As minor league baseball season was winding down, some news broke.
The New York Mets had signed former football player (and former college baseball player) Tim Tebow to a contract, and assigned him to instructional league. This was following a try-out heard ‘round the baseball world. There was swift and passionate reaction from baseball fans and those in the media. But most interestingly, and most meaningful, was the reaction of players in the minor leagues. Many took to Twitter to declare their feelings, and to explain the reality of their experience.
Tebow was for tenth slot draft money, and assigned to instructional league in Port St. Lucie, home of the Florida State League Mets affiliate and the spring training facility.
Pitcher Todd Van Steensel read the news the same as we all did. But he’d been in the minor leagues for seven years with the Minnesota Twins, and the native Australian had many thoughts about the Tebow signing, and how MLB operates. Like many minor league players today, he began tweeting those thoughts.
“No other MiLBer gets the luxury of working a job during the season to make more money, why should he?”
“This is disgusting. I know senior signs who received $1000 who have more baseball talent in one pinky than Tebow has.”
Van Steensel joined the chorus of professional players who were unamused, unimpressed with the signing, along with Rays minor league pitcher Jacob Faria. While baseball might be an experiment for Tebow, it’s the livelihood of minor league players hoping for a shot at a major league call-up, and hopefully a career. In the past, players like Van Steensel didn’t have a voice, or wouldn’t have used it, but in the social media era, minor league players have a platform long before they make it to MLB.
“Whenever you share an honest opinion on social media, you’re aware of the implications,” Van Steensel said. “So for the most part, I try to steer away from controversy. But in some cases, you do feel like a voice needs to be heard.”
In the case of Tebow, Van Steensel points to several reasons why he felt the need to use his voice now.
“I felt like as a minor league player who doesn’t get any special treatment I was disappointed in how Tebow is allowed days off from Instructional League to work an ESPN job, and the average person needed to know that this isn’t what minor league baseball is about. In the minors, we’re lucky to get two days off a month and he will get days off to go make money at another job,” he said. “No one else in the minors would be allowed to do that, so it’s frustrating that a guy who hasn’t played in ten years is being granted leave from baseball.”
Twitter has become our communal experience. We meet like-minded, similarly experienced people, and connect worldwide. It can serve as a place to hear your struggles reflected back to you. You’re not alone.
“Some days, a random act of kindness is what you need to get through the long days,” said Van Steensel of the connections he’s made with fans on Twitter, many of whom have given him care packages throughout the season.
Minor league players are counted among those in a uniquely qualified group. Sure, every major leaguer spent time in developmental league. But many in the minors are discussed less, and their progress isn’t covered as often by big league beat writers. The issue of minor league pay, due to a multi-person lawsuit filed on behalf of numerous former players, has emerged into the forefront, and MiLB players have addressed that too; sometimes, or more accurately, usually, with a good dose of humor. Anything from pay, to playing conditions and weather, lousy hotels and long bus trips that result in breaking down roadside, the difficulty of maintaining relationships, and even Chipotle have been favorite topics for minor leaguers trying to do their job, live out their dream, and reach the major leagues.
Matt Pare’s blog “Homeless Minor Leaguer” is a mix of that good humor, and also spotlights some of what the experience entails. Despite the blog’s name, he insists it’s in good fun. He also views it from a universal perspective.
“Building an online presence is important for almost all people today, not just athletes,” he said.
He’s expanded the blog to a YouTube channel, where he creates parody videos. Pare describes the venture as a way to reach people who might appreciate them. There are many more of those people today. The details of minor league life weren’t as well known even just several years ago (there’s good and bad in that), but minor league players growing up in the social media-driven age know that’s how to connect. Other players, like Cody Decker, have dabbled in videos showing some of the baseball life from a minor leaguer’s point of view. Decker, now in the Red Sox system, has seen his message reach the masses and gotten attention from high profile media types like Keith Olbermann. There’s a kind of second career that they can develop by paying attention to opportunities, and simply, by being themselves.
Earlier this year, Justin Jackson decided to throw his hat in the ring, or diamond, if you will.
After watching YouTube star Casey Neistat, Jackson, now playing for the independent league Lancaster Barnstormers, says he was inspired to do something similar. He invested in his ambition, buying a GoPro.
“Ball is Life” has grown to over 500 subscribers, and he posts new videos weekly. “My aim was to honestly be creative and show what my life is like,” Jackson said. “Editing is the ultimate artistic medium, so it gave me a chance to show my perspective as a ballplayer.”
Jackson views Twitter as a way for players to promote themselves and their brand, and possibly, open doors to things post-playing career.
“I love shooting the video and creating, so possibly there’s something down the road in Hollywood. Wink-wink.”
When first meeting Jackson, he was in the Toronto Blue Jays system, playing for Double-A New Hampshire. When I walked through the clubhouse, he said, “You’re the Twitter girl.” It was one of those moments, perhaps, the one that crystallized how even minor league reporters are more connected to the players than when we began. Only a few years ago, it wasn’t the powerhouse it is now. Gone are the days when minor league reporters and lesser known players were more in the shadows. The ballplayer life has become more openly shared and fans crave it. But as more minor league players joined the social media landscape, MLB saw a need for clarity by implementing a Social Media Policy. Players are encouraged to engage with their fans, but not to use offensive language or share too much personal information.
That world they inhabit has a language all its own. As with any profession, you know who you can talk shop with. Baseball, for all its promise of glory, really promises nothing. You can be playing today, and released tomorrow. Players commit themselves to that stark notion, and pursue the thing they love. But, now, they have a place where everyone knows their name, and the name doesn’t have to be big. And, if it is, you can be kind of a big deal while waiting for your turn to replace the veteran on the roster. When they take to Twitter or Facebook, minor league players mostly just want to express their thoughts on random, fun stuff like fantasy football, or their college teams, or share a photo of something they’re doing in the off-season. Few want to answer to impolite fans or get into political debate. Jackson is even more to the point.
“If I wouldn’t want my grandma to read it, I won’t tweet it.”