Major Baseball Dreams In The Minor Leagues

While Major League baseball is big and epic, there's something magical about sitting in a small stadium. Guest host David Greene reports on the progress of Minor League Baseball player Tyler Saladino at one of his team's away games. Saladino is an infielder for Alabama's Birmingham Barons.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene. One of my favorite places to spend a hot summer day is a minor league ballpark.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASEBALL GAME)

GREENE: While Major League baseball is big and showy, there's something magical about sitting in a small stadium, eating a hot dog and taking in the action close up as teams like the Toledo Mud Hens or Albuquerque Isotopes take the field. This summer at NPR, we've been following a few minor league players. And last week, we stopped at AT&T Field in Chattanooga, Tennessee, home of the Chattanooga Lookouts. And one thing that struck us is what a different experience this is for players and for everyone else. Players come and go. After all, if your dream is to make the big leagues, you want to spend as little time here as possible. But all around, there are people who are in it for the long haul - fans, vendors, drivers, announcers - a community that's really built around the team.

CURT BLOOM: Can you hear me? There you go. Can you hear me?

GREENE: That voice belongs to Curt Bloom. He's been the radio announcer for the Birmingham Barons for 21 years. The Barons were in Chattanooga to play the hometown Lookouts. And Curt is doing his last-minute prep. He has seen a lot of players come and go, so in his two decades with the Barons, he's found the most kinship with Rick, the team's bus driver.

BLOOM: Rick and I have spent more time with each other - in a radio booth, in a press box and eating meals - than we have with our own family, hands down. It's really strange 'cause I notice that when he's not there for whatever reason, it's like I'm like Linus without my blanket. I'm like, where's Rick?

GREENE: Is it tough to have that family and then watch these players kind of come in and be part of the family for maybe just one year and then get to know them and then they disappear, go to the majors, go somewhere else?

BLOOM: My first few years, it was tough. And then, I realized - it dawned on me - that that's exactly what these guys are here for. They're not here to be the best Birmingham Baron and to make the Southern League All-Star Team. They're here to get to the big leagues. That's the bottom line.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Now, here's Barons broadcaster Curt Bloom.

BLOOM: And along with my engineer Josh Mays, wishing you a good, good morning and a big welcome to you from...

GREENE: Down in the stands, the crowd is arriving and Bob Seale is helping many people find their seats. The 67-year-old used to buy season tickets to come see the Chattanooga team play. But when he retired a few years ago, he decided it made more sense to just work for the team as an usher. He's gotten used to the players getting the call to move up to the majors.

BOB SEALE: You'll get used to seeing a guy coming out a certain time and you don't see him. You say where is he? Oh, he's gone. He's on an airplane. He's going somewhere else. And then sometimes you see a cab coming up, and he's back. So, you know...

GREENE: He didn't do so well up there in the majors.

SEALE: Well, you know, but he had his shot and that's what it's all about.

GREENE: This is kids day at the ballpark in Chattanooga. And it's a small crowd - children from summer camps, some retirees and families like the Weiners from Atlanta.

JACOB WEINER: My name's Jacob.

GREENE: Well, hi Jacob.

BARRY WEINER: And this is Natalie.

GREENE: Hey, Natalie Hey, Jacob, do you like Minor League or Major League?

WEINER: Um, both.

WEINER: Both. I think we like that the ticket prices are cheaper.

GREENE: The sweltering midday sun means good business for Jason Mincy. He's bounding around the metal bleachers selling cold drinks.

JASON MINCY: Here's waterboy. I got Sprite. Sprite will treat you right. You won't have a DUI tonight.

GREENE: How long have you been doing this?

MINCY: Eighteen seasons.

GREENE: You've seen a lot of players come through here.

MINCY: Yeah, come and go.

GREENE: You miss the players when they leave?

Well, heck, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: And then there's Elaine Bohannon. She's watching the game from the stands with her 4-year-old grandson Cohen.

