* Left-handers James Pidutti (Subury, Ont.), middle, a free agent sign, Chris Neylan, left, a 17th round high school draft in 2001 from Trenton, N.J. and Benjamin Harrison, a 44th round high school pick in 2002 from Coleyville Tex. with the Rookie-Class Pulaski Blue Jays in 2003.
INTRO: James Pidutti, who grew up in Sudbury and Coniston, headed off to school to pitch for the Dodge City Conquistadors in 2002 at Dodge City, Kan.. Then, Blue Jays Canadian scout Kevin Briand (Etobicoke, Ont.) signed Pidutti as a free agent and he spent two seasons (2203-04) at Rookie-class Pulaski, appearing in 30 games.
Teammates included future major leaguers: C Robinzon Diaz, INF Eugenio Velez and RP Dewon Day. Pidutti been down the road so many youngsters want to travel — to college and to pro ball — and has some words of advice. …
Pidutti’s Prose for Parents, Players
By James Pidutti
NO EXCUSES: EVERYONE HAS A CHANCE
Your son is blessed at baseball and has a total package of skills. How often do we hear it? The cannon arm, the lightning speed, power like Mike Trout, size like Roger Clemens, or a gold glove on defense maybe.
Get the picture? Tools like this are much rarer than people may lead you to believe. An Adam Loewen (fourth overall in 2002 draft) comes along about once in a generation in Canada.
So for the rest of the baseball-playing population, how can you be seen? With today’s up-to-the-second world and the way news travels, I can assure you, no ball player is being overlooked or cheated out of anything. This is the 21st century and if you can play, pro scouts and colleges will find you. They’ll sniff you out like a hungry dog.
Just play ball ANYWHERE. If you’re on a team with a bat and a ball, white bases and three outs to an inning you’re doing the right thing. As long as you have a uniform on your back, you have a chance to be noticed.
I hear so many Canadian kids and parents making excuses about being from a small town or living in a colder climate but it’s so easy to find a way around it. Sure, if your father was a big leaguer and you’re 6-foot-7, can throw 96 MPH and you grew up in a hotbed like Miami, you do have advantages. But don’t be discouraged whatsoever whether you are from Timmins or Thunder Bay, as those cities have manufactured quality talent for years.
The Philadelphia Phillies used their eighth round pick in 2003 on a skinny, greener-than-grass high-schooler from Thunder Bay (Matt Linder). I’m from a town of 2,000 (Coniston, home of Ottawa 67’s stalwarts Jimmy Fox and Randy Boyd) and was focusing on hitting instead of pitching in high school. I had four plate appearances in college and signed as a free agent pitcher that summer. Talent can and will be found.
This game has positions and jobs available for all sorts of players of varying shapes, sizes, skills and roles. The bottom line is: what can you do for your team? Why do I want you on my team? If you play a great outfield, can lay down a bunt or steal third base, then so what if you’re the smallest kid in the league, can only hit singles and have no arm to speak of. There are players like Johnny Damon at every level of competitive baseball.
Utilize your strengths and know what works for you. If you’re a singles hitter don’t try and hit tape measure home-runs. If you throw 75, trying to throw 79 will ruin your mechanics and you’ll only be hurting yourself. A salty, long-time big league vet emphasized to me that “when we try to do more, we always do less.”
A ton of the big-leaguers today got there because their entire lives they had to be creative. They had to think of ways to get by and be successful because their natural God-given ability only took them so far. Most people reading this article know about Stubby Clapp. He told me after a pre-season Independent league game in Calgary that as a lefty coming out of the bullpen I needed “to find my niche and know what my role was because every team always needs lefties.”
We’ve witnessed Tom Glavine who was a long-time superstar major league lefty. Most college pitchers throw as hard as Glavine at his peak. However, if you type in Glavine’s name you’ll see he is one of six men in history to win 300 major league games as a lefty. Glavine played at 175 pounds and needed a hurricane wind at his back to touch 90 MPH.
