SALISBURY — Les Moore settled into his seat, the last in the first row along the first base line at Arthur W. Purdue Stadium, munching peanuts, watching the Shorbirds exhibition game against the Salisbury University Seagulls, and giving minor league guff to the players who passed him on the way back to the locker room. He’s a season ticket holder so he knows many of the returning players by face and name and they know him by face at least.
Some will even check the situation with him, if they’ve been in the locker room for some reason during the action.
This week outfielder Michael Planeta made several game time trips to the locker room. He’d been given the day off so he popped back into the locker room from time to time, once to grab a warmup jacket. Upon emerging from the tunnel he saw the Seagulls had gone up 1-0.
“What happened?” he asked Moore.
“Single. Up the middle.” Moore answered without taking his eyes from the batter.
This kind of interaction is pretty much exclusive to Single A baseball. In face almost everything that goes on at the Shorebirds game, with the exception of the actual playing of it, is exclusive to minor league baseball.
Although wins and losses are important to the team and to the fans winning is not what this league is about. It is about learning to be professional baseball players, fine tuning not as much one’s skills as a player as the almost preternatural awareness it takes to be a functional major leaguer.
The skills will improve or they won’t. Kids will suffer injuries or just wash out for a hundred different reasons. But if their talent gives them any chance at all of making the big leagues getting their without a professionals understanding of how the game and the organization of it work is very close to impossible.
The man on the Shorebirds most responsible for the nuts and bolts teaching of professional baseball to mainly college-aged kids is Delmarva Shorebirds’ manager Ryan Minor.
Minor has lived on the peninsula for nearly 20 years at this point. Although he was not the first Shorebird to make the Big Leagues, he was the first Orioles 3rd baseman who wasn’t Cal Ripken this century and among the first to fully embrace the Eastern Shore as his new home.
He dug in here, had his career in the majors and finally returned when the opportunity to manage the Shorebirds presented itself. During this week’s “Media Day” Minor spoke about the top draft picks, including infielders Nicky Delmonico and Jason Esposito, with whom the organization had entrusted him.
He also talked about, especially in the beginning of the season, keeping the pitch count low for pitcher Parker Bridwell, and their presumptive phenom and the Orioles first draft pick this season Dylan Bundy.
But at the end of the day, Minor isn’t judged by his bosses, or the fans really, on the team ability to win games. He’s judges on his ability to help turn the players on the Delmarva Shorebirds into players for the Baltimore Orioles. This is Minor’s fifth year as manager and he has apparently hit his stride in that department.
The Shorebirds’ fan base is split pretty evenly between three groups, kids and families who want a day at the ballpark, purists who enjoy the pleasure of the game, and people who are out to see the stars of the future up close and personal. It is the rare fan who has fixated on some kind of rivalry between the Shorebirds and the Lakewood Blue Claws. No one hates the Savannah Sand Gnats with the passion they hate the Yankees. Most people go to the games to be entertained and to feel the kind of detached leisure that is almost exclusive to sitting in the stands and watching the game.
Last season, both because of logistical issues with the Orioles system and because of the amount of talent, Minor had to deal with one of the most malleable lineups he’s had to since taking the reins. Players were constantly getting called up to Frederick, Bowie or Norfolk — the hi-A, AA and AAA teams in the system respectively — and although he attributes it to a million different reasons that have nothing to do with him, it is a tough sell to see the teams continued production as merely a function of chance.
“Wins are great,” Minor said, “But we’ve got to treat it is if they’re gonna help us in the Big Leagues.”
His attitude toward his role in the Orioles organization gives insight into how seriously he sees himself as a team player. His capacity has changed but his commitment to the team’s success — and here the team is the Orioles — remains as intact as it was when he worked in Baltimore.
Moreover, as a former player he has an acute sense of the things that it is critical to know about the Major League aspect of the game that must be taught. He understands the subtext of the everyday language in the clubhouse and teaches that language as much as he does critique styles of play and positions.
In speaking about the Shorebirds’ chances of winning games, he talked about having more productive at-bats.
“There’s nothing worse for a pitcher than having men on base,” he said.
But the subtler message is that, as coaches have been saying to players for time immemorial, “You’ve got to get the bat off your shoulders.”
Players, especially in the first two or so years of professional ball, are too often too eager to impress. A significant part of Minor’s job is helping to check that. It’s as if they need to be, not retaught, but reminded of the fundamentals that got them their opportunity. They need to get used to putting the pat on the ball all over again, for instance, before they can return to things like situational hitting and placement.
This is why it’s important to have pros teaching potential pros. Batting coach Einar Diaz spent nearly a decade in the Major Leagues and finished as a lifetime .254 hitter. Pitching coach Troy Mattes, spent only a year in the Majors but had a solid career in the Expos farm system and has been a critical part of bring pitchers up through the ranks.
This is the sub-game that the purists and all around fans come to see. While it is always a nice boost when your team wins, for a number of the attendees getting a glimpse of how the players are developing overtime is the real treat at Arthur W. Purdue Stadium.