Welcome to the fourth edition of Around the Horn. If you’re still new to this space, this will be a recurring op-ed that riffs on whatever’s recently noteworthy in baseball, except it will have a more satirical slant. Think a stripped down Last Week Tonight or Daily Show in a column format, except all about baseball. There will be recurring segments about the good, bad, and ugly in the world of America’s Pastime. Additionally, as often as possible, we’ll end with an interview as well.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Christian Lopez, a former prospect in the Tampa Bay Rays system, and Christian was kind enough to really expand on both life in the minor leagues and how hard it is to redefine one’s self when that life changes.
There’s a lot to discuss, so let’s get right to our first segment:
(Our Main Story)
David Price had some things to say this past week about MLB marketing its players, particularly to the African-American community, in an interview with MassLive.com. Price bashed MLB for not making Mookie Betts the face of the game. The same article went on to cite a USA TODAY study that found the African-American population on Opening Day rosters was only 7.8%. That year, then Dodger Matt Kemp was the only African-American representative on the rosters of the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets despite the fact that those two franchises represent the two largest cities in America. MLB has taken initiatives to promote inclusion and diversity, but Price’s idea seems to make the most sense:
Market your best players.
Mookie Betts is the reigning American League MVP and a defending World Series Champion. He plays in a large East Coast market; he’s incredibly likable and full of charisma. In fact, I shared a great clip of Betts mic’d up during spring training just a few weeks ago.
Come to think of it, Mike Trout isn’t all that recognizable outside of baseball circles either. Part of that can be attributed to his reluctance, something MLB has seemingly goaded him over, but there’s no denying the fact that Trout is a generational talent. Such talents in any other sport are borderline household names: LeBron James, Steph Curry, Cristiano Ronaldo, Tiger Woods, Floyd Mayweather Jr., and Tom Brady are similar generational talents and media darlings. Their greatness precedes them and they’ve graced advertisements, commercials, publicity engagements, and so much more as part of branding themselves. However, their respective sports also use them for branding as well. Their celebrity rivals that of even the biggest Hollywood stars.
It’s fair to wonder if Mike Trout is even a celebrity at all. How many people would recognize him at your local shopping mall? How many people would recognize Betts? Part of Trout’s problem is that he plays a lot of evening games on the West Coast and half the country has already gone to sleep. I’m sure 70s dance-offs with Andrew Luck to promote sports drinks can help, but there are so many more creative ways to bring baseball’s biggest stars into the media spotlight. It might be even easier with Betts playing under the bright lights of Boston every night.
It comes down to exposure.
MLB should be doing everything it can to get Betts as much media exposure as possible in the offseason if they’re serious about targeting younger fans. Betts shouldn’t have to date celebrities and supermodels or run his mouth to stoke controversy in order to attract attention — things he is almost certain never to do anyway. He doesn’t need to do anything other than be Mookie Betts.
The NFL understands exposure. So does the NBA. NFL teams are worth billions of dollars for a reason. And their teams’ branding is all over television, social media, the internet… you name it. Where is the social media engagement for MLB? Baseball is on a crusade to reach younger viewers and they hardly speak the language of the generation whose attention they seek; they’re too busy trying to screw with the game itself instead of just marketing it. In fairness, MLB did broadcast some games through Facebook last year, but they’ve dropped the number of games from 25 last year to just six this year. The concept was not well received last year, largely because exclusivity is a terrible idea. Just ask the Dodgers. Then again, the poor reception may have had something to do with flying emojis, an endless distraction of scrolling comments, and rogue spam and porn bots. But hey, all part of the viewing experience, right?
Baseball needs to promote players more and engage younger viewers through social media outlets such as Twitter and Instagram. Betts absolutely has the personality to match his talent and there are many other incredibly charismatic stars in the game as well. The fact that a sport where each player’s face remains hidden behind a helmet features more recognizable stars than baseball does is ridiculous.
Trust me, this man is ready to lead baseball into a new era:
Out of the Park
(A Look Beyond the Boxscores for the Best in Baseball This Week)
If this isn’t a stupid human trick, then I don’t know what is:
99 mph shouldn’t move like that. 🤯 pic.twitter.com/MHx38w33TS
— MLB (@MLB) April 3, 2019
Put José Alvarado and his alien fastball in an ad with Neil deGrasse Tyson and let the rest take care of itself. They should have booked Alvarado for “Avengers: Endgame” and just let him vanquish Thanos with that heater so deGrasse Tyson wouldn’t have to dish on Ant-Man crawling up the super villain’s butt instead.
