Two Trenton Thunder prospects endure the daily rigors and curveballs of minor league life with one goal in mind: playing ball in the Bronx

By Nick Klopsis

Myron Leslie is trying to make it in the difficult world of minor league baseball. (Credit: Dave Schofield/Trenton Thunder)

Catcher Myron Leslie calmly stood at his locker in the messy minor league clubhouse at Trenton’s Waterfront Park. About 90 minutes before game time, Leslie’s Trenton Thunder teammates were grabbing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, sitting on the blue clubhouse sofa watching ESPN, or telling jokes. A few ducked out of the room for quick phone calls to their friends and family. Extra jerseys were crammed inside tiny lockers, leaving little space for anything else. Clubhouse attendants walked around armed with bags of ice, plopping them down next to players who were listening to their iPods and stretching. The atmosphere was relaxed, but everyone was still focused on the game against the Richmond Flying Squirrels.

On the surface, tonight’s game may seem like any other. The team will take the field at 7:00 p.m., play nine innings of baseball, and then call it a day. But for Leslie, it’s much more than just another game. It’s another chance for him to show that he has what it takes to crack a major league roster. Yet, as a backup catcher, the 29-year-old Leslie is also just one hot prospect away from being cut from the team, ending his professional baseball career.

“You never know exactly what to expect,” he said as a teammate came by and enthusiastically slapped him on the back. “Once you get to the professional level, it becomes a job.  That job may be to win games, but it’s still your job. And you’re trying to keep your job, and you can be fired from your job.”

Out in the hallway stood one of those hot prospects that threatens Leslie’s dream. Dellin Betanes, a23-year-old phenom pitcher, had just finished an interview with two high school students, only to be immediately swarmed again by a group of reporters. The Thunder had just placed Betances on the disabled list with a blister on his right pointer finger, officially taking him off the team’s active roster for the foreseeable future. Blisters are very common injuries for pitchers, but the team didn’t want to risk it with their top prospect.

Leslie and Betances are two of 25 players on the Thunder, Double-A affiliate of the New York Yankees.  For these boys of summer, tonight’s game at the 6,341-seat Waterfront Park is part of their life-long quest of playing in the majors. But the odds are slim that they’ll join Thunder alumni Robinson Cano, Phil Hughes, and Brett Gardner in the Bronx. Only one in ten minor leaguers will play even one day in the majors, according to a study by Baseball America magazine.

Add in the fact that there are about 6,050 players in the minor leagues on any day, and the pressure to succeed becomes apparent. “It’s a lot of people fighting for a very finite number of spaces in the big leagues,” Leslie said. “And you’re not just competing with your teammates for those spots. You’re competing with people on other teams too, because you never know what’s going to happen. So it’s a lot of pressure if you let it be.”

Players who want to play in the majors have to devote themselves entirely to the game, says Matt Eddy, associate editor for Baseball America.  “Work ethic and character are two big things for players who aren’t coveted prospects,” he said. “It’s a game of attrition. You don’t want to be that player who at age 18 is as good as he’s ever going to be. If you’re not an elite talent, you’re going to need to work to make yourself attractive to teams.”

As someone who’s not an elite talent, Leslie has had to claw his way up through the system, spending his entire pro career in the minors. Leslie’s father tried to teach him how to play tennis at age four in Panama City, Florida.  Instead, he signed him up for Little League after he kept swinging tennis rackets like baseball bats and throwing tennis balls like baseballs. After a successful amateur career at Brandon High School and the University of South Florida, the Oakland Athletics drafted Leslie in the eighth round of the 2004 draft.  By 2006, Leslie made it to their AA affiliate, the Midland (Texas) RockHounds. He began spending time at multiple positions, hoping to draw the eye of scouts that were looking for versatility. In 2007, Leslie played first base, third base, left field, right field, and even pitched a few innings for the RockHounds.

