, one at-bat, one ground out.

Lee also touched on a second, equally as important factor in reaching success at the professional level: luck, especially for later round picks. “It’s really political, things really have to fall into place if you don’t sign for a lot of money,” Lee said. “Sometimes you just end up in the wrong organization, stuck behind some high level guys in the majors.” 

Quite frankly, for a lot of prospects, it just doesn’t work out.

While most of the other Cal Poly draft classes from this decade are remarkable for what was achieved in the diamond, the 2014 class was far more notable for what they did outside of the minors.

Nick Torres, the only player from this class still playing baseball professionally, has recently abandoned minor league baseball to play in the Mexican Baseball League. As baseball becomes more globally connected, playing in an international league is quickly becoming a viable pathway to the MLB.

Matt Imhof was one of the most highly touted prospects to come out of Cal Poly when he was drafted in the second round. Only three years into his career, at only 23, he experienced a freak accident while lifting weights and lost his eye. 

After major struggles with depression and self-identity following the injury, he announced his retirement to focus on life after baseball. 

Chris Hoo was the complete opposite as Imhof. Drafted very late, he was never particularly close to making the majors. After he was demoted back to A Ball, the Marlins offered him a job as a bullpen catcher, allowing him to fulfill his major league dream in a different way. 

Recently, he took a job at Cal Poly to work with the baseball team and be closer to his family in California.

Life after the minor leagues doesn’t always have to come at the expense of baseball. Giving up the grind of the minors doesn’t immediately void these prospect’s love for the game.

Nick Grim was the third and final player drafted in 2012. He didn’t have the same success as Haniger or Miller but he played minor league ball for a few years before calling it in 2016. He recently began playing in a low-level independent league called the Pecos League.

“I’m not really trying to get back into affiliated baseball, I just want to play for fun and it’s 10 minutes from my house,” said Grim about what motivated him to play in the Pecos League. “The chance to play [baseball here] in a competitive setting was more fun, especially now that my family can see me play”. 

Many other prospects have continued to quench their thirst for baseball post-retirement with similar independent leagues, which allows them to enjoy the intensity of professional baseball in a more comforting environment. Grim is still deciding if he’s going to play next year.

Baseball more than any other major sport is about patience. This translates aptly to the minor league process. Cal Poly alumni have had to struggle through the grind of uncomfortable bus rides, nights away from family, and constant pressure of performance all at a chance of their life-long goal of making the MLB. Even if it’s just for a single at-bat.

Luckily, these athletes are not isolated in their pursuits. The brotherhood created at Cal Poly between prospects doesn’t end at graduation, or even after the minors. They are forever connected by their sport, by their college, and by their dreams.

When asked about staying in touch with teammates, Grim laughed and mentioned that he talks to his teammates all the time, to “see what they’re up to”. Last Saturday, Grim, along with a bunch of other teammates attended 2014 draftee and bullpen catcher Chris Hoo’s wedding. 

Their names may have disappeared to us, but the brotherhood that was formed with each other will never wither.

Watching Baseball Die: What is Rob Manfred Doing?

With spring training bringing in baseball for the year, very few baseball fans are focused on the season ahead. Instead, most of the focus is shifted towards the 2017 season, and possibly the biggest baseball scandal since the Black Sox in 1919. 

During the offseason the Houston Astros, who won the World Series in 2017, were caught using technology to intercept the catcher’s pitch signals, allowing the batter to know the pitch that’s being thrown to him. 

Baseball fans wanted blood, a hard crackdown on the Astros and their players. Commissioner Rob Manfred didn’t get the memo, and it doesn’t bode well for his career.

Rumors of the Astros sign stealing have been swirling the MLB the past few years, but the rumors began to elevate in early-November when reports surfaced alleging them of banging a trashcan in the dugout for off-speed pitches in 2017. Popular fans like Jomboy were amongst the first to bring exposure to the scandal by searching Astros games for trash can bangs.

Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred and other MLB investigators stated they were conducting a “really really thorough investigation” into the scandal. “Any allegations that could affect the outcome of a game or games is the most serious matter,” Manfred elaborated.

Baseball is not a sport short of scandals. From the steroid use that plagued the sport in the 90s and early 00s, to the Pete Rose gambling incident and the Black Sox scandal, incidents like these have always been apart of baseball. Sign stealing had simply become the next chapter.

However, in order for the sport to move forward from these scandals the league had to crack down hard on its perpetrators…

especially when they exceed on the highest level, and win the World Series. Fans league-wide speculated player suspensions, bans from baseball, and possibly even having the World Series redacted.

Manfred did none of these things. Immediately after handing down the punishment, the league was in uproar over the lackluster consequences that the Astros faced. With accusations of other teams like the Red Sox and Yankees also being speculated as stealing signs using technology, many fans believed Manfred needed to set a precedent that this was not acceptable. Not a single player involved received a fine for their participation.

Astros batter Alex Bregman talking about taking place in the sign stealing scandal, answering every question asked with “the commissioner came out with a report, MLB did their report and the Astros did what they did.”

Unhappy with the commissioner’s findings, many fans from across the league continued looking into the sign stealing. Databases were built to analyze which Astros players were most and least responsible. Players most responsible included Alex Bregman, recently hired New York Mets manager Carlos Beltran, and World Series MVP George Springer.

However, what few considered as the scandal was unfolding was the impact it had on player’s careers league wide. In most major sports, players are united by their love for the game. By cheating, many Astros players betrayed their brothers, teammates, and friends. Mike Bolsinger launched a lawsuit suing the Astros for 31 million dollars, to be given to various LA charities.

Just a week after the commissioner report, Manfred also announced the possibility of a new playoff seeding, which would include bye weeks, four more teams, and a reality-TV style reveal where high seeded teams would pick their opponent. It was almost unanimously hated after being released, and further made baseball fans question Manfred’s role as commissioner.

As Spring Training has started to take shape, many players were given a chance to speak out on the sign stealing scandal and Rob Manfred.

Cody Bellinger, the reigning National League MVP, on the Astros responses to the sign stealing scandal.
Will Middlebrooks commenting on the MLB’s plea for players not to throw at the Astros.
Kris Bryant, former MVP and member of 2016 World Series-winning Chicago Cubs, being asked about the punishment the 2017 Astros players’ recieved.

And then Rob Manfred called the World Series championship a piece of metal.

This solidified Manfred’s disconnection from the sport in many players and fans eyes. For the commissioner to skimp out on punishment for the Astros whilst diminishing the value of the World Series championship, it made him seem unconcerned with the future of the sport. A sport that has suffered in recent years due to poor higher up decisions.

Justin Turner, a batter for the 2017 Dodgers who lost the World Series to the Astros, being asked about Manfred’s recent actions as commissioner.

While this story has been in development for a while, it seems to have no real end in sight. The lack of punishment and closure into whether the Astros continued cheating after 2017 has placed immense scrutiny on the MLB. Recently, there has been speculation into the Astros using buzzers this past postseason to relay signs instead of trash can bangs. The Astros have been greeted by press at every turn, which should continue well into the season if Manfred continues to withhold information.

Regarding the whole situation, Lebron James of all people summed it up fittingly.