Only Along the Gulfshore


Big Leagues or Bust

It’s dreams vs. realities as three Fort Myers Miracle ballplayers look at their prospects of making it to the Major Leagues.

BY July 27, 2015

 

“You only get so long to play a kids’ game. There’s only one shot to do it. So you have to see what happens.” —Michael Quesada

 

It wasn’t the perfect day for a game. But in Southwest Florida, few May afternoons are completely dry. Still, by game time, the field was ready. A small crowd spread out among the rows of empty seats. It was made up mostly of friends and family of the participants of the pregame festivities—a middle school choir and a troop of Cub Scouts.

In the dugouts of Hammond Stadium, two minor league teams—the Fort Myers Miracle and the Dunedin Blue Jays—prepared for what would be a pretty routine game, won 4-2 by the home team after it erased an early deficit. Each team was playing to win, but on the benches and steps were 50 young men playing for something else—a dream.

A few from this bunch (statistics suggest about 10 percent) will eventually play in the major leagues. Most will struggle for the next few years before giving up the dream, or, more likely, until their bodies tell them that it’s over.

Today, each believes he will be one of the lucky few. Perhaps the certainty comes from baseball being the only pursuit (outside of maybe technology startups) where, as a batter, failing 70 percent of the time still makes you one of the all-time greats.

They have to believe. If they don’t, the futility of their sacrifices—low pay, later start in the workforce, separation from family for months on end, injuries—would be overwhelming.

While it might no longer be our country’s most popular sport, baseball is perhaps the most American of games. Its stadiums are as close to secular cathedrals as we have. We commune together at the altars of teamwork and individual greatness. And like a lot of America’s treasured traditions, baseball offers the illusion of sentiment, while at its core being ruthless.

“My parents have always said, ‘Life isn’t fair,’” Brandon Peterson says. “But to me, life is fair because it’s unfair for everyone.”

Peterson was talking about how it doesn’t matter that the odds are stacked against a 13th-round draft pick like himself ever realizing his goal of taking the mound for the Minnesota Twins. Peterson is a relief pitcher for the Fort Myers Miracle, the Twins’ advanced Single-A baseball team based out of the big club’s spring training and developmental campus off Six Mile Cypress Parkway. He’s a 23-year-old right-hander with a low-90s fastball and decent strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Yet, even with the ability to throw a baseball harder than 99 percent of the population, there is still a good chance he’s not going to be able to fulfill his life’s goal.

 

In many ways, being a minor league baseball player is like betting the farm on one number—your own. If you hit it, you are your own way to a great life. The average Major League baseball player will make $4.3 million this season. The league minimum, which is mostly paid to rookies and guys holding out for one last shot, is $507,000.

But you have to make the big leagues to get paid. A player for the Fort Myers Miracle makes $1,500 a month during the season, plus $25 per diem for meals.

“It’s definitely tough,” says Michael Quesada, a back-up catcher who, six years into his professional career, is just now making it to high-A ball. “We work a lot, we don’t get paid much of anything. And nothing is guaranteed.”

A few players on the team reap the benefits of massive signing bonuses they got for being high-round draft picks. Kohl Stewart, a Miracle starting pitcher and one of the 50 best prospects in minor league baseball, got $4.5 million as the fourth overall pick in the 2013 draft. The Twins ponied up the money to lure him away from a scholarship to play quarterback for Texas A&M. A player like Quesada is lucky if he gets anything at all.

Like all of his teammates, Quesada was a star in high school. But that doesn’t matter now, as his barely above-.200 career batting average will attest. He’s never hit better than .234, and this year he’s an anemic .170 through the first two weeks of May. At 25, in addition to still needing to finish his college degree, he hasn’t even started out in a workforce that has seen most of his peers already moving on to their second jobs out of college. He’s losing valuable time to build up work experience and a salary history.

In a moment of honesty, he admits that making the majors is a dream, at best. “I know I have to have something to fall back on,” he says. “I’m working on finishing my degree in the off-season. I want to be a coach, and I’ve been doing some of that back home.”

Even with reality creeping in, Quesada has no plans of quitting anytime soon. “As long as my body will let me play,” he says. “You only get so long to play a kids’ game. There’s only one shot to do it. So you have to see what happens.”

At the same time, Quesada also watches his coaches intently, especially manager Jeff Smith. Smith was also a mostly backup catcher, drafted in the later rounds (20th) by the Twins. He played for the Miracle almost two decades ago, and nine total seasons in the minors before hanging up his catching gear and getting into coaching. Although he’s spent his managing career bouncing back and forth between Single-A and Double-A baseball, he, too, still holds out hopes for a call to The Show.