Speaking of Neil deGrasse Tyson… THIS:
MYSTERY SOLVED. @neiltyson and @chucknicecomic discuss why Meredith Wills (@Bbl_Astrophyscs) may have found the hidden reason for the @MLB‘s recent home run surge.
Hear the interview with the woman herself here: https://t.co/mIEKMfnSQc pic.twitter.com/t2o0wIKiHo
— Playing with Science (@PlayingwScience) April 3, 2019
(Where Baseball Got Caught Looking)
Does baseball have an umpire problem? Sure, the advent of technology has ushered in a new era of baseball where it’s questionable whether human umpires will still be calling games a few decades from now. Balls and strikes being called based on what certain umpires like or dislike will always an issue until then, but we may have a new reason to quibble after watching Ron Kulpa glare at the Houston Astros bench this week to goad A.J. Hinch into an ejection before screaming into the manager’s face, “I can do whatever I want.”
If you missed the drama unfold, here’s an excellent breakdown for you:
Some of these umps are out of control and there is no accountability at all. pic.twitter.com/hssBbXhYhZ
— Chris Dixon (@cdixon25) April 4, 2019
Fans have not taken the incident lightly, so much so that they’ve been all over the Major League Baseball Umpires Association on Twitter, which has led to this:
— dk (@youngdeezy0926) April 5, 2019
Look, I understand that there is context to Kulpa’s actions that we probably don’t know, but umpires know when they take the job that many of the calls they make each and every day will be close or even hotly contested. You need to have thick skin to do a job where almost every night you’re going to make a decision that causes tens of thousands of people to boo you relentlessly and publicly question whether you need Lasik.
Quite frankly, each game matters in the grand scheme, even more so once August and September hit. You can’t blame players for harping about a bad call or a missed one. It comes with the territory. But if you’re going to expect players to respect your authority, perhaps puffing your chest out and staring down the players in their dugout isn’t the best way to do it. Maybe just get back behind the plate and do your job better instead of making everyone, especially the newer fans MLB is on a mission to impress, think all umpires are incompetent egomaniacs who like to bully the players of a game they’re paid to officiate.
Oh, and for what it’s worth, Ron Kulpa’s ego now has it’s own Twitter account:
Got my evaluation from last night’s game, and it confirmed what we already knew. Best. Ump. Ever.
— Ron Kulpa’s Ego (@ego_ron) April 4, 2019
Did anyone see the Reds and Pirates brawl headlined by Yasiel Puig versus Chris Archer on Sunday? Perhaps it will be the beginning of a renaissance in Cincinnati. Or perhaps a renaissance something or other…
— Baseball Depth Chart (@BBDepthCharts) April 7, 2019
I recently had the chance to interview former San Francisco Giants prospect Eric Sim and he dished on the hardships of minor league life and strongly advocated better pay and treatment for players. However, while Eric’s unique cultural and personal experiences left him almost relieved to finally quit baseball, this week’s guest found the transition to be far more difficult.
Christian Lopez, a former Tampa Bay Rays prospect, took the time to explain how leaving the game was one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do and how that choice has been transformative in redefining his identity. Be advised: some crude language is used in this interview.
Here’s the pitch:
Me: You were taken in the sixth round by the then Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2003. Considering we see up to 40 rounds in modern-day MLB drafts, did you feel any pressure as a high round pick?
Christian: I never really felt any pressure. I think there were a couple reasons for this. One, I was never really a big prospect coming out of high school. I never really attended any big showcases; I didn’t have a bunch of scouts coming out to see my games. To be honest, I didn’t really have a clue how the whole draft/pro ball thing worked. I just loved playing baseball and felt I was pretty good at it. It wasn’t until I hit one of the longest home runs (I didn’t hit many) of my life my senior year of high school, while we were playing at the University of Miami’s baseball stadium and my teammate (current Yankee) Gio Gonzalez was on the mound. It seemed like Gio had scouts watching him since he was a freshman. After I hit that home run was when I began to see a lot more scouts at games coming to see me and talk to me afterward.
Second, I was kind of cocky when I came out of high school. Coupling that with being a relatively high draft pick, when nobody really thought I was going to get drafted, and getting a signing bonus at 18 that was more money than any of my friends had ever seen was a definite ego boost. It had me believing that I was destined for the big leagues no matter what. I just had to show up and play like I had been doing for years.
