Best of the Rest: Local minor leaguers dream of life in ‘The Show’

08/17/2011 7:50 AM |

GARRET MEADE FILE PHOTO | Dave Kubiak pitching for the Southold/Greenport Clippers in March 2007.

In minor league baseball, it is important not to get stuck in one town or on one team for an extended length of time. You want to keep moving up the ladder to reach the ultimate goal known as “The Show.”

The major leagues are the rare place only Shoreham-Wading River graduate Keith Osik has reached locally. But that doesn’t mean he’s the only one who’s tried.

Two aspiring area players, Southold High School graduate Dave Kubiak and Miller Place’s Kevin Mahoney received calls out of the blue earlier this season that sent them in different directions.

Less than 24 hours after blowing the lead and losing the game while surrendering his first home run, Kubiak learned he was getting promoted from the Gulf Coast Rays in the Gulf Coast League to the Princeton Rays in the Appalachian League in the Tampa Bay Rays organization.

Life sure can work in some unusual ways.

“I guess so,” Kubiak said. “I was real surprised. I wasn’t going to tell them no.”

Even though he was doing well with the Tampa Yankees in the Florida State hitting a solid .287 as an infielder, Mahoney was stunned to learn when he was heading toward a lower league through no fault of his own — to the Charleston RiverDogs in the South Atlantic League in the middle of June.

The Yankees had to make room for several players who were signed to higher bonuses.

“There just wasn’t any room for me to play there and I wasn’t going to play so I got sent down,” Mahoney said. “The big thing is to be patient. You’ve just go to wait for your opportunities that when you get them, you need to perform.”

Through last weekend, the left-handed hitting infielder is hitting .277 with seven home runs and 40 RBI in 93 games.

“They cared enough about me to put me into an everyday playing role,” Mahoney said. “That’s always good that they care about me. They’re not going to let me sit on the bench and play and basically let me be a fill-in guy.”

Welcome to the minor leagues, where the pay is terrible, the travel is tough and the hours are unusual.

Yet, neither player would have it any other way.

YANKEES COURTESY PHOTO | Kevin Mahoney said reaching the big leagues remains his dream.

Mahoney, 24, is in his third year in the minors, where moving around is common place. In 2009, he played for the Gulf Coast League Yankees. Last year, he performed for four clubs — the Staten Island Yankees (New York-Penn League), Charleston, Tampa and Trenton Thunder (Eastern League in AA ball).

“I love baseball,” he said in a recent interview. “It has been my life for my whole life. There’s days when you can’t wake up in the morning and when you do, you feel just so terrible, your muscles ache and you can barely roll out of bed. You’re saying, ‘I do not want to go play today’ and you realize I have to roll out of bed because I am playing. That’s what I’m doing — is playing a game.

“It really motivates you that a bad day on the field in baseball is a heck of a lot better than a better day sitting in the office. Not many people get to play a sport for a living and I’m one of them. Just waking up every day being able to do that is a great honor. It’s been my life for so long. Now I get the opportunity to pretty much become a big leaguer like any other kid whose dreams were in the backyard playing wiffle ball, pretending to be Derek Jeter and all those people. One day I could be a big leaguer, too. It’s really cool.”

Kubiak and Mahoney perform in organizations that have differing philosophies in developing players. The Rays like to keep their players. Kubiak noted that the Tampa Bay pitching staff is home grown.

The Yankees, on the other hand, are not afraid of trading their prospects for short-term payoffs to bulk up for the post-season.

Both players understand and are comfortable with their situations and organizations.

“They don’t have the money to go out and buy big free agents and stuff, which is awesome for me,” Kubiak said. “I would rather them try to develop somebody like me, whatever, to go out, instead of somebody like the Yankees who would go and buy someone to fill a spot. Not bashing the Yankees at all, but . . .”

And speaking of the Yankees, Mahoney, who lists several current and retired Yankees as among his favorite players, knew what he was getting into when he was drafted by the club.

And besides, there are always trades involving minor league prospects.

“Those stories always get thrown around in minor league ball when guys are down in the dumps or aren’t playing every day or aren’t playing at all,” Mahoney said. “Those stories are like a little bit of fuel to get you through those periods of time.”

Mahoney cited third baseman Jimmy Paredes, a former Yankees prospect who was traded, played in AA ball earlier this season and is now performing for the Houston Astros.

“You wait for your opportunity and trades are definitely an opportunity for you to make it to the big leagues,” he said. “It could happen. Over a year it could happen.”

Mahoney isn’t the only local high school product currently in the Yankees farm system. Rocky Point graduate Dan Burawa is in his first full season as a Yankees minor leaguer and he’s also split time between Charleston and Tampa this year, appearing in 33 games as a reliever.

