The life of a minor league baseball coach involves a lot of variables. Besides being in different cities every few days, we have to deal with playing in a variety of climates. Just this past week, we left Winnipeg here in Canada when it was in the upper 30s at night, and then drove the 14 or 15 hours down south to Indiana, where it was 80-90 degrees, and then three days later bused 10 hours to Lincoln, Neb., where the temperature sat in the mid-90s for a few days. And then of course, sometimes there may be rain, sleet or snow to contend with.
Add to that players facing different teams and dealing with varying field surfaces, and you’ve got a lot to factor in as a coach. Pitchers have to make constant adjustments to the mound slopes, and hitters deal with ever-changing visual backgrounds at each stadium. And of course, they all have to adjust to the umpire’s strike zone that night.
Our line of work involves a high level of flexibility and adaptability. That is why routines are such a big part of professional baseball. With all the variables and uncertainty of our daily schedules, establishing a routine, a consistent way to prepare ourselves for games is very important. For hitters, it means doing the same workouts before games, getting a certain number of swings in before BP, or taking a certain amount of ground balls during batting practice to prepare them to field their position.
For pitchers, it means arriving at the same time to the park each day. Maybe having long toss at the same time each day or throwing a certain number of fastballs, breaking balls and changeups during their pregame throwing each day.
All of these things help professional players keep their sanity in a world that can flip your head upside down and around at times.
But yesterday was one very few of us could have prepared for. With a getaway day game scheduled for 7 p.m. instead of the typical early afternoon game, we went into the day knowing it would be a long one. With an 11-hour bus trip scheduled to get us back home to Winnipeg, we were already anticipating a noonish arrival, just seven hours before taking the field in our series opener against the Kansas City T-Bones.
A funny thing happened on the way to Winnipeg.
Coming into the game we knew thunderstorms were projected to hit the Lincoln area midway through the night. The weather was fine until the eighth, when the wind really picked up and started blowing hard toward right field, leaving the flags above the scoreboard in right-center hanging on for their lives.
It couldn’t have happened at a worse time for us. We entered the bottom of the eighth up two runs and in control of the game. For the first seven innings, our right-handed starter, Ace Walker, was just that, limiting the Saltdog lineup to a run through seven innings as we built a 3-1 lead. But the winds in the eighth brought a shift in momentum with them.
After a leadoff strikeout by our hard-throwing reliever Aaron Hartsock, Lincoln’s next hitter chopped a single through the infield for a one-out hit. We brought in our lefty reliever, Kevin Light, for the next hitter, and he quickly got his hitter to pop up meekly behind our second baseman for what is typically a routine play. But the winds pushed the ball into right field and sent our second baseman spinning in circles as the ball fell in to put two runners on.
Then the rains came, and they really came, delaying play for more than an hour as we sat in our dugout and watched the tarp-covered field get soaked by a 40-minute Midwestern deluge. I counted.
After a pop-up to our pitcher and a ground-ball single to left, closer Jamie Vermilyea got Lincoln’s catcher to pop up softly toward our shortstop for what would have closed the inning with our club still in the lead. But the winds again ripped the ball away from our infielder, dropping in short center field to allow Lincoln to tie the ballgame, 3-3.
We eventually won in 11 innings, and the game was completed at around 12:30 a.m. And that was just the beginning.
But with the recent string of bad weather in the Midwest, the highway we were supposed to take out of Nebraska was closed due to flooding, so about half an hour after we departed the stadium, we got stuck. I felt the bus had stopped, so I pulled off my headphones to see what was going on. With the highway closed and no signs about a detour posted, our driver had to call in for a police escort to lead us on our way. That added an extra hour plus to our drive.
Losing a close game like that was tough, but I was just happy to be able to get some sleep. The beauty of baseball is that there is always a tomorrow. With 100 games in 110 days this summer, there will be many chances to bounce back. I can’t wait to get back to the park.
Brendan Sagara, a former Leilehua and Hawaii-Hilo pitcher, is a veteran minor league pitching coach in his first year with the Winnipeg Goldeyes.