HOW TO GET ON THE COLLEGE RADAR
The questions I get asked the most are: How does my son get a college or university scholarship? How does my son get drafted to the major leagues? As I emphasized, you play ball, ideally at the highest level in your hometown and the rest looks after itself. Baseball is the exact same as being promoted while working in a bank or a grocery store. Do well at each level and you’ll get moved up.
In Ontario, playing for teams such as Team Canada, Team Ontario or the Ontario Blue Jays as a high-schooler should be the ultimate goal as that would be positioning yourself on the fast track. However, a lot of Canadians had outstanding careers being discovered on the Welland Renegades or the Ottawa White Sox in my era. Not every kid has a family able or willing to commit the intense time, huge driving distances and the deep pockets to finance these programs. If you’re that outstanding a player, this will not hold you back.
In the days before computers were mainstream, it was common for highly talented players to write hand-written letters or call long distance and leave a voice message for a college coach and this wasn’t that long ago. There is not set formula on how to become a college athlete.
For a sizable amount of money, you can pay a company to make a profile of an athlete and post it on a college board to be viewed by college coaches. It has provided many opportunities and opened many doors but the best way is to be seen in person, or at the very least make a video of your highlights and send it in.
If given the opportunity, I highly suggest getting some college ball under your belt. It is certainly the best way to better your career and prepare you for life on the road away from home. College baseball is a huge world and I strongly recommend aiming for a school that you will actually get the chance to play. The varying degree of competition and talent between some Division 1 national powerhouses and some low end community colleges is unfathomable. I was always told “there is a school for everyone.” There is big difference being the ace on the University of Missouri pitching staff or being a walk-on trying out at a junior college in Idaho.
My advice is talk to the schools where you think you belong. Do you want to play or be a cheerleader?
Are you getting any scholarship money? Canadians will pay usually over double the tuition costs for being an international student and these bills pile up in a hurry.
How far from home will you be? Those drives or flights will add up and drain the bank account.
What are the quality of courses offered? I’ve seen too many kids spend five years in university walking out swimming in debt with a lackluster degree not much wiser than when they started. These are all key considerations for a prospective student-athlete.
THE COLLEGE BASEBALL EXPERIENCE
Understand that in college ball, at every level, it is seven days a week of practice 4-to-7 hours a day. Road trips can be a few hours on the highway or completely across the country. Typically a coach will give one day off a month! Baseball can take up way more time than a full-time job as a stock broker but you need to focus on being a student first because if your grades dwindle you can’t play your sport.
You really have to love it and be all in, or you definitely won’t last in the program, I promise you that. Most programs you’re eating paper bag lunches and sleeping five men to a hotel room on road trips. If you think you’ll be a popular man on campus for making the ball team, most people won’t know you even play. It was kind of disappointing when we showed up to play the No. 7th ranked JUCO team in the nation and seven fans were in attendance on a foggy spring day in Hutchinson, Kansas, home of the Blue Dragons. You have to love what you’re doing.
What is the school’s history? It is very important to know what you’re getting into and be leery if they have a new coach every year. Find out all you need to know and ask a lot of questions before you make any commitments. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Many youngsters make the mistake of wanting to go to four-year schools right out of high-school and come back telling me they wish they would have gone to a community college first because they weren’t prepared for a four-year institution.
It is unlikely a kid right out of high-school will get any playing action or have much success for quite some time. Those hometown heroes can get eaten alive pretty quickly. There aren’t many like Lee Delfino (Pickering, Ont. who attended East Carolina University) around that flourish out of the gate.
College coaches will say and promise you anything to get you interested and on board to their programs. Once you’re there, they don’t owe you anything and in some cases you’ll be a ghost. Coaches don’t care if you pitched back-to-back shutouts on your summer league team in Brantford when you were 16. I don’t care what anyone says – in college ball, it is all about the team winning and nothing else. The team’s winning percentage depicts if that coach is gainfully employed next season.