“Obviously getting up to the big club is my goal, too,” he says. “But there’s something awesome about working with these guys on the team every day.”

Smith, or Smitty to most of the people around him, knows his biggest day-to-day challenge is to keep a clubhouse of 25 guys on the same page. His first job as manager is to win games. This gets compounded by the fact that his other first job is to try to develop these young athletes into big-leaguers, which might mean sacrificing a win or two to get a guy some more work to keep the big club happy.

“You want all the players to feel valuable,” he says. “As an employee of anything, you want to feel valued. You want to create value and work hard.”

To do that, Smith gives each player individual goals, sometimes several, to keep them improving. At the same time, he breaks the 140-game season into 10-game chunks and makes it the team’s mission to get through each above .500. “You need to teach them how to win, too,” he says.

Quesada’s goal is not to give away at-bats. He said he wants to have a productive at-bat 80 percent of the time. While his statistics don’t bear it out, you could see he was grinding toward it on a Tuesday night in early May. Early in the game, he presses too hard on a snap throw from the catcher’s box to first base trying to catch a runner napping and sails it into foul territory, allowing two runners to advance. In his first at-bat, he chases a few pitches out of the zone before hitting a lazy pop fly to left field. But he keeps grinding. His next turn at the plate sees him up with two outs and a runner on first. He drives the first pitch into the outfield as the runner advances to third. It breaks a 0-16 slump. Quesada will finish the night 2 for 3.

 

Quesada’s sometimes battery mate j.t. chargois is in a different position. A second-round draft pick out of college baseball powerhouse Rice, Chargois is trying to make good on the expectations the Twins have for him after they paid him more than $700,000 to sign. After two seasons of recovery from Tommy John surgery, Chargois is back to looking like the college junior Baseball America labeled one of the 50 best prospects in his draft class.

With a three-quarter delivery that slings fastballs close to 100 mph and a hammer curve that makes a lot of batters look foolish, Chargois is part of the new breed of relief pitcher that has helped reduce runs scored across professional baseball in the past few years. It used to be a patient ball-club would wear out the starter to get to the lesser arms in the bullpen. Now, teams know they need to do their damage early rather than have to battle for runs against pitchers far more formidable than those from even 10 years ago.

Armed with his flamethrower delivery and a slightly porny mustache that men in their 20s now wear with more than a hint of irony, Chargois hopes this will be the season everything comes together for him. Although he spent much of his rehab time in Fort Myers at the Twins’ extended spring training facility adjacent to the park, this is the first time Chargois has been a part of a team since his injury.

“You don’t realize how important that is to you until it’s not there,” he says of having the support system in place. “It makes you want to work even harder; you want to do your job the best you can so that the team can win.”

It took him a little while to get settled, once he entered the game against Dunedin. He gave up a single and a walk before zeroing in. But once he found his groove, opposing batters looked mostly helpless against his fastball and took a few curves for called strikes. He got out of the inning by striking out two, preserving a two-run lead and the win for fellow reliever Peterson, who had thrown two scoreless innings before giving way to Chargois.

 

The win was the miracle’s sixth in its past eight games, bringing the team within two games of .500. After winning the Florida State League championship the previous season, the team is struggling to find its identity. Peterson, who was called up to the Miracle at the end of last season, says this current incarnation, with a new coaching staff and new team management, isn’t as aggressive as the previous squad. “We were a lot more audacious in our attitude last season,” he says. “Everyone just knew that we were going to beat the other team no matter the situation.”

Smith feels confident this current run of winning is his team turning a corner. But he knows team chemistry is a fragile thing. “It takes a few bus trips to really get to where you are ready to go to battle with the other guys,” he says.

Peterson agrees: “Chemistry on a team seems to come best when you fail and someone on your team picks you up. And it takes awhile because you are all out there gunning for the same thing—to get promoted. You never wish bad upon someone else, but you do know that they could take your spot at the next level.”

Quesada struggled with those feelings when he first got into professional baseball. “I used to sit around and think, ‘Why is that guy getting promoted?’ or ‘Why is he getting more playing time?’ But you can’t think like that and succeed.”

And Peterson says you have to remember what is truly important, that this is all just a game.

“Baseball is what I do,” he says. “It’s not who I am. All the guys feel the same way. We sit down in the bullpen during games, and at the beginning you have a lot of time to talk. We might talk about baseball for a while, but there’s really only so much you can say. After that, we just talk about life.”