A writer for Baseball America is on the phone. She asks for Jake Marisnick and Marcus Knecht.
The two Blue Jays prospects are found next to one another in the Lansing Lugnuts’ home clubhouse. Earlier today, they were practicing a new handshake routine on the field. Now they sit and count the minutes before they need to shower and dress for the evening game against Beloit.
The carpeted hallway outside the clubhouse is dimly lit and stained, leading down past a dust-coated exercise bike that no longer recognizes mileage peddled. The glass doorway that opens to the home dugout is spider-webbed with fresh cracks from a Bryson Namba foul ball the previous day. It looks like the display window from a store in the part of town no one wants to go to anymore.
Above, in the press box, three scouts have already arrived. The trade deadline is a week away; it is time to finalize and submit their reports.
Marisnick and Knecht are in prospect-laden company in Lansing, joined by touted catcher Carlos Perez, enigmatic first baseman K.C. Hobson, and intriguingly toolsy outfielders Michael Crouse and Markus Brisker. Scouts have flocked to Lugnuts games all season, discussing in fiery spurts which one is the cream of the crop.
But they are, all of them, a long way from the Show, a fact that is clearer in this quiet clubhouse than it is on the sun-drenched field outside. Perez attends regular English classes, battling to command the language in the same way he has fought to master an opposite-field stroke. Knecht experiments with a mohawk. Marisnick’s shorts are torn on the right leg.
They have just returned from their longest road trip of the season, a 10-day, nine-game journey from Eastlake, Ohio, to Geneva, Illinois, to Clinton, Iowa. Clinton is, sadly, infamous in the Midwest League, and it lived down to its billing. As the bus arrives at 1:30 a.m., the stench from the enormous dog food plant along the main thoroughfare provides an unpleasant wake-up for the dozing players. Not long after, the team discovers that the Super 8 where they have been scheduled to stay is not expecting them. Emergency reservations are made at the nightmarish Regency Inn down the road. Few players gain any amount of reasonable sleep in the end.
Naturally, the series opens with a 12-inning marathon that drains their energy all the more. Two afternoons of dangerous humidity follow, reaching heat indexes of 113 degrees Fahrenheit. It is an understatement to say that the players are glad to return to Lansing.
The Baseball America request lights up Marisnick’s and Knecht’s faces, an unexpected moment on an otherwise mundane Monday. They take their turns answering questions on a cell phone outside the clubhouse, talking honestly about themselves and their team.
By the end of the night, the Lugnuts will have won again, increasing their record to 58-39, 20-10 in the second half. It is the club’s 12th win in its past 14 games.
The Blue Jays are expected to take things slowly with the young prospects, keeping them in Class-A for the entire season and starting them all at A-Advanced Dunedin come 2012.
Dunedin, it must be admitted, is not an enviable locale with regard to climate and attendance. The humidity the Lugnuts suffered through in Clinton is a regular occurrence in the Florida State League. The D-Jays average a league-worst 658 fans per game, a far cry from Lansing’s 4,976 fans-per-game average, fourth-best in the 16-team Midwest League.
Yet Dunedin is also the home of the Blue Jays’ American headquarters, allowing Toronto’s decision-makers to take a better look at their minor leaguers. If the players pass their FSL test, they advance to the Double-A Eastern League in New Hampshire. If a player excels in Double-A, the truism goes, there is a future for him in the Majors.
Still, fortunes are fickle in the minors, as the Lugnuts’ faithful know well, and it is difficult to figure a player’s destiny from year to year.
The very first Lugs lineup in 1996 featured a young outfielder who struggled terribly before a merciful demotion to Short-A. Two years later, Carlos Beltran was in the American League with the Kansas City Royals making his Major League debut. In 1999, he won the AL Rookie of the Year award.
There was the catcher in 2002 who batted just .149 in 15 games and was told to give up his bat and head out to the pitcher’s mound. The decision paid dividends; Carlos Marmol rose from Lugnuts staff ace in 2004 to Chicago Cubs relief ace in 2007.
And then there was Dunedin native Brian Dopirak, a 20-year-old kid in 2004, the same age as Jake Marisnick now, who tore through the Midwest League record book to the tune of 38 doubles, 39 home runs and 120 RBIs in 137 games. Surely this was a can’t-miss Major Leaguer if ever there was one. But Dopirak ran into a road block in Double-A, was released by the Cubs following the 2007 season, signed with Toronto, made his way as high as Triple-A Las Vegas with the Blue Jays in 2009 and 2010 before signing with Houston and beginning 2011 with Triple-A Oklahoma City. He was released on June 17. Brian Dopirak may never make the Majors after all.
Such cautionary tales are easy to find, even for the brightest of prospects, and the players are well aware of them. For years now, Marisnick, Knecht, and their ilk have all been playing their own versions of “Survivor”, doing their determined, desperate best to hang on as fellow teammates and competitors are called in for private meetings with the manager and told to find a new way to spend the summer months.
The day after the Lugnuts complete their three-game sweep of Beloit is an off-day, a rare chance in an exhausting summer for the players to relax and recharge their battery. Some golf, some hit the gym, some check out Captain America at the local theater? and some sleep in. All of them dream.
The cliche is well known that a baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint, and these players all have more than a handful of marathons to run yet before anyone of them begins to touch upon the glory hoped for them by Baseball America writers, scouts, and fans. Nobody’s suiting up at Rogers Centre tomorrow, nor even in a year from tomorrow.
Might as well take it, as the other worn-out saying goes, one game at a time.