My coach once had a trip to the junior college World Series. I Googled his name a few years later and learned he was coaching at a military high-school in New Mexico after some hard-knock seasons.
Even if you’re the hardest worker and best teammate in the world with loads of talent, that does not guarantee you will ever play a second in a real game. Your feelings and ego don’t matter even if your dad, grandmother and cousins are in the stands, smiling with a bag of popcorn.
On the other hand, if you have a few quality games and your coach might do you some favours and give you special treatment. It was nice when I was on a hot streak pitching late into games and was allowed to sleep in and stay back at the dorms eating cheeseburgers, while everyone else had to wake up early and cram in the white uncomfortable vans for a road trip.
THE MINOR LEAGUE EXPERIENCE
The good news is if you did really well in college with some luck on your side, studies show about 8-to-9% of college ball players receive a call from one of the 30 organizations teams saying you were selected in one of the 50 rounds of the annual amateur draft. This is surely a surreal, exhilarating boyhood dream for anyone who ever owned a glove, let alone committed their life to the game.
Surprising to most is that half of drafted players decide to not even bother signing at all. Being drafted only means you’ve been identified as having “potential.” You’re still leaps and bounds from being in a major league conversation. The ones that do sign into affiliated professional baseball, only 22 percent of them will ever get out of Single “A” ball and less than ten percent will ever play ONE game in the major leagues.
Ever wonder what minor league baseball is like? I highly recommend watching the movie Bull Durham. That movie is actually bang on. In Martinsville, Va,, relievers in the bullpen actually sit right next to the fans on old, chipped, cold, concrete slabs. Take a shower in the visitor’s clubhouse after an extra inning rain delayed game at 2 AM in Danville and you’ll be showering in four inches of everyone else’s dirty shower water because the drains are clogged.
Most drafted and signed ballplayers did not receive large signing bonuses. A very important rule of thumb for the money you’re offered and the round you’re chosen, is that it has nothing to do with how you look or how good you are today. It is all about what scouts envision that you might look like years into the future and how much money MLB teams are told they’re allowed to spend in their budget.
I had a close friend allow one earned run in 35 innings at a Division 1 university, go undrafted, and consider quitting forever. The very same league, one season later, Justin Verlander allowed 41 earned runs in 105 2/3 innings. Verlander was offered and signed a seven-figure signing bonus based on potential. There are many examples like that, when you see a college player who re-writes record books that slip through the cracks and falls off the face of the earth. Then other pitchers who got laughed off the field all year turn into millionaires all because of their so-called, sky-is-the-limit ceiling.
Minor leaguers range from 17-year old boys to middle-aged men, but most are in their 20s. Most signing bonuses are very low and minor league salaries, especially at the lower levels, are far lower than working for minimum wage jobs. You’re only paid during the weeks you’re playing ball so an off-season job is needed to pay the bills. You’re on your own for everything. On the road, you get a free bed and a miniscule amount of meal money and players are typically dirt poor. Not uncommon to see players surviving off crackers and water and stockpiling up on the team’s spread of pre-game peanut butter sandwiches after batting practice.
It’s quite the grind living and rooming with complete strangers from all over the world. Many of them don’t speak English, which makes communication incredibly difficult. You’re going to encounter some wild, crazy personalities from teammates and a lot of the time you have to adapt to your teammates’ lifestyles. It can truly be the good, the bad and the ugly. I was pretty fortunate to have good teammates but parties, alcohol, drugs and women are never too far away, especially with all the downtime on a player’s hands. These are all sure-fire ways to deplete and distract a player’s performance in a hurry. Temptations are everywhere and maturity and values are career savers or career killers.
The minor leagues are a dogfight the entire way but my peers were usually quite supportive of each other, even though you’re competing against everyone else for a job. You can sometimes bomb for years unscathed if there is money invested in you, but if you’re an older player without much of a signing bonus you’re on a short leash. You might hit .350 and dominate the level in most categories but if you’re 26and still in class-A you may want to look for permanent work installing kitchen cabinets.