I think the fact that I wasn’t going to a bunch of showcases like kids seem to be going to nowadays and not really having access, like many have now, to their own highlight reels and scouting reports and other things like that staved off any pressure that I could have put on myself, and instead, I just went out and had fun.
Me: I recently interviewed former minor leaguer and Giants prospect Eric Sim. He has been quite outspoken about players being underpaid and mistreated in the Minors. More exposure from bigger media outlets on these issues has led to some action. Did you experience similar hardships when it came to compensation and the rigors of travel and play in the minors?
Christian: Minor league life is tough! But, I freaking loved every damn second of it. I loved the game, the competition, the fans, the travel, the different cities, the kids… all of it! I considered myself so damn fortunate to have gotten to play a game I love and gotten paid for it. That being said, I was also very lucky in other ways that helped that minor league life not be as unbearable. First off, I had a good signing bonus and went into pro ball with a pretty good financial foundation. Secondly, I had an amazing family that I knew would support me if I somehow fell on hard times. Some guys that get drafted in late rounds and are college seniors and don’t have much leverage are sometimes screwed and sign for a couple thousand bucks, if that. Some guys have wives and kids to support; some guys from less developed parts of the world send much of the money they make back home to support their families. I don’t know how some of these guys did it!
My first year in pro ball, my monthly salary was about $900, and about $300 of that automatically came out of our paychecks to go toward the crappy Ramada Inn we were housed at in the middle of Princeton, West Virginia. When we were on the road, we would get $20 a day for meal money. $20! Yes, you could definitely make $20 stretch if you eat at McDonald’s and take advantage of their value meal; I know I sure did…. but you’re eating McDonald’s! Not only is it unhealthy for a regular person, but we’re professional athletes looking to keep our bodies in tip-top shape to go out and compete and get to the promised land that is the big leagues. Yes, you could stow away that money and possibly spend it on one big meal for lunch or dinner by eating at the ballpark. But, our ballpark fare? Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and not even the healthy-ish peanut butter or whole wheat bread. Instead it was the large jar of whatever grocery store brand was nearest and the cheapest white bread they could buy. Because again, the supplies were being bought by the clubhouse managers and we were paying the clubhouse managers, but we were barely making any money ourselves, so they had no choice but to buy the cheap stuff.
What was really messed up was that, at least with Tampa Bay, they would have people come and talk to us during spring training about nutrition and how to best take care of our bodies by eating the right things… but then they were expecting us to be able to eat healthy on $20 a day. What the [expletive]?! I’ve heard many, many pro ball players say their infamous reply to guys complaining that minor leaguers don’t make enough: “You don’t like it? Play better.” [Expletive] that! That’s like telling those same guys when they complain about not getting a raise, or having a [expletive] job, or working too many hours, “Hey, you don’t like it? Work harder.”
You really think paying a minor leaguer a decent living wage (remember, they don’t only get a meager salary, but that salary comes to an end when the season does) is going to make them complacent and make them stop working hard and say, “Hey, you know what, I’m good in A-ball. I don’t want a $500,000 minimum salary. I don’t want to work toward a pension. I don’t want to be on TV and travel to cities in planes instead of cramped buses. I don’t want to eat amazing spreads before and after games. I don’t want to play in packed stadiums of 50,000 people. I don’t want some clubhouse guy carrying my bags on and off the bus for me. I don’t want a $300 million contract like Bryce or Manny. I don’t want a $400 million dollar contract like Trout”?
Get the [expletive] outta here!
As athletes, we tend to have big egos. Having a big ego means being the best of the best in whatever it is we do because we like to feel good about ourselves and we like being praised for being the best. No pro ball player is ever going to be ultimately content staying in A-ball.
Me: Despite the difficulties and challenges that come with a day in the life of a Minor Leaguer, what are one or two of your fondest experiences when you look back at your career?
Christian: Number one has to be all the people I met through being a pro ball player, and not just teammates. From opposing players to coaches, to trainers, to clubhouse managers, to fans, to parents, to kids, to host families, to friends, to local business owners, to hotel employees, to bus drivers. Growing up my entire life in South Florida and never venturing too far outside of that, I grew up in my own bubble. Yes, it’s a melting pot there, but I grew up predominantly amongst Cubans. It wasn’t until I got drafted and shipped to Princeton, West Virginia (where the population was 5,000… my high school had 5,000 students) that I finally saw, “Whoa, there are people out here who look, think, speak and act much differently than I do.”