“If those positions are where an opportunity opens up, then I’ve shown that I can play there,” he said. “Some scouts will also look specifically for a left-handed bat or a right-handed bat. I’m a switch hitter, so instead of having two guys on the roster, I can fill that one role. I could provide more value for the one roster spot.”

Leslie got injured in 2007, but tried to play through it to impress those same scouts. The decision backfired—he came back in 2008 to less playing time, and was cut at the end of the season. After spending a season in the independent Canadian-American Association in 2009, the Yankees signed Leslie to a minor league contract.

But Leslie’s chance to make the majors is slowly disappearing, especially since each new season brings around a fresh crop of hungry prospects. At 29, he’s a veteran on a Thunder roster full of 24- and 25-year-old up-and-comers, and is only used sparingly in favor of the younger guys.  “I’ve seen a lot of people make it to the big leagues,” Leslie said. “But a lot more aren’t playing anymore, and they’re not around the game.”

Those prospects are always a threat, even if they don’t play the same position as Leslie.   Betances, a 6’8” pitcher, has soared through the Yankees’ farm system. The New York City native idolized the Yankees as a child, and recalls a highlight of his young life as being in the Yankee Stadium bleachers for David Wells’ perfect game in 1998. He was drafted right out of Brooklyn’s Grand Street Campus High School in the eighth round of the 2006 draft, and hasn’t looked back since then. Betances is widely considered one of the Yankees’ top prospects—Baseball America ranked him as the 43rd best prospect in the minor leagues.

Dellin Betances is considered one of the Yankees' top prospects. (Credit: Dave Schofield/Trenton Thunder)

“You really have to work hard to get to the next level,” Betances said. “It’s definitely something you do because you love it, and it’s definitely a dream for me. But I still have to work to make that dream possible. ”

These two very different paths to the same place show just how varying the road to the majors can be.  What Leslie, Betances, and their teammates do share is the often-tedious lifestyle of a minor leaguer, which is nowhere near as luxurious as it is in the majors.

Take the post-game clubhouse spread, for instance. Major leaguers enjoy hot dinners such as grilled chicken, rice, and fish after a game. They also receive a $125 per diem for food while on the road. Minor league spreads, on the other hand, pale in comparison to major league meals. While Thunder players are treated to pasta and other warm foods, lower-level farmhands don’t have it so lucky and often have to scrounge for a decent post-game spread beyond cold sandwiches.

“I’m lucky that I love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches so much,” said Thunder pitcher Steve Garrison. “There are a lot of guys around here who don’t like it, so it’s hard for them to find something to eat. But sometimes I’ll mix it up with some strawberry jelly instead of grape.”

On top of the middling spreads, minor leaguers often endure long hours of uncomfortable bus travel. It’s not uncommon for trips to last 9 or 10 hours while major leaguers travel by private chartered jet to away games. Players will often pass most of the time bickering over what comedy or action movie to watch on the ride.

“We’ll try to get some sleep, but those buses aren’t too comfortable, so you’re not going to sleep too well,” Leslie said. “You just try to distract yourself from how uncomfortable the ride is.”

Travel isn’t only physically exhausting—it also wears on a player’s psyche. Garrett Broshuis, a former pitcher who spent five years in the San Francisco Giants’ system, never had his wife travel with him because he wanted her to live her own life as a physical therapist in St. Louis and not have to follow him around to ballparks. Still, he said it was very tough not seeing her often.

“After pitching a game, you have so many emotions going through your body,” he said. “The one person you want to truly share these emotions with is not there. You lay down at the end of the night, and, even after a great game, something still feels missing. There’s still a bit of emptiness inside of you that never really goes away.”

The busy day-to-day schedule doesn’t do much to relieve that feeling. Players often wake up at around noon and get to the stadium by 2:00 p.m. After warm-ups and batting practice, they’ll relax in the clubhouse for an hour or so until game time. Games usually start at 7:00 p.m., and last about three hours. After the post-game spread at around 11:00 p.m., players will unwind by playing video games or grabbing a few drinks with teammates. By the time players finally return home, it’s about 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. They’ll repeat this cycle for days on end, rarely receiving a scheduled day off.

