My Life in the Minor Leagues
by Kenny Beck
"What I’m about to tell you isn’t a typical baseball story. I don’t limp off the bench and hit a game-winning home-run in the World Series. I didn’t throw a perfect game in my last ever start, nor do I mentor some bonus-baby with a million-dollar-arm and two-cent head so he can mature and make it to the big leagues. And I promise you that I don’t end up playing catch with my dad in an Iowa cornfield at the end of this either. "
So Begins Kenny Beck's tale as he follows the dream of every every young boy, who hopes one day to play in the "Big" leagues. Even though his was a short-lived career, it taught Kenny a great deal about life and left him with the satisfaction of not saying "I wish I could play baseball in the big leagues," but "When I played in the big leagues."
Cover Art by Kenny Beck
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What I’m about to tell you isn’t a typical baseball story. I don’t limp off the bench and hit a game-winning home-run in the World Series. I didn’t throw a perfect game in my last ever start, nor do I mentor some bonus-baby with a million-dollar-arm and two-cent head so he can mature and make it to the big leagues. And I promise you that I don’t end up playing catch with my dad in an Iowa cornfield at the end of this either.
What I did do was take a shot - a shot most people never get and something that anyone who has ever bought a pack of baseball cards has dreamed of at one time or another. I took a shot at playing professional baseball.
And although I wish this baseball story had a happy ending just like in those Kevin Costner movies or the games on ESPN Classic, I am sorry to say it does not.
My story is about a guy who never really thought his baseball career would amount to a whole lot—and it very nearly didn’t. If it wasn’t for hundreds of hours of practice, a patient pitching coaching who saw something in me, and one huge break, this wouldn’t be much of a story at all.
The story I’m about to tell is about what life was like for me during my 301 days as a pitcher in the Montreal Expos baseball organization - one of the proudest times of my life.
Now I know what you’re thinking. “301 days? Isn’t that an awfully short career? What happened, did you hurt your arm or could you just not get people out any more?”
What I suffered from was a syndrome that affects billions of people on this planet every single day of their lives. It’s called aging. And in low-level professional baseball if you’re not 19 you might as well be 65.
At least that was the impression I got when I was released from the Expos on March 28, 2003 - three days before the end of spring training. Things were going great for me up until then too. I was locating everything. My breaking pitches were breaking and my fastball was getting good, consistent sink and run. And with the help of an improved slider and change-up, I was starting to have more success against left-handed hitters as well. I had even made two appearances against AA teams (the Mets and Dodgers) and received rave reviews from coaches and coordinators alike. Pretty good for a guy who spent half a season in rookie ball the year before. But just as soon as it appeared that my own baseball story might have a happy ending after all, I got the bad news—the Expos were releasing me.
I never got a rational explanation why and I don’t suppose they had to give me one. But I do know that my age (23), my draft round (48th), and my miniscule signing bonus ($1,000) were all brought up in my final “send off” meeting. I guess I had always pictured hanging ’em up when I wanted to, not when someone else told me I had to.
And that, I think, is what makes my story so atypical. As far as I was concerned, I was cut down in my prime—a victim of the harsh business (and it is a business) that is professional baseball. But don’t think for one second that my forced retirement has tainted my outlook on the game or my time as a pro. It remains one of the happiest times of my life—despite the long, weird hours, moody teammates, cramped busses, crappy hotels and slave-wage paychecks. And consequently, that is why I chose to write this book—to give an inside look into minor league baseball for anyone who has ever wondered “what’s it really like?”
Better Late Than Never
I guess the best place to begin would be the afternoon of June 5. I was in the car on my way home to grab a bite to eat because in a few short hours, I was going to make my debut as a ringer on my friend’s company softball team. I wasn’t ashamed that I was excited to show off either. After all, while I assumed that every other participant in that game had spent the last four years of their lives going out on the weekends, drinking beer and telling high school football stories, I had devoted almost my entire life to baseball.
I lifted weights. I went to practice. I long-tossed. I did thousands of crunches. I ran poles. I went on long bus rides, I kept charts and I looked at video like it was my job. But now that my career was officially over, it was time to relax and live a little, you know, do what I wanted to do for a change.
Just a few weeks prior, I had graduated from the University of Maryland, Magna Cum Laude with a degree in broadcast journalism and a minor in kinesiology. I was also a four-year member of the baseball team. I say “four-year member” rather than “four-year letter-winner” because I only won letters during two years at Maryland—my last two.
It’s funny now that I think about it but I really spent all four years there in the bullpen—my first two as a catcher and my last two as a pitcher. I was recruited out of high school as a catcher. I always had a decent arm and could play a bunch of positions so in high school, I spent my first two years as a shortstop, my junior year as a catcher and my senior year as a pitcher and outfielder. It was my versatility, the recruiting coordinator at Maryland had once said, that made me a valuable commodity.
What they didn’t tell me was that they had already given a pretty big scholarship to a high school catcher from New Jersey, named Keith O’Donnell. I would later find out that he had been all but guaranteed the starting job before we even arrived on campus.
As we practiced for the first few weeks that fall, the guy who was supposed to be my arch-enemy and my competition for playing time became far and away my best friend on the team. He was better than I was behind the plate and he deserved the starting job—which he won hands down.
After two unremarkable seasons spent mostly on the bench rooting for Keith and occasionally getting late-inning at bats in blow out games, I started wondering if I had reached a dead end in my career. Baseball took up a good deal of my time in the fall and practically all of it in the spring. There were many times that I seriously pondered quitting and beginning my career as a sports journalist. I figured if I couldn’t play baseball, I wanted to get paid to talk about it.
Before the start of my junior year though, our entire coaching staff at Maryland was replaced and within a few months, my career was revitalized. After spending most of the fall swinging and missing at the plate and re-learning the outfield, one single day breathed new life into a dying career.