I met so many wonderful people in all the cities I traveled to around the country; many of them I still communicate with and will always have a special place in my heart. Damn, there are so many great experiences I had, but number two would have to be going to Monteria, Colombia to play winter ball. Throughout my years in pro ball, I always heard about guys going overseas to the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico to play winter ball for a few months. Spend your off-season playing baseball in another country and get paid for it instead of having to look for an off-season job… what could be better?! At the end of my 2010 season — funny enough my first in indy ball and not part of the Rays organization — my manager, Butch Hobson, asked me if I wanted to go play winter ball down in Colombia. Without hesitation, I answered, “Hell yeah!” I didn’t know any of the details, what city I’d be in, when I would leave, nothing. All I knew was that it would beat the hell out of a boring job!
I spent about two months in Colombia and unfortunately, our season was cut short because of torrential rains that made commuting from city to city nearly impossible. But my time spent there is something I will never forget, from the people I met, the food I ate, the adventures I took and the beauty of the country.
Me: A lot of fans like to criticize struggling ballplayers, but playing at the highest levels of pro ball is incredibly hard. You played the majority of your career at High-A, but you did register plate appearances as high as Triple-A. What are some aspects of the game that are so much harder than people realize, especially given how few prospects actually make it to the majors?
Christian: That week in Triple-A was amazing! Great hotels, people packed your gear for you, good food, multiple buses so you had your own row. For me, looking back now, the toughest part of the game was the mental side. The Yogi Berra quote, “Baseball is 90% mental…” is spot on! I believe the difference between the good and bad players — apart from the physical ability of course — is that good players believe in their abilities so much that even if they hit a slump, they know they’ll get themselves out of it. A bad player will think he’s got to change his mechanics or his approach or his practice routine or his jockstrap to get him out of the slump. He won’t have the mental toughness to stick through the tough times and know that if he just believes and the stays the course, he will come out of it. At least that’s how it was for me. Every time I’d start to slump, I’d want to change something because I was afraid that if I didn’t, my slump would spiral out of control and my season would be doomed.
Consistency, not just in stats and numbers, is the toughest part of any sport, or life for that matter. It’s not just being a top prospect and mashing .300/30/100 in A-ball; it’s making the necessary adjustments to pitchers and doing that consistently through all levels and up into the Big Leagues that’s really the toughest. I had a teammate mash .300/30/100 one season but unfortunately couldn’t replicate that at the higher levels.
As far as the critical fans, I’ve hard first-hand experiences with that. It’s a lot easier said than done because again, we have those egos that like to be fed, but you have to remember this as an athlete: Those people that are being very harsh and critical have obviously never been in your shoes or known the difficulties that come with any sport, because if they had been there and had felt that pain they wouldn’t be so quick to be critical. So if that’s the case, why let their opinion hold such weight?
Actually, that reminds of a quote from Theodore Roosevelt that I want to share: “It is not the critic who counts — not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming, but who does actually strive to do the deeds, who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worse, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Me: Wise words, indeed. 2009 was your last year playing for the Rays organization. You then spent four years playing pro ball at the independent level. How would you characterize your indy ball experience?
Christian: Amazing! Believe it or not, my years in indy ball were the most fun seasons I had playing baseball — even though there are no big leagues in indy ball and there is no “moving up.” But, I think that was part of what made it so fun. There was no pressure to have a good first half so you can get promoted to Double-A in the second half; it was just guys playing because they simply just loved the game. There was no worrying about a bonus baby getting undeserved playing time over you. If you produced you played. Yes, most players have aspirations of signing with an affiliated team and getting back on track to the big leagues, but a lot of players know that they may be in the twilight of their careers but just love playing baseball so much that they’d rather do that than hang ‘em up and go work a 9-to-5. Also, the fact that there aren’t the rules about how to cut your hair, shave your beard, or wear your uniform adds to the feel of “just let ‘em play.” My years in indy ball also connected me to the host family I had for all my years there who are some of the most amazing people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. I also made the most money I ever made monthly in my years in indy ball, plus I got to stay with a host family and save on rent.
Me: Eric Sim was quite adamant that pro ball players not let the game define them. However, athletes work hard for the chance to reach the pro level, and when they are fortunate to accomplish that goal, it can be a struggle not to let it define you. Can you share your thoughts on that struggle?
Christian: Oh man, I know about this all too well. This has been one of the biggest struggles of my life that I’m currently working hard on right now. It’s tough not to let a job or a career define you, especially one that you’re really good at, gives you hundreds of thousands of dollars right out of high school, and showers you with praise. Is it a good idea to not let it define you? Yes. Is it difficult to do that? Hell yes.