“It’s very monotonous,” Leslie said. “People from back home will call me and ask, ‘How was your day?’I’ll always tell them, ‘It’s the same as yesterday. It’s the same as the last 30 days.”

But by far, the biggest struggle for minor leaguers is finances. Regardless of any signing bonuses offered, players initially earn a structured salary, which only goes through the five months that the season lasts. Short-season players earn a maximum of $850 per month in their first year, while AAA players make up to $2,150 in their first year. After their first year, players can negotiate their own salary, but it’s still nowhere near the major league minimum of $414,000 per year. Minor leaguers also get a $25 per diem for food and other related expenses.

The financial situation is daunting for many players.  Leslie has a family back in Tampa that he helps support. He’ll send some money home to his wife and two young children, and saves the rest to pay for rent in Trenton, clubhouse dues, and other expenses.

“There is so much more pressure when you have a family,” Leslie said. “You tell yourself that money is not the most important thing to you when it comes to your family. But choosing to play baseball and trying to make it to the big leagues and having to work your way through the minors is very tough. You have to really make decisions and have set priorities.”

Betances, however, is one of three Thunder players listed on the Yankees’ 40-man roster, meaning he has it a little better than most of his counterparts do.  As a first-time member of the 40-man roster, Betances earns the minimum salary of $33,700 beyond the $1 million signing bonus he received in 2006. He’s also guaranteed a call-up to the majors on September 1 when rosters expand, and his minimum salary will increase to $67,500 if he plays one day in the majors. The 40-man roster also gives Betances “reserve” status with the Yankees, meaning that he could receive a call-up at any point in the season and play in the Bronx by the next day.

“It’s definitely a dream for me, especially having grown up in New York,” Betances said. “I’ve grown up watching these guys play, and to have the chance to share the same field as them is definitely a dream come true.”

Leslie is not on the 40-man roster. In order for the Yankees to promote him to the majors, there are a few logistical issues at play. First, the Yankees would have to purchase Leslie’s minor league contract, officially putting him on the 40-man roster. But to make space for Leslie, they would have to make an additional roster move— meaning someone else would have to be traded, cut, or demoted to the minors. They could create a roster opening by placing someone on the disabled list, but that’s usually just a temporary fix—once the injured player returns, another roster move will have to be made to bring him back onto the roster.

“It’s tough because you have to try to steal someone else’s spot that’s already filled,” Leslie said. “They’re at that level, and they’re showing they can do it at that level.  Meanwhile, you need to prove that you can do it better than someone who’s already there. So you kind of feel like you have to do extra.”

Amid all the difficulties and unlikelihood of making the majors, some players question whether it’s all worth it in the end.  Broshuis, the former San Francisco Giants pitcher, was one player who walked away on his own terms, a decision that was due to both soul-searching and injury. He retired in 2009 after topping out at AAA, and is currently studying law at Saint Louis University and blogging about his minor league experiences.

“My life revolved around this game,” Broshuis said. “I became accustomed to putting on that uniform each night, to stepping on the green grass, to hanging out with the guys, and to performing. Yet my dream wasn’t to be a minor league baseball player. Once I came to the realization that my dream probably wasn’t going to happen, I had to seriously think about giving it up.”

But many players don’t get to make the decision consciously. Often, it’s made for them. More than two weeks after the Thunder’s 2-1 extra-innings victory over the Flying Squirrels, Betances’ blister was fully healed. It was time for the young phenom to return to the roster.  But there was one problem: the Thunder were already at their 25-man roster limit. Someone had to go. The unlucky roster casualty: Myron Leslie.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. Leslie could wait for a call from another organization. He could try again in the Can-Am league.  He could go back home to his family in Tampa. But, just like each day spent in the minor leagues, nothing is certain.

“I’m hoping he can find a spot on another team soon, but I know it’s tough,” Betances said. “He was definitely a great teammate. I really wish he was still here.”