Baseball season is underway in the United States, and for fans this is the time to enjoy the pleasures of watching the game and rooting for their team. But for professional players on a minor league team, it is a time to prove their talents in hopes of being recruited to move up and play for a team in the North American Professional Baseball League.
Two teams: the home team Bowie Baysox, and the Akron Aeros, go through their pre-game warm-ups on a cool spring afternoon.
A different kind of baseball
Fans like Marty Lieberman see the new baseball season as a sure sign that winter is over.
"First pitch. To me, it's the first day of summer," Lieberman said.
But while the major league Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles play close by, this is a different kind of baseball… this is what is called the minor leagues.
For minor league fans like Lieberman, the ballpark offers a more intimate environment than the larger major league stadiums.
"Players. You get to meet them, you get to talk to them," he explained. "You get to shake their hands once in awhile, they'll sign autographs. It's more personal."
The Bowie Baysox is what's called a minor league double-A ballclub. There are also minor league triple-A teams, one step above in terms of talent, and then the major leagues. Athletes at the minor league level compete and play hard, because there is more at stake than winning the game.
"It's not so win-oriented, Baysox Manager Brad Komminsk said. "It's nice to win, but our main focus here is developing players and getting them up to Triple-A as soon as possible."
Stakes are high
Baysox first baseman Brandon Snyder has been through his share of ups and downs in the Orioles' minor league system. Snyder is eager to show he is ready for the next step. "Knowing I'm this close [to the majors] just makes me want to work harder and get ready to go," Snyder said.
Troy Patton, the Baysox' pitcher, is returning from surgery on his injured shoulder, which caused him to miss the entire season last year. Despite the setback, he, like his teammate Snyder, is also eager and optimistic. "It's [Baysox is] a good launching pad," Patton said. "I mean, it's a great league to play in, and a good place to show that I'm healthy, and show that I'm ready to be back there and be ready to pitch at a higher level than here at Double-A."
In 2007, Patton was a promising young pitcher acquired from the major league Houston Astros in a high-profile, multi-player trade.
A big gamble then, with the stakes even higher now, after the injury. The Orioles and Patton hope the gamble will pay off in 2009.
But on this night, Patton must first take a small, important step in his developing baseball career. His approach is a simple one. "It's get ahead, throw the ball for strikes early is always the approach," he said.
The game is a pitcher's duel, highlighted by strikeouts and sparkling defensive plays.
Even some fans got into the act.
"You know I was never really bred into it [playing ball]," Snyder said. "But I automatically just loved it, followed him [his father]. Always going to games, playing all the time, and that's what I do [is play baseball]."
Both Patton and Snyder had a good day. Patton threw six innings of shutout ball [no runs were scored] … while Snyder hit a sacrifice fly [a popped-up ball caught by an opposing fielder but which allowed a teammate] to score the first run, and contributed on the field.
For minor leaguers like Patton and Snyder, advancing to the big leagues would be even sweeter.