Here are a couple more bits from last week's series between Indianapolis and Columbus.
-P- When I spoke to Jaff Decker, he was just returning from a brief stint with the Pirates. He's now had cups of coffee with both Pittsburgh and San Diego, and he said playing for the Pirates is considerably more intense.
"San Diego's a little more laid back. The Pirates have a little more fire and want to win every game," he said, crediting Clint Hurdle with holding Pirates players to a high standard.
Being drafted by the Padres in 2008 and coming up in their system had benefits for Decker, however. He grew up in Arizona, "right down the road" from the spring training facility the Padres shared with the Mariners.
"I'd go up there for spring training all the time [and] watch Tony Gwynn and Ken Griffey, living so close, so it was nice getting drafted there and having spring training right down the street," he said. The Diamondbacks didn't exist when Decker was young, so he grew up rooting for players rather than teams, with Gwynn, Griffey and Barry Bonds (who starred at Arizona State, although that was before Decker was born) being the players he pulled for the hardest.
Another benefit to coming through the Padres system was that Decker got to play a lot of his minor league baseball with his family within driving distance. He played in the Arizona League in 2008, then in with Class A+ Lake Elsinore in the California League in 2010, then with Triple-A Tucson in 2013. And then, of course, he always got to have spring training close to home.
"The Cal League was seven hours away, so the family got to come a lot and enjoy that," he said. "[And] having spring training in AZ was pretty nice."
Nonetheless, Decker said he was excited to learn he'd be traded to the Pirates.
"I had a lot of good memories. I had a lot of good teammates over there, and guys started going their separate ways," he said. "I was pretty much one of the only guys left from my draft." (Incidentally, one of the players from that draft was infielder Dean Anna, who's now Decker's teammate in Indianapolis.)
Decker added that Neal Huntington's enthusiasm about him made him feel better about switching organizations.
"That's always an easy transition, when [there's a team] that wants you," Decker said.
-P- Playing for a Triple-A team has to be difficult, because you're so close your goal of playing in the big leagues, and yet you're so far away -- you're making a lot less money, changing in cramped locker rooms, and playing for small crowds in small stadiums in smaller cities. The effect of the Triple-A grind on at least some players has to be profound, as you might remember from the interview I did with former Indianapolis broadcaster Scott McCauley in 2012.
SM: Now, if someone blows up? They're like, "Okay, give me a shot. Give this guy a shot." They don't root for anyone to fail, but if someone fails, they make sure that their agent's aware of, "Hey, this guy's really been bad the last three weeks. Think it's about time we see if I can get to the big leagues."
CW: Does that ever work?
SM: No. But my first year, in '06, it was a really veteran team. Guys like, , , just, crusty vets. The first weekend, we were in Toledo on a road trip, and there was a bar by the hotel, and I went there, and Terry Adams is one of my favorite guys of all time. ... He goes, "Yeah, sit down." They're watching Baseball Tonight. And they all have their cell phones out and they're texting. And I go, "What are you doing?" and they're like, "I'm talking to my agent. They just showed highlights and this dude gave up five runs," because they're looking for work wherever they can. They watch the highlights totally differently than we do. They watch the highlights to see, where are the red flags, how can I fit into that? They pull for each other, but if there's failure and opportunity, they definitely want in.
Obviously, though, players can't really talk this way on the record, and most of them seem to recognize that it isn't helpful to worry too much about when they might be called up or what their role with a big-league team might be.
Still, Triple-A has to be frustrating, especially for someone like Vin Mazzaro, who got good results in a good big-league bullpen last year but passed through waivers twice and is now stranded at Indianapolis while the Pirates' bullpen has struggled at times.
"It doesn't matter whether I pay attention or don't," Mazzaro said last week when asked how much he thought about landing a more stable role on the big-league club. "I just try to keep my head where I'm at right here."
Mazzaro added that one benefit of playing at the Triple-A level in the International League rather than the Pacific Coast League was that travel in the IL was much easier. The PCL teams are spread unevenly from Tennessee to California to Washington State, whereas IL teams are more closely bunched in the East and Midwest, and Indianapolis plays many of its games against Columbus, Louisville and Toledo, all of which are within comfortable travel distances. Mazzaro played for both Sacramento (as a member of the Athletics franchise) and Omaha (as a Royal) in the PCL.
Mazzaro said he was working on "staying crisp" at Indianapolis, focusing especially on command of his slider. He's done a nice job keeping runs off the board so far this year at Indianapolis, which can't hurt his cause, particularly since it won't be long before the September callup period.
Whatever the case, Mazzaro didn't seem particularly prone to self-pity.
"Obviously, the goal is to get back up there to where I was last year," Mazzaro said. "You just keep grinding [it] out and getting better every day."