ELAINE BOHANNON: We're looking forward to this one playing. He's going to play next year.

GREENE: He is? He's getting started next year.

BOHANNON: He's going to get to start next year, aren't you, Cohen?

GREENE: Are you right-handed or left-handed?

COHEN: Left.

GREENE: Elaine knows life in the minors better than probably most people at this game. Her son played in the New York Mets organization for several years but he never broke into the majors. Because life in the minors doesn't mean big paychecks, Elaine helped her son out with money.

BOHANNON: Well, we had to pay for his rent, 'cause they had to rent their house. And there were like three or four boys in one house. But it was worth it, you know, it was worth it for him. I don't regret it at all.

GREENE: Well, let me ask you this: if the next generation here, your grandson, if you knew that he would play minor league ball the whole time and never make it to the majors, would you want him to do it anyway?

BOHANNON: Yeah, I would, I would. 'Cause this is just an experience, you know. It's nothing you can never have taken away from you or anything.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Stretch your legs and sing along to "Take Me Out to the Ball game."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME")

GREENE: One reason we came to this game was to catch up with Tyler Saladino. We've been following his story this year. He plays for Birmingham, which is part of the Chicago White Sox organization. He's a 23-year-old infielder who grew up in Southern California. There has been talk of him being called up to play for the big league team in Chicago but it hasn't happened yet.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Now batting for shortstop, number 3, Tyler Saladino.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASEBALL BEING HIT)

GREENE: Oh, oh, oh. Fly ball to left. Not far enough. Tyler flied out. In the end, the game wasn't even close. The Chattanooga Lookouts routed Tyler Saladino and his Birmingham Barons 7 to 1. Tyler did score the only run for his team. And we met up with him after the game in the outfield after the stadium had emptied. The young ball player has been watching teammates come and go, even some of his own roommates.

TYLER SALADINO: Had a bunch of moves lately, so working on our third new guy coming into the apartment.

GREENE: Oh really? Two people you lived with have already been called up?

SALADINO: One of them was just back and forth going through other teams and then he hung it up. And then another one came up for a little while, just went back down. So, we're at three right now looking to fill that spot to help out with the rent a little bit for the last month.

GREENE: Anything really surprised you this year, Tyler?

SALADINO: You know what, actually biggest surprise is Quintana. Jose Quintana is one of the pitchers we had to start here, went up for a doubleheader they had earlier in the season up in Chicago and stayed up there ever since.

GREENE: Is that your dream playing, at the moment, for someone else?

SALADINO: No. I mean, of course, everyone wants to get called up but I don't spend too much time thinking about that stuff. I mean, it's like the goal in the back of your mind but at the same time you have so many other goals on the field, just trying to get hits and do your job and all that stuff. So - 'cause if it happens, it happens. We're all happy for Quintana up there, so that's cool.

GREENE: Do you feel like you're closer to being in that big league uniform or farther away, compared to when we first started talking back in the spring?

SALADINO: I mean, I have no idea honestly. It's such a long season and it's such a tricky game. I mean, like, you can think that everything's going right or everything's going wrong. And you go to a new team and it can just completely flip upside down for you. It could turn for the better. It could bring things to a halt. It's one of those games where you can't spend too much time worrying about things outside of the game itself, what you need to do on the field.

GREENE: Does life like this make it hard to get close to people, like, you know, there's a bus driver and a play-by-play announcer who have been part of the organization for a long time. I just wonder if you sort of hesitate to get too close because you know it could end tomorrow?

SALADINO: It probably would make things kind of tough if you spend every single day with these guys and you don't really care to, you know, make too much of a relationship with them. I mean, you sit on the bus with these guys all year long. You've been with them since spring. You get new guys coming in. So, just welcome them in and enjoy it.

GREENE: Since he was a little kid, Tyler Saladino has dreamed of playing ball in the majors. But that would mean leaving his new friends, his team and his temporary home. Then the next crop of hopefuls would take the field in places like Birmingham and Chattanooga.

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