When you’re one of a very select few in the world that gets to do something, you’re gonna tend to get a little cocky, maybe even feel like you deserve to be the best and that the world owes it to you. You think to yourself, “Well, if I’m gonna be a big leaguer, I have to believe I’m a big leaguer” so *poof* you become a big leaguer… in your mind at least. One of the biggest things I believe former athletes struggle with is that sense of identity once our careers are over. Just yesterday, I was “Christian Lopez, professional baseball player.” Today, I’m just “Christian Lopez.” We’ve dedicated so much blood, sweat, and tears to something, which naturally takes away effort and dedication from something else. When our careers come to an end we think we’re failures, we think we’re not good enough and we wonder what the hell else we can or want to do. These negative beliefs can be absolutely paralyzing and restrict us from taking any meaningful steps in the right direction.I know for me personally, a big limiting belief I’ve had to work hard to overcome is this: “Well, you failed at baseball, which is something you loved more than anything and something you were really good at… how the hell are you going to succeed at something else that you don’t really like and that you’re not really good at?”
Me: Some, like Eric, appear happy without baseball and eager to move on with their lives and make a better, more financially secure life for themselves. However, the transition is not so easy for others. Some feel they lose a part of themselves, and it can leave many feeling quite adrift as if upstream without a paddle. You’ve been very outspoken on this subject. Can you talk about your experience?
Christian: As I said above, it’s been a struggle for me. It has actually felt more like swimming in a vast ocean and no matter how much you paddle, the horizon never seems to get any closer. I left the game on very bitter terms; I got benched toward the end of my last season and my ego was crushed! Not only had I been released by the Rays, but now I couldn’t even hold down a starting job in indy ball. I felt like a loser.
So I said [expletive] this and decided that instead of looking in a mirror and asking myself how I can change and get better, I was going to blame everyone else, let my fear and insecurities get the best of me and quit. I was 28 when I quit. I could have played for at least five more years and gotten to do what others only dream of doing. But I was so angry and frustrated that I would have rather walked away at that point, than hang on and improve myself.
Just because I quit, doesn’t mean my desires quit. I still wanted to be rich and famous, do something I loved and have millions of fans telling me how awesome I am. So I attempted to fill that emptiness I felt the best way I knew how… move to Los Angeles to become a movie star! Only, I didn’t love acting so it was only a matter of time before I quit that. Then I was stuck at a crossroads again.
About a year and a half ago is when I finally told myself “okay, you have to make some positive changes, no more feeling sorry for yourself” and began to make some changes to my mindset. I began meditating, journaling, reading tons of self-help books, and doing anything I could to get out of this personal slump that I was in. Through this process, which I now consider a life-long journey of growth and discovery, I’ve begun to realize that I am so much more than just an athlete or former baseball player. Baseball was just something I did for a long time and was very good at, but the real me was always there before baseball and will continue to be there after baseball, I just kind of lost touch with it along the way.
Me: What would you say to current ballplayers who may not have much time left playing pro ball, and likely have to redefine themselves in the near future?
Christian: Don’t take it for granted, because nothing is. You’re one of the very few people on earth who gets play a game they love and get paid for it. You’re lucky. Any day your career can abruptly come to an unforeseen end; every day you get to put that uniform on is a blessing. Be humble, don’t think your [expletive] doesn’t stink. There’s someone who’s come before you that was better than you, and there’s someone who will come after you that is better. Even Mike Trout slumps… not for very long, but he slumps. Know that your wins and losses in your career have nothing to do with who you are deep down as a person on a mental and emotional level. Baseball is what you do not who you are. Have fun! At the end of your life, even if you’re a Hall of Famer, what’s really going to matter are the memories of the experiences you’ve had and the people you’ve had an impact on. You may think you’re only good at hitting a baseball or throwing one well enough so other guys can’t hit it, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Here are some other things you’re probably really good at, too: listening, following directions, solving problems, work ethic, punctuality, time management, being a leader, being a good teammate, being a role model, resiliency, mental toughness, physical toughness, making quick decisions, making good decisions, working well with others, respecting co-workers, and many other things. Don’t wrap your identity solely around baseball, because you are so much more than that.
Be sure to check Christian Lopez out on Twitter (@Clopey5) and Instagram (@clopey) for more. And that’s the ballgame for this week.
Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire