Thursday, March 25, 2010

Why and When to Walk Away

It’s easy to make jokes about the Kansas City Royals (TCM has made more than a few in the last 24 hours), and how they’ve lost one of their better pitching prospects, Danny Duffy, who yesterday left the team to “reassess his life priorities.” It’s sad for the Royals and their fans, not only to lose a talented pitcher (Doyle has been called the most advanced of KC’s pitching prospects, and is #8 on Baseball America’s list of its Top Prospects), but it’s especially hard to again feel like the laughing stock of the American League. Especially when that status is so well deserved.

Most of us will look at Danny Duffy’s decision and wonder why in the hell a player with his kind of talent would walk away from baseball. After all, The Common Man would give up his left arm (he’s right handed) to pitch in the big leagues. It is the dream of hundreds of thousands of little boys in the United States right now. To be so relatively close to this magical goal, and potential winning lottery ticket, would be unfathomable to so many Americans.

But while the major leagues are a golden land of milk and honey, it’s easy for us to forget that, frankly, the minor leagues (particularly the low minors) kind of suck for the players. Many are away from their homes, families, and friends for six months at a time (Duffy, for instance, is from California, but played the last two years in Burlington, Iowa ("the backhoe capital of the world!"); and Wilmington, Delaware (where violence was so prevalent in the '90s that the entire downtown is now under camera surveillance). Despite the noise and cramped-ness of a clubhouse, it’s easy to feel isolated if you don’t somehow connect to your teammates. The atmosphere is very insular.

You get paid next to nothing as a salary, and you get $20 (now finally bumped up to$25) per day to eat on the road. You stay in crappy motels, and your living conditions can vary wildly depending on where you’re playing and who you’re staying with. Entertainment is tough to come by (particularly in Burlington, Iowa, or Wilmington, Delaware). For some players, particularly those with young families, it is impossible to make ends meet and continue to play ball. Road trips last 7-10 days, and you spend a dozen hours or more at a time on a cramped bus with 35-40 other people that you may or may not be able to stand.

For as much fun as it can be to play the game, the rest of the grind can really suck. And if, for some reason, your lottery numbers don’t end up a winner, you’re often stuck going back to school at 24, 25, or 26, or starting a career with almost no job history, no practical experience. For some, that risk is not worth taking.

Danny Duffy is still a very young man. At 21, he’s got a lifetime ahead of him. This was undoubtedly not an easy decision for him, to give up the thing he has been working toward for much of his life. Whether injury, loneliness, falling out of love with the game, or never loving it in the first place was the primary motivator, it’s important to note that there are a number of contributing stressors that are pressing on minor leaguers today. If there is anything for the Royals to take away from Duffy’s decision, it’s that they need to examine the support networks they have in place throughout their minor league system to make sure they don’t lose any more players. Duffy may be an isolated case, and may have chosen to walk away regardless, but periodic introspection and analysis is a good thing, particularly for a moribund franchise like Kansas City. Playing for the big league Royals is depressing enough; they should make the minors as welcoming and fun as possible.

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