Keeping Score: Clubbie insider

Published: 7/2/2021 6:25:30 PM

Good morning!
Few baseball books have been written about life at the bottom of baseball’s food chain. According to baseballamerica.com, each franchise has over 200 players under contract not including rookie league players in Arizona, Florida and the Dominican Republic, and only 26 of them can be on a big league roster.

A scout in Jupiter, Fla., once told me that only seven percent of players who sign a pro baseball contract ever make it to the major leagues. “Including the ones who only got called up for a cup of coffee,” he added.

In the minor leagues the pay is low, the food is bad and the living quarters are Spartan. Greg Larson knows, in 2012-13 he was the clubhouse attendant for the Aberdeen (Md.) IronBirds, the Baltimore Orioles’ High-A affiliate.

While big league players and staffs stay in five-star hotels, Larson slept in the equipment closet. He wasn’t alone. Manager Lenny Merullo bunked down in his office and bench coach Paco Figueroa crashed on the locker room couch. “Men after my own heart,” wrote Larson in Clubbie: A Minor League Memoir (University of Nebraska Press, $27.95).

Larson grew up in Elk River, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis, and was a diehard Twins fan which helps explain why “Baseball taught me how to have my heart broken.”

Like most American boys he played catch with his dad in the backyard and had delusions of being a big leaguer. After college he lived at his parents’ new house in Fort Myers, and his girlfriend Nicole was beginning to suspect she was dating a slacker. He had an English degree, but it was his stint as the Winthrop (S.C.) University baseball team’s equipment manager that got him his gig with the Orioles.

“This is a good place to work,” said his boss, the team’s video production manager. “But you’ll find that a lot of s*** here falls to the bottom rung of the ladder. Guess who that is?”

Larson never discloses how much he got paid, only that the bulk of his income was from charging players for the food he bought for the post-game spreads and the tips he received for washing and hanging their uniforms and keeping the clubhouse clean.

A former Aberdeen equipment manager told him to treat the players like they were middle schoolers — “because they are” — and to act poor. “The second guys see you’re making hand over fist, that’s when the tips go down and you lose the clubhouse.”

Larson reached into his pocket and pulled out a flip phone. “Nothing says poor like a flip phone,” he said.

He was advised to use gloves doing laundry. “You don’t know where some of these guys have been. Especially the Conos. Dominicans. Try to split up their lockers so they have to talk to the American guys. And don’t give them any end lockers — they never tip.”

“The anti-Dominican rhetoric of Minor League Baseball no longer shocked me like it used to,” wrote Larson, who learned to improvise.

He swiped a shopping cart from a strip mall to load laundry, got a $7.50 commission on each broken bat the gift shop sold, went on tobacco runs and swung deals with beer vendors to keep the clubhouse stocked. He got into dipping — “Popping the tiny brown cancerous fibers into that pocket between my teeth and my gums and felt the buzz that made doing 2:00 a.m. laundry fun.”

His first season the IronBirds were managed by Gary “Muggsy” Allenson, a career .221 hitter who was Carlton Fisk’s backup catcher with the Red Sox. Allenson was a brooding taskmaster and someone Larson tried to avoid. When a Dominican player skipped out during a game, Larson caught the brunt of the criticism. “Muggsy stopped me dead in my tracks as he walked toward me — always on a straight line, always upright, always pissed. ‘You see that happen you come down to the dugout and tell one of us. He’s gonna hop on a train to New York and disappear. Then the Orioles will be out a visa.’”

Pitching coach Alan Mills was in charge of discipline, and he was a natural at it. A 12-year major league veteran, Mills was into martial arts and once punched Darryl Strawberry so hard during a brawl it sent the slugger sprawling down into the Yankees dugout. “Changed my life,” Mills told Larson. “I used to be a bad dude but after that I realized I could kill somebody.”

Other than the few who’d been offered signing bonuses, most Aberdeen players made between $1,100 and $1,300 a month. In the major leagues in 2012-13, the MLB yearly minimum was $500,000.

One pitcher told Larson his dream had always been to be the player named later in a trade. “You’re almost so scared of losing it that you don’t enjoy it,” said Orioles pitcher Steve Johnson when he was sent down for a rehab start.

That’s when Larson would drive his battered Cadillac 40 miles down I-95 to Camden Yards to get a few dozen MLB baseballs. Inside the spacious O’s clubhouse he got a sense of what Johnson was talking about. “Every player had a black, rolling swivel chair like he was the CEO of his locker space,” wrote Larson. “In our clubhouse best case scenario was everyone had their own prison quality metal fold-up chair.”