We had two weeks of fall ball left and just minutes before the first pitch of our inter-squad game, I was in front of the dugout, warming my arm up to play right field as I usually did. I was loose after a few throws, so just to be silly, I dropped down and threw the ball a few times from a submarine arm angle. Submarine is where your throwing hand is below your elbow, knee height or lower, when you release the ball. As I was doing this, our new pitching coach, Chip Faulkner, came up to me and said, “Hey, let’s go down to the bullpen later and take a look at that.”
The day before, the coaching staff had asked if any of the position players had ever pitched before, just to get a sense of what everybody could do. I said I had pitched in high school and I threw maybe twenty pitches from the bullpen mound, just to show what I could do.
It wasn’t much.
I was throwing maybe 80 mph and the ball was straight as an arrow, so I figured my pitching days were well behind me.
But when I went down to the pen this time, he asked me to throw every ball from that same arm angle—submarine. I did and so began my second stint as a pitcher. I was still only throwing 80 at best, but this time the ball had late sink and movement to my arm side so that it would run in on the hands of right-handed hitters. As a rule, submariners have a knack for keeping the ball down and getting a lot of ground balls.
I pitched in the inter-squad game that day and after throwing a scoreless inning, I knew this was going to be my ticket off the bench.
The rest of my junior year was more of a learning experience than anything else. I had some good outings and some very bad ones. But my senior year was when I really put it all together. I earned the job as our team’s closer and by the end of the year, we set a school record for wins, I had appeared in 25 games, recorded a school record seven saves and finished the year with a team-best 2.08 ERA. And I had wanted to quit a few months ago!
My season and for all I knew, my baseball career, came to a close when we lost to the Duke Blue Devils in the play-in game of the 2002 ACC Tournament. I didn’t even get to pitch in that game because we trailed the entire time.
While we were at the tournament, another one of the seniors, an outfielder named Sean Kilman, said to me that he had been contacted by Jack Smythe, a scout for the Montreal Expos. Jack had personally invited Sean to a tryout before the draft and wanted Sean to pass the word on to me, which he did.
I really didn’t think much of the invitation to be quite frank. Sean, who was a four-year starter and a hell of a hitter, had already been invited to several pre-draft tryouts. I figured he would get picked up by somebody (in fact, I was surprised he hadn’t gone the year before) and I hoped for Keith’s sake that he would find a place to play too. Both Keith and Sean had been contacted by multiple teams during the season. And although that was never a guarantee of being selected, they both had a much better chance than I did since I had been contacted by exactly zero clubs. I still wanted to go to the tryout though. I figured it would be fun and honestly, I just wanted an opportunity to pitch one last time.
Jack was at the tryout, along with the organization’s head scouting director Brandon White, and Ryan Moore, a national cross checker for the Expos. I had met Ryan several times before and he was a very knowledgeable and outgoing person when it came to baseball. He and I worked at the same instructional camp the previous winter and he had seen me catch before when I was at Maryland, so we were somewhat friendly and familiar with one another. He was also at Maryland’s annual Scout Day—held at the end of each fall as a way for our draft-eligible players to be seen by as many professional teams as possible.
So at the tryout, I threw on the game mound at a small community college with these three guys critiquing my every move. There was no batter, just a catcher and a radar gun. They seemed genuinely impressed with the sink and run I was able to put on the ball, but not so much with the speed - I think I topped out at 83.
Before I left, Ryan said he was going to “really push my name on draft day.” I was glad to hear that they were mildly interested in me, but at the same time I was quite cognizant of the fact that they probably said something like that to every halfway decent player who was there. Regardless, I had a good time, I threw well and I had a cool story to tell.
Now, back to June 5.
It was the second day of the 2002 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft and already two of my teammates had been picked up. Our shortstop, a junior named Ron McGuire, went in the first round to the Oakland Athletics. McGuire was an incredibly talented player. He could hit for power and average, run the bases and he had a cannon for an arm. His defense at short was a bit streaky but he had made some plays this season that only a few shortstops could ever make.
McGuire was not exactly the quintessential teammate however. He was good and he knew he was good and that sometimes came across when you spoke to him. For much of the season, it seemed like he cared more about his personal statistics and draft status than how our team was doing. Regardless, he had put together a remarkable season which warranted a late first-round pick.
Kilman was also drafted on the first day, by the Expos. He didn’t have the power that McGuire had, but was a very solid outfielder. He was a good leadoff or number two hitter and by the end of this last season at school, he became the all-time career leader in hits and runs scored.
So as I said a few pages ago, I was in the car on my way home when I noticed I had received a new message on my cell phone. I checked my voice-mail and to my delight, it was from Keith.
“KENNYYYY! I just got picked by the Tigers in the 38th round…everybody here is going crazy [cheers in the background]! Give me a call later! [more cheering]” the message said.
I called him right back to congratulate him. I couldn’t have been happier for him and I said I wanted one of his baseball cards and as soon as he got one.
As I finished my ride home, I was coming to grips with the fact that it was 4:30 on the second day of the draft and that I was most likely not going to be taken. As realistic as I had tried to be about my chances from the start, I still couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed.
So I went in my room for a little while and played (what else) baseball on my Playstation 2 while I ate an early dinner before the softball game. After all, I wanted to be well-fueled for my debut.
At about 5:15, I heard the phone ring and after a few seconds, my mom brought it to my room. She didn’t say who it was.
“Kenny…” the voice on the other end said.
“Yes?” I said.
“This is Jack Smythe of the Montreal Expos. Congratulations.”
“Uh, okay. Why?” I said.
“Because we just drafted you in the 48th round,” he said. “We will get in touch with you in a few days with more information, okay?”