When thinking about minor league baseball, images of ballplayers in their early 20s usually spring to mind—a bunch of kids out there trying to perfect their craft so they may earn a call to the big leagues, hopefully soon. That does describe a large swath of the residents of minor league baseball, truly—but unfortunately, not every minor league ballplayer is a top prospect or even a prospect at all. Rather, there are those who toil away in the minor leagues for years and years, waiting and waiting for the call to the big leagues. 20 years old turns into 25, and sometimes 25 turns into 30.
Though the population is small, every year there seems to be a group of players aged 30 years and older who have yet to see a day in the majors, but continue to labor in the minor leagues hoping one day, eventually, they may get their turn. 31-year-old New York Mets outfielder Jesus Feliciano was one such player. While many are firmly established in the majors by his age, he spent over a decade in the minors, with 2010 being his 13th season. Since 2007, he has been in the Mets organization, though he is well-traveled—he also spent time as a Dodgers, Devil Rays and Nationals farmhand. In his first year as a Mets minor leaguer, he hit .315. He followed that up with a .308 mark, and then .311. He was hitting .385 in 2010 before finally achieving his dream of earning a call to the major leagues.
There are others like him in 2010, 30-somethings who haven’t played in the majors, yet refuse to let the dream die. For example, the Tampa Bay Rays’ Triple-A affiliate Durham Bulls feature Joe Bateman, who turned 30 on May 6. Over the course of his nine-year minor league career, he has gone 37-27 with 50 saves and a 2.83 ERA in 346 games. 2010 has been one of his best years to date, as he has posted a 2-0 record with a 1.36 ERA in 22 appearances. Though his numbers look excellent, he has one thing going against him—he is a minor league relief pitcher. It seems that they often have to wait…and wait…and wait to earn a call to the majors, even when they regularly post ERAs under three in the minor leagues. Bateman is one example. Lee Gronkiewicz, who had a 2.43 ERA in nine minor league seasons and yet spent only one game (at the age of 28) in the majors, is another.
30-year-old Corey Hamman has also spent nine seasons in the minors, currently chasing the dream with the Indianapolis Indians in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. Like Joe Bateman, Hamman is a relief pitcher—but unlike Bateman, Hamman is a struggling relief pitcher. His career ERA is 4.25—he hasn’t posted an ERA under 4 since 2004—and thus far in 2010 he has an ERA of 6.23. In 2009, he had a 5.88 ERA. After the way Bateman has pitched this year, he very well could earn an eventual call-up to the major leagues—though it seems that fellow relief pitcher Hamman may have to wait just a bit longer.
Hamman’s teammate Erik Kratz, who turns 30 in less than one week, may also earn a promotion this season, leaving Hamman behind as the sole 30-year-old career minor leaguer on the team. The catcher has hit .324 in 31 games for Indianapolis, belting 14 doubles, one triple and five home runs for a .611 slugging percentage. After struggling in the Toronto Blue Jays’ organization for most of his first seven seasons, he has begun to turn it around as a Pirates farmhand. If the big club’s backup catcher Jason Jaramillo keeps struggling—he’s hitting only .182—Kratz might receive the call he’s always waited for.
Born on July 7, 1979, Chase Lambin is one of the last active 70s-born career minor leaguers. Despite having that semi-dubious distinction, he continues plying his trade, hoping that one day he too will earn the chance to play on a big league ball field. The slugger has helped his case in 2010 as he has hit .299 with seven home runs and a .505 slugging percentage. While power is often in high demand in the majors, some of the minors’ heavy hitters fall through the cracks nevertheless. Lambin, who has hit as many as 24 home runs in a season, could be considered one of those types. That might be the case, yet Lambin has continued to play and perform at the minor league level anxiously awaiting his chance.
The list continues. Max St. Pierre, who is 30 and in his 14th minor league season (each of which has been spent in the Detroit Tigers system) has yet to play in the majors. 33-year-old Brian Mazone is still trucking along for the LeHigh Valley IronPigs in the Philadelphia Phillies system. The Norfolk Tides’ Andy Mitchell (31 years old), the Scranton Wilkes-Barre Yankees’ Jon Weber (32) and Amaury Sanit (30), the Charlotte Knights Javier Colina (31) and the Gwinnett Braves J.C. Boscan (30) and West Timmons (30) all yearn for the day as well.
And yet there are more. Hyang-Nam Choi—the oldest active career minor leaguer (granted his minor league career spans only three seasons since he’d pitched in Korea previously…the oldest “all-American” career minor leaguer is Brian Mazone, mentioned above) —is 39 years old and hasn’t yet felt the glory of playing in the big leagues. Neither have John Lindsey (33), Amaury Cazana (35), Kyle Middleton (30), Gary Patchett (31), Gabe DeHoyos (30), Kasey Olenberger (32), John Raburn (31)—and not to mention the glut of Mexican Leaguers 30 and older—and still, they hold out hope.
All the aforementioned players are in Triple-A, the rung just below the big leagues. This of course makes sense—the older players are the more experienced, so they play at the minor league level that requires the most experience. There are some players, however, that though they are aged 30 years or older, that currently play lower than the Triple-A level. Take Paul Bush, who is currently on the disabled list at the Double-A level, for example. He is 30 years old and has been around since 2002, and—though he has spent some time at Triple-A, has spent more time at Double-A than at the highest level of minor league baseball. Another veteran career minor leaguer would be 31-year-old Derrick Ellison, and yet another would be 30-year-old Tagg Bozied.
Is it possible that there are 30-year-old career minor leaguers even at the Single-A level? Indeed it is. Understandably rare and elusive, the 30-year-old (31-year-old, actually) Single-A ballplayer does in fact exist, and his name is Keoni De Renne. Currently, the Hawaii-born De Renne is playing for the Lakewood Blue Claws, a Philadelphia Phillies farm team. He might just be a temporary lodger, however, as he has also spent time at Double-A this season.
The hardened veterans of minor league baseball know that each year they get older, and that each year it becomes increasingly difficult for them to earn a spot on a major league team. Many retire before long, giving up hope and finding a new line of work. Yet, there are always a few, a handful of ballplayers who despite their ever-increasing age continue to slave away on the farm with the undying vision of one day donning a big league uniform and playing at the highest level of professional baseball in the entire world. Within the vast ocean of minor leaguers these few dozen wizening vets often go unnoticed among their baby-faced teammates and counterparts. Yet, they yearn. They hope. They dream. And they play. Still they play.