Most fans and media following Spring Training baseball focus on the players they already know. From that, we know that Cole Hamels has not had the best of results in his Spring Training outings and has become the least desirable player on the trade market. Ryan Howard is in the best shape of his life and, unlike the past two seasons, can actually run. Chase Utley, aside from a fluke roll of the ankle, has hit well and looked good on the bases.
But veterans and players already on the 40-man roster, with exceptions granted to those coming off serious injury, aren't what Spring Training is about. Their fates are sealed; their stories lack drama. Nothing is at stake for the majority of the players whose faces you recognize and numbers you memorized.
Spring Training generates interest, I think, because for some players the stakes at play in these games are higher than the difference in moral value between winning and losing. For non-roster invitees (NRIs) their performance in Spring Training could be the difference between playing the upcoming in the majors or in the minors or nowhere at all. These players are mostly journeymen, signed to minor league contracts, fighting for one of the few remaining spots on the major league roster.
It's these players and their fight to prolong the realization of their career dreams that makes Spring Training so accessible and captivating for fans. Few of us are Chase Utleys or Cole Hamelses in relation to our chosen profession with the kind of transcendent ability that all but guarantees success. Most of us pursue our dreams like Darin Mastroianni and Russ Canzler: by working really freaking hard and jumping at every available opportunity, wherever it may be, to even get to the table upon which the dice that determine our success are rolled. Spring Training features baseball players, but it also features all of us as, while we watch the games, we live watch the stories of our own lives both as how we hope they will end (with the one player that makes the team) and how they will likely end (with the dozens who get released or sent to the minors).
Despite their jobs literally depending upon how their performance stacks up against that of other players in camp, non-roster invitees claim to not dwell on what their competition is up to. "You just go about your business," says OF Darin Mastroianni on how he approaches the roster competition. "Someone always told me, and I think it's true, ‘what other people do have no effect on the player you are.' If someone else goes 0-for-4, it doesn't make me a better player." Jeff Francoeur, himself no stranger to the spring non-roster hustle, agreed, "I've never been one to sit up there and pull against a guy. I just won't do it."
Sure, those sound like good answers. I didn't expect anyone to come straight out and say that he was ruthlessly gunning for his (temporary) teammates, going so far as to pay people to knock on his door in the middle of the night to gain an advantage. But what did surprise me was that most players viewed their audience and evaluators as extending beyond the reaches of the Phillies. INF Chase d'Arnaud explained that players not on the roster typically don't get to showcase their abilities as much. "We get fewer opportunities, but that's expected. When [opportunity] comes, you do your job and some things to get good exposure."
That exposure, if sufficiently positive, could reach other teams. "If there's not a spot here, there's spots on other teams," Francoeur noted. "[You] take care of what you can control and the rest is going to sort itself out." Francoeur was in Spring Training with the Indians last year as a NRI. He was let go after camp, but eventually signed with the Padres.
If players accept invitations to camps knowing that they're, in fact, auditioning for every team in the league, why do they pick any one team over all the others? For some, like OF Brian Bogusevic, it was simply a matter of jumping at the first opportunity. "The Phillies called pretty early in the process...it was really the first option," he said.
For others, the Phillies offered unique opportunities that other teams couldn't. Jeff Francoeur, who also noted the Phillies approached him earlier than other teams, was particularly excited to work with Charlie Manuel. "The chance to work with Charlie was pretty intriguing to me," he said of his decision to settle on Philadelphia. "We've always talked hitting. ...I really thought this would be a good opportunity to work with him and polish some things." But, Charlie wasn't the only draw for the organization. RHP Paul Clemens was hopeful pitching coach Bob McClure could help his development. "I like what he's done. I've bought in to what he's telling me [to relax my delivery] because I'm seeing results pretty quickly."
No matter what they do in their limited playing time, or how they fit in with the culture of the team--another common NRI talking point--the exact factors that go into deciding who gets the few remaining roster spots are a bit nebulous. "It's a crapshoot," Francoeur, a grizzled veteran of the hustle, observes. "You do as best you can and see what happens."
The crapshoot of the non-roster invitee is no different from that of college admissions or which resumes make it past the one-second glance or the decision who gets the from-within promotion between dozens of qualified employees. In most, if not all, of those situations, the odds are stacked against us, which means that, more often than not, we will fail.Regardless of the outcome, we push forward. We have no other choice: bills have to be paid; children have to be fed; dreams have to be achieved, or at least pursued to their fullest.
Catcher Koyie Hill, who at 36 years old has had to hustle for roster spots throughout his 11 year career, said: "My focus is to do what I can every day. It doesn't change just because you're in a battle. If you were competing with somebody, you would come to work and you would do your job exactly how you would do your job everyday as best you can."
A non-roster invitee can't just wake up in the morning and decide he wants to be a major league baseball player like someone with more talent like Clayton Kershaw might be able to. He, like all of us, has to work every second of every day to prove he belongs. Most of the time, opportunities to display one's ability and dedication to craft do not present themselves. In the rare times that they do, that effort often goes unnoticed. But they have to keep working hard anyway because at some point someone might be watching. A dream deferred, and all that. When they get lucky enough that their opportunities are noticeable to others, they want to impress because that is the only way they know.