By Joe Scalzo
Miller Park is a $400 million, 21st-century wonder that seats 42,000 and boasts real Kentucky Bluegrass, a retractable roof and, oh yeah, a major league baseball team: the Milwaukee Brewers.
Kindrick Legion Field is a different story. It was built in 1932 for $1,500, it seats 2,000 and it boasts a rookie-league baseball team: the Helena (Mont.) Brewers.
Playing at Kindrick Field is the equivalent of working at McDonald’s during college.
“You get to experience what you don’t want to be around anymore,” said former YSU pitcher Eric Marzec, a 30th-round pick who began his pro career in Helena in 2010. “That’s what you get from hanging out in Montana for more than a week.”
Helena plays in the eight-team Pioneer League, which has four teams in Montana, two in Utah, one in Idaho and one in Colorado.
It’s just as glamorous as it sounds.
“You stay in rinky-dink motels, where there’s no way your mom would let you stay there if she knew what they were,” Marzec said. “It’s the dirtiest of the dirty.”
Three years later, Marzec is doing a phone interview from Birmingham, Ala., where he is finishing up a 10-game road trip with the Class-AA Huntsville (Ala.) Stars. He’s still two levels away from the majors, but he’s upgraded to a “obnoxious” hotel that charges $15 for wireless Internet, money that’s offset by not needing a tetanus shot to stay there.
“It’s nice not being in Montana anymore,” said Marzec, who is 2-0 with a 2.23 ERA in 25 games (321/3 innings) with the Stars this season. “I’m getting closer and closer, I guess. Hopefully I can keep grinding my way through and find myself in the bigs soon.”
Moving on up
Marzec is one of four former Penguins now in the minor leagues, although only one other player, pitcher Phil Klein, is active.
Third baseman Drew Dosch, a seventh-round pick of the Orioles last month, recently had ACL surgery and won’t be ready until next season.
And pitcher Justin Thomas, who has played in 31 major league games with the Mariners, Pirates, Red Sox and Yankees, terminated his minor league contract with the Oakland A’s last week after spending all season with the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats and is looking for a team.
Like Marzec, Klein is a relief pitcher at the Double-A level. And, like Marzec, he’s trying to focus more on the next batter than the next step in his career.
“In my mind, I try to tell myself it’s not a big jump” to the majors,” Klein said. “I’m trying to do the same stuff that got me to this point.”
A 30th round draft pick by the Texas Rangers in 2011, Klein is 3-0 with a 2.84 ERA in 16 games (312/3 innings) with the Frisco (Texas) RoughRiders. He began this season with Class-A Myrtle Beach and figured he’d spend most of the season there.
“I wasn’t expecting to get the call up when I did,” said Klein, who was called up on April 30. “There were a couple [pitchers] in front of me, so I was almost waiting for them to get called up first.
“Now I’m pretty much one call away from the big leagues, which is awesome to think about.”
Each year, major league teams draft about 1,500 players. While two out of every three first-rounders will eventually make the major leagues, less than 10 percent of those drafted after the 20th round will eventually make it.
Overall, about 90 percent of those who do play in the majors will do so within five years of being drafted, and Marzec said you can drive yourself crazy trying to figure out your place in the organization’s line.
“That’s kind of what your agent is for,” he said. “They’re like a parent in little league who asks the coach, ‘Why isn’t my kid playing?’ That’s why teams hate agents, because they’ll
call and say,‘Hey, my guy is in A ball, why isn’t he in Double-A?
“What you learn is you can’t expect anything. They can tell you they’re going to move you to Triple-A at the halfway point but you just roll your eyes.”
Case in point: A few days ago, one of Marzec’s teammates was called up to Triple-A. Two days later, he was back in Double-A.
“It’s tough because where we’re at in Double-A, it’s a bottleneck,” he said. “The funnel [to the next level] gets smaller. You’ve kind of graduated to finishing school and you’re pretty much ready now to perform. You can be a replacement in the big leagues tomorrow, but the problem is, there’s only about 750 major leaguers and only half of them are pitchers.
