A Major League Baseball team will start spring training with anywhere from 55-65 players. It starts the regular season with just 25. That means 30-40 players in each camp get the dreaded tap on the shoulder, usually from the hitting or pitching coach, "The manager needs to talk to you."
Ugh, I get that same pit in my stomach just typing those words, you know what’s coming. It is an awful feeling, you’re getting sent down, or worse, released.
The reality is beyond the 25 who make it, there are maybe 6-8 others who were really in the mix for a spot on the team. The rest are usually younger players mixed in with a couple of salty vets who had either a long shot or no shot at all of going north.
In spring training, players aren’t paid their regular salaries but they do receive meal money, which is actually a combination of a weekly living allowance and meal money. Meal money day, which is usually the same day every week, coincides with cut day. Why? Because meal money is paid for the week in advance, a team does not want to give a player meal money for the next seven days, knowing he will be on his way to minor-league camp.
After about two or three weeks of camp, the anxiety starts to set in: Cuts are coming. The first round of cuts is fairly predictable. The 19-year-old high-round draft pick and the non-roster invitee who had a good year in AA but had no chance to make the team are on their way to minor-league camp along with a few others.
Seven days later, right before the next round of meal money is set to be delivered, it starts again. The AA and AAA backup catchers get the call. They were there longer than you might expect, but with so many pitchers in camp catchers are a valuable commodity in spring training. A couple of 40-man roster guys get the news as well and maybe the team’s first college player picked in last year’s draft. Some coaches are packing bags as well. This of course is of no surprise, minor-league camp is under way and they need to be with their guys and start making decisions about their own rosters.
Lockers are starting to empty. There is some shuffling going on, auxiliary lockers are being removed as the countdown to 25 intensifies.
When you’re a bubble guy, meal money day is the worst. It’s not about that money, it’s about the bigger prize: making the team. You know it is cut day. Some guys walk in the clubhouse with their head on a swivel, others will have their heads down — maybe if they avoid eye contact they’ll live to fight another day. The coaches and GM had a meeting last night, decisions were already made. Am I in this uniform tomorrow, enjoying the luxuries of major-league camp, or am I headed with the masses where dreams go to die in minor-league camp? You never want to leave.
There is a chance you’re gone today, off to a meal money-less life of soup and sandwiches. I would sit in front of my locker for a few minutes to see if a coach was waiting for me to arrive to deliver the news. Some guys would get dressed right away, as if putting on your uniform was a guarantee that you got to stay with the team. I never wanted to do that. I wanted to avoid getting dressed and then potentially undressed back into street clothes to do the walk of shame.
Everybody else already knows what is going on, they’re watching too. There’s relief when someone else gets called into that office and it’s not you. It’s a bigger relief when it’s someone with whom you might be in competition.
I was a realist, I knew when I had a chance and I knew when I didn’t. That never made it any easier. At the end of the day, you secretly think you always have a shot. You thought you could beat out the guy who has been there for a couple of years and has the guaranteed deal. He’s slipping, getting lazy, with a good spring you could take his spot. It never works that way.
The tap on the shoulder is just the beginning, next is the meeting. For most teams the pitching coach is there, the manager and the general manager. "CJ, we’re going to send you to minor-league camp." I already knew, hearing it only made it worse. They’ll tell you what you did well, what you need to work on, blah, blah, blah. There’s a lot of head nodding from the player, you’re discouraged and aren’t taking in much of what is said at that point. You know what’s happening, you’re not going to the big leagues to open the season, that’s all that really matters to you at that point.
Players react differently. Some storm out of the office, slam a door and make their displeasure known as they leave the clubhouse. Most don’t. Most shake the hands of everyone in the room, leave the impression that they’ll do their work and put themselves in position to get called up. You might be thinking some bad things in your head, but the smart move is never to say them.
Leaving the office and walking back into the clubhouse is another step in the uncomfortable process. Everyone in the room knows what happened. Mature players come up to you, say a comment and wish you luck. The guys who are happy you are out of the competition or don’t really care ignore you.
It’s not over, you have to clean out your locker. This is where my pride always got in the way. I hated doing it in front of the team. As I got older, I always left the clubhouse and came back to get my stuff when the guys were on the field for practice, less humiliation.
There were a lot of years I knew where I was starting the season, but looking back there were eight times I wasn’t sure. And in those years my spring training really mattered. I made the team three of those times, was sent to minor-league camp three other times and was released twice at the end of camp.
It’s not a fun time and as spring training winds down and transactions of players getting sent to the minor leagues, or worse get released, go across the wire, I can’t help but empathize. The battle to get to the big leagues is a tough one, and a lot of disappointment is felt this time of year.