Even the baseballs were different, wrote Larson. “Minor League baseballs come packaged in plastic wrappers. These MLB balls were all wrapped in white tissue.”

Mike Yastrzemski’s first pro season was at Abderdeen. “Yaz always had a knack for finding his way on base,” wrote Larson. Others on their way up the big league pipeline were Trey Mancini, Jonathan Schoop, Chance Sisco, Steve Clevenger and Jason Hammel.

There were also players who became busts. First-round pick Hunter Harvey has pitched in 26 games for the Orioles since he inked a $2 million signing bonus in 2013. Most don’t get such a long rope before they’re released, and Larson aptly describes the feeling: “You wouldn’t let anyone know about the fear in the pit of your belly. How it feels to discover everything you’ve known about yourself is wrong — that you can no longer do the only thing you know — play baseball.”

Being a clubbie gave Larson the chance to take batting practice (when the coaches were in good moods) and play long toss with the right fielders between innings. He observed the custom of tossing a ball to the first baseman coming off the field as “something to do to replace the profound boredom of being a benchwarmer in baseball.”

His second year, the IronBirds made a late run to finish in first place. Over 5,000 fans were coming to games, and the will call window was teeming with girlfriends, families and “cleat chasers” picking up their comped seats.

In the front office one cloudy afternoon, Larson overheard the team’s receptionist responding to calls asking if the game was going to be postponed by rain. Finally she’d had enough and told a caller, “How the hell should I know if it’s going to rain? Do I look like freakin’ Mother Nature?”

As the wins piled up the team’s victory song became “We Can’t Stop” by Miley Cyrus. When they lost, it was “Summertime Sadness” by Lana Del Ray.

Winning begat postgame luxury, wrote Larson. “Sometimes a front office person brought down a tray of soft pretzels topped with crabmeat.”

Alas, the season ended with a 3-0 playoff loss to the Tri-City ValleyCats at Bruno Stadium in Troy, N.Y., and the next day the clubhouse was deserted. “Are you gonna be at spring training?” asked one of his locker room pals.

“I hope so,” said Larson, but it never happened. “Winter passed and nobody called me to come down to Sarasota.”

During his return home he stopped in South Carolina and broke up with his girlfriend. And then eventually he wrote a book, an interesting book. It’s time to remove “slacker” from his resume.

BASEBALL SQUIBS: NESN’s Dave O’Brien mentioned that Northboro’s Mark “The Bird” Fydrich started the 1976 All-Star game. “Loved that guy,” said NESN’s Dennis Eckersley. “He became a good friend of mine. He used to come over to my house on New Year’s Eve, that guy was crazy. He was a great loving guy, I’m telling you.” … Catcher Francisco Mejia was one of four players the Rays got from San Diego in the Blake Snell trade. “Would it be too much to ask he’s our Yadi Molina?” asked rayscoloredglasses.com. Snell is 3-3 with a 5.29 ERA in San Diego. … Manuel Margot is the sort of name you’d expect to see playing for Les Canadiens and not the Tampa Bay Rays.… John Sterling, describing Shohei Ohtani’s first at-bat at the Stadium on Monday: “Here is Ohtani, who hit one to-the-moon-Alice his last time.” … Michael Kay compares Ohtani’s batting stance to Carl Yastrzemski’s. As for his Wednesday implosion (four walks and seven earned runs in 2two-thirds of an inning), Sirius-XM’s called it “Stage fright.” … Mookie Betts is batting .246 with 10 home runs and 29 RBIs. Through the same time during Boston’s championship season he was .336/18/38. His former outfield teammate Jackie Bradley Jr. is .167/5/22 in Milwaukee and Andrew Benintendi has been caught stealing six times for K.C. which leads the league. …. During a visit to Fenway Park on Thursday one word comes to mind: greed. Bottles of warning track dirt for $20, bottled water for $5. The place is a crammed sardine can. More on that in two weeks. ... Miss. State alums Jonathan Papelbon and Dak Prescott were among the jubilant throng cheering the Bulldogs to their first NCAA College World Series title on Wednesday. … Yankees’ analyst Suzyn Waldman grew up in Boston and watched the Red Sox before there was an upper deck or monster seats and the board of health put a hard figure on the number of Standing Room Only tickets. “So I’d get a ticket that said KM, which meant ‘keep moving.’” … Help wanted sign outside a Yarmouth restaurant: Long-Hair Freaky Types Wanted.

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley. He can be reached at chipjet95@yahoo.com


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