“You have to be in the right place at the right time and while it seems like it’s still really far away, you try to remind yourself that it’s closer than you think.”
Unlike position players (who play every day) and starting pitchers (who play every fifth day), the life of a reliever can be a maddening one.
Marzec, who split time between the outfield and the bullpen at YSU, had to learn to listen to his arm, to know when to go hard and when to take it easy, to learn how to get ready when you’re not sure if you’ll be pitching in the fourth inning or the seventh or not at all.
“You have to be ready to go at the drop of a dime,” he said. “The biggest thing I’ve learned about pro ball is you have to learn a routine and repeat that every single day.”
Marzec’s routine consists of drinking five cups of water by the fourth inning of every game, then snacking (often an apple) in the fourth inning, figuring he’ll pitch in the next hour.
Klein, meanwhile, was a starter at YSU (he set the Penguins’ single-season record for starts in 2011 with 15) and admitted by the end of his first pro season, his body was spent.
“That was the toughest adjustment,” he said. “I was used to pitching every seven days and in pro ball, I was throwing every day and it wasn’t light throwing.
“It took time for my body and my arm to adjust to it. I was pretty tired at the end of that.”
Fortunately, Frisco’s pitching coach, Jeff Andrews, tries to make sure his relievers know when they’re going to throw (usually every three days) and who’s going to throw before and after each pitcher. That way, Klein knows if he pitched on Monday, he’ll probably get Tuesday and Wednesday off.
“That makes it a little easier,” he said.
Seeing the world
Maybe the toughest part of the minor leagues, though, is the travel. Unlike major league teams which fly first class on charter planes, the bulk of minor league travel is by bus. And not all the destinations are vacation hotspots.
Marzec, a Canton native, has already played in Montana (“I’ve had my fill of that,” he said), Appleton, Wis. (“That was a lot of fun; people love the team, which I guess is rare at that level of baseball”), Brevard County, Fla. (“Pretty much all retired people, so there are like zero fans at the game”), Nashville (he played two games at the Triple-A affiliate at the end of 2011) and now Huntsville.
Klein, a Columbus native, has gone from Arizona (“Really hot) to Spokane, Wash. (“Really nice and a pretty good amount of fans came out to the game, but you’d finish the road trips feeling not as fresh as you could be”) to Hickory, N.C. (“That was a blast”) to Myrtle Beach (“That was a blast, too”) to Frisco, which is just outside Dallas and isn’t as Texas-y as you’d think, Klein said.
“People think farms and fields but it’s actually a suburban area and everything is pretty new,” he said. “You get the occasional cowboy hat and cowboy boots but it’s not a big adjustment.”
On the cusp
All the travel and uncertainty makes it tough to have a normal life and Marzec spends a lot of his free time in the gym. He’s a fitness fanatic — his Twitter profile photo shows him shirtless and holding a sledgehammer — who tweeted a video of himself in December jumping out of a pool filled with 31/2 feet of water.
“I had to record it because a bunch of guys wouldn’t believe me,” he said.
Of course, looking good off the field isn’t as important as looking good on it. Fortunately, Marzec and Klein have both pitched well at every level, proving they’ve learned how to adjust to better batters and not just rely on their stuff.
“You can tell they obviously have way more talent up here than in A ball,” Klein said. “Guys will foul off good pitches and if you make a mistake, they’ll make you pay for it moreso than in A-ball. But you can’t worry about doing stuff to impress people. You try not to be results-oriented, where you throw stuff so this happens. You can’t worry about worry about what everyone else is thinking.”
“It’s been an adjustment here, but I’ve got another half year to work on stuff and figure stuff out. That’s fun for me. It’s fun to work.”
“I have three or four teammates who I played with or was drafted with that are in the majors now and it starts to feel closer,” he said. “A lot of my peers are breaking through and you think, ‘Wow, it’s actually possible.’
“There’s a sense that it’s really close and yet really far away. The key is not to focus on either of those things. Just go about your business.”