Saturday, June 16, 2018

Nowhere to run

Michael Kopech
It's tougher than ever to struggle these days if you're a professional baseball player, especially a highly-touted one. Chicago White Sox pitching prospect Michael Kopech, selected by the Boston Red Sox in the first round of the 2014 MLB Draft, number 33 overall, is having a rocky time of it down in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he's pitching for the Knights, the White Sox AAA minor league team. In his last start, the twenty-two year old walked eight and allowed five earned runs in only three innings, his second poor outing in a row; he gave up five free passes in six innings on June 8. “Obviously he had a struggle commanding the fastball,” White Sox manager Rick Renteria said.
I think he was 23 of 60-plus pitches in terms of strikes, which is not a good ratio. Just continue to get back to the drawing board, work through his side work, get back and hopefully try to get in a position where he’s commanding the fastball and able to use his secondary pitches. … He has had a few tough ones.
All of this is normal for a player in the minor leagues, where he's expected to struggle as he faces increasingly elite competition on his way, hopefully, to the bigs. What's different now is the nearly obscene amount of scrutiny such a player faces. When I was a kid and I heard on the radio or during a broadcast or read in the paper that a player was being "sent down" to the Minors, down may as well have been Antarctica. He'd vanish off the radar: I'd rarely hear about him again, let alone follow his daily progress, until the day he was promoted back to the Major League team. If he never made it back...well, see ya. He'd be banished from my daily knowledge of the team, maybe make an appearance in a dream or an unbidden memory a decade on. When a player I really liked, Ruppert Jones of the far-away Seattle Mariners, was injured during the 1978 season, I called Ken Beatrice, a radio sports talk show host on Washington D.C.'s WMAL, for an update on his status. Beatrice didn't have an iPad in front of him, a tab open to MiLB.com. He probably made up something, and went on to a more interesting caller. I hung up the phone, and continued imagining where Jones was, and what he was doing.

Things are vastly different now. I read about Kopech's struggles in the Chicago Tribune, can track his AAA efforts pitch-by-pitch online, can an even watch the Knights play on television, a development unheard-of when I was a kid. There is a massive amount of attention paid to all levels of professional sports now, and a demotion to the Minors—which might as well have been an actual farm for all I understood when I was twelve—is no longer an escape into obscurity. There are bright lights everywhere, now. Little about my comments here is new, yet I'm still occasionally startled by how unprecedented media coverage is in this century, and of how we're unable to gauge its impact on the future.

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