I often asked myself if it was worth it, making all the sacrifices, sleeping in a bed that was a $14 dollar air mattress on the kitchen floor. My feet would touch the oven door if I stretched out. The mattress was sprinkled with dirt, rocks and glass that came from my roommate’s shoes, because they needed to walk over my bed to get into the apartment.
MANY ARE CALLED, FEW ARE CHOSEN
You’d be surprised to see certain players put up ERA’s in the 1.00s and see them released shortly thereafter. I was told before I started that you never see your release coming. It is all about whether the organization believes you can be successful at higher levels. The talented beasts with intangible skills that were let go made my head spin. You learn quickly not to question the decisions above your head and never question your coaches.
The high-school kids are risky business. They get big bonus money as they need to be lured and bargained away from college and free schooling. College seniors getting drafted get the short end of the stick as they no longer have college as bargaining power. It made me upset when I saw a kid lead the nation in home runs, and he was forced to sign for a thousand bucks and a plane ticket.
Sometimes drafting a high-school kid pays off; see Clayton Kershaw or Madison Bumgarner. They’re obviously worth the gamble to say the least. I was fortunate enough to face first-rounder Cole Hamels on a regular basis after he was a high-school pick with the Phillies. It was all too easy for him, even against pro players much older and more accomplished. The minor leagues are a cakewalk for some prodigies out there, but typically high school kids implode and fade away as quickly as they arrive. Picking a young stud out of Grade 12 is tempting because you can daydream and imagine what he might turn into, but it is playing with fire.
A big bodied teammate of mine with a full scholarship to a big-time NCAA Division I school had scouts labelling him as the most effortless delivery in the entire draft. He had not been touched his entire life on the mound, allowing a single run his senior year of high school, earning All-State honours. I remember him telling me “I just pretty much close my eyes and throw the ball as hard as I can every pitch on that outside corner and nobody could ever hit it.”
This 17 year-old is eventually sent to the Jays most remote geographic organization, and billeted with the host parents from hell. He loses 25 pounds over the course of the 11-week short-season due to circumstances you don’t even want to read about. He’s never failed a day in his life up to this point, then is flown a million miles away from home before his 18th birthday and is expected to excel against 24-year-old professional hitters. The kid’s confidence is shattered and he really begins to question and doubt himself. His entire life he has just shown up and trampled opponents without having to break a sweat. No matter how bright your star may shine, few get to reach the game’s biggest stage. Fourteen months into his pro career and a deplorable 1 win, 11 losses pitching record stares back at him.
I remember a player in the clubhouse debating whether or not he could give his family and friends his own personal baseball card because his stats were simply too embarrassing. The winds had changed drastically since he was named the best high-school player in his entire state. I realized in that moment that most fairy tale “golden boys” died a painful, slow death in the introductory entry levels of the farm leagues.
Would I play baseball again? Yes! I loved every single second of it despite all the setbacks. I wouldn’t trade it in for anything. College ball was a blast. I would have loved to keep playing, but playing pro ball for my favorite organization was a dream come true.
For everyone out there, enjoy every moment and soak up the sun while it lasts. You don’t get to play ball forever no matter who you are. Even Derek Jeter eventually has to retire or be released.
Exploit all your options and do what you think is best for you. Keep throwing that white egg and hitting seeds on the grass.
Enjoy the ride as many of us can only write and dream about playing “just one more inning.” Rarely a night goes by where I don’t encounter vivid dreams of me being back there on some bump in some God-forsaken town. I swear I can feel the sweat dripping down my forehead.
I smell the leather and oil in the glove my father bought me. I’m staring down some mean, gargantuan larger-than-life hitter from a farming community in Oklahoma. I finally wake up and it takes me some time to realize it is just another dream.
To all of those people out there who still get to run between the chalked lines, embrace and treasure it because you never know on what path this game will take you.