FORT WAYNE – “Scare ’em. They’re kids. Scare ’em.”
– Crash Davis, “Bull Durham”
March flipped into April on Monday, which means Thursday’s season opener has come upon us like a Kansas tornado. So it’s early, still. Second-year TinCaps manager Jose Valentin has had no need for drastic measures to get his team’s attention; at least not yet.
But the 2013 Midwest League season that will extend into early September is about to commence, and this is a young brood that’s unpacking their stuff in the Parkview Field locker room 40 feet away from Valentin’s office at the end of the hall Monday. Nine of them are younger than 21. Seven are teenagers.
From West Michigan to Wisconsin, against Bees and Snappers and Dragons and Loons, 140 baseball games are still out there; half in Fort Wayne, the other half at the end of long bus trips with short naps.
Welcome to Pro Baseball 101, boys, where the food is fast and the service isn’t. And don’t lose your jacket because you’ll need it until June.
Because Jose Antonio Valentin, 43, is a 16-year big-league veteran and has seen the perils of youth and the road and batting practice boredom and infield practice lethargy, he is the group’s papa bear. He will not only teach them baseball but of baseball life.
“They are all different,” Valentin says. “They all like to have fun after you go out there and do your job in the field.
“A good message is to stay out of trouble. It’s nice to have fun, but also you’ve got to think who you are. You’re not anybody on the street. You’ve got a professional career. Sooner or later, you’re going to have people watching you on TV. You’re not going to know who they are, but they know who you are.”
Eventually we will know their names without a program for reference.
Max Fried (pronounced Freed) is a California poster child from Van Nuys. Six-feet-four. Handsome. A left-handed pitcher with a $3 million signing bonus as the San Diego Padres’ No. 1 draft pick.
Mallex Smith is the talker; a 5-9, 155-pound center fielder from Tallahassee, Fla., who had 21 tackles in one game as a high school football defensive back.
Dane Phillips is the polite catcher – 6-1 and a solid 195. From Nacogdoches, Texas, his father played football and baseball at Texas A&M.
They, and nearly two dozen more, all hope Fort Wayne will be their launching pad to greatness.
“It’s very difficult,” Smith said. And he’s not talking about being dropped into the frozen north. “At 19, you’re normally supposed to be in college. You don’t have too many cares. At 19, being in this type of a world – being in a new place and trying to start a career – you have to mature a little bit faster than a normal 19-year-old.”
They have money – some more than others (see Fried) – and they have time. What they don’t have are mom and dad, grandma and grandpa.
They handle their own finances, wash their own clothes, cook their own meals and clean their own apartments.
“It’s different being on your own because it’s more regulated and sheltered (in college), as opposed to being out here,” said 6-6 pitcher Walker Weickel, who took a $2 million signing bonus instead of a full ride to the University of Miami. “It’s baseball, but it’s also the working world. It really poses a higher level of responsibility on us. So within a matter of days, you go from being a high school kid to a full-grown man.”