Burawa, a 12th round pick out of St. John’s, has pitched 71 innings for a 3-3 record and a 3.52 ERA this season.

Kubiak, 22, is in his first season after he was drafted by the Rays in June following a career at the University of Albany. So, it has been an eye-opener.

“To play Division I baseball, you see a lot of good talent,” he said. “There’s some teams that you see are a lot better than other teams. Some players really standout. It’s funny how you really haven’t seen one person or anything that doesn’t stand out to be here because everyone is just very, very good. Every player makes the routine plays look routine. They look so athletic and everybody is so fast here. That is a little bit of a change.”

Through last weekend’s games, the 6-7, 245 pound right-hander has a 2-2 record with a 3.80 ERA, striking out 29 and walking only four in 21 innings over 12 appearances. He has allowed four homers.

“I really didn’t change too much my pitching approach,” Kubiak said.  “I don’t throw 95, so I’m not going to throw the ball by anybody. I kind of just pitch to contact. I have been doing pretty well with that.”

While many in The Show are millionaires, minor leaguers, especially those in Class A ball, are on a perpetual austerity league budget. Salaries range from $1,000 to $1,250 per month — yes —that’s per month, not week. And that includes room and board, which doesn’t leave room for other living expenses.

Kubiak figured he usually has $650 left over after taxes and expenses.

“Not the millions everyone thinks it is yet,” he said. “But hopefully they’re coming.”

“You really don’t walk away with much if you do walk away with anything at all,” Mahoney said.

So, the major league minimum of $414,500 looks like a grand pot of gold.

“I sure as hell wouldn’t mind taking that minimum,” Kubiak said.

In the minors, players have to watch every penny, especially since players have to pay for their own gear.

Mahoney said he was still paying off an order of 12 bats that cost him $450.

“And that’s pretty much a whole pay check of mine,” he said.

“Every time you break a bat, it’s an $80 hit or $80 broken bat. So every time you see a minor leaguer break a bat, that hurts in the wallet,” he added with a laugh.

“You don’t play for money when you’re in the minors, that’s for sure. You play for the love of the game. You play for the opportunity that you might be a big leaguer one time and you make a lot of money.”

It’s more than money. The minor leagues in any sport is a unique life style where most of the traveling between cities is by bus.

“I happen to love bus trips,” Kubiak said. “Some people will think I’m nuts, but being on a bus for seven hours, between sleeping and talking to the kids on your team and getting to know everybody, there’s always movies on. We get DirecTV on our bus. We haven’t had too long of a road trip yet. We have a six-day road trip coming up, where there’s s seven-hour bus trip in there. I like it.”

When he was in the Florida State League, Mahoney said he did not have to travel that much. The longest trip was four hours, while most trips were an hour or less, so players got an opportunity to sleep in their own beds. The South Atlantic League, however, is another matter.

“We’re on one of the worst road trips ever,” Mahoney said. “We’ve had a four-game series at home. We got on a bus on our off day to travel 7 1/2 hours to Charleston, W.Va. We had a sleeper bus with a whole bunch of beds and that kind of stuff. We left at eight o’clock and got in at four in the morning. We’ve got four games here and after tomorrow’s game, we have a seven o’clock game followed by a 7 1/2-hour bus trip, getting in at six or seven a.m. Then we have a 5 p.m. the same day.”

But Mahoney wasn’t complaining.

“You get used to it,” he said. “We’re lucky that we have this job. This is what I call a job.”

He then chuckled.

“We have a job that we get to sleep in really late,” he said. “We don’t have to be at the field until one or two o’clock and away three o’clock. We’re up late and we’re not going to bed until two, three or four in the morning. But we get to sleep in later, so its kind of like a night job.”

Regardless of what transpires, it doesn’t sound like either player is about to throw in the towel or his glove any time soon. They’re going to have to wrestle the ball or bat out of their hands and rip their jerseys off their backs to get them out of pursuing their goals.

“My goal is to play this game until someone comes out to the mound and says you are not good enough any more to play this game,” Kubiak said. “Wherever that takes me — obviously, I would love to make it to make it to the big leagues. It has been my dream since I was a little kid. That’s my goal, to play as long and try to get as good as humanly possible for me, not give up any sooner and really push myself until I reach however good I can be. Only God knows that.”

Mahoney had similar sentiments.

“Basically all these games we are playing right now is preparing for the big leagues,” he said. “You have one goal — the big leagues. Not a lot of people say I got to play A ball. You were a big leaguer or you weren’t. Right now you’re in a gray area that you hope one day you get that call. You play your butt off until you get that opportunity.

“I’m just going to keep going until they take the jersey off my back. Even if I wasn’t a choice to be a big leaguer, I’m still going to try. If I’m a big leaguer and they say, you’re not going to be a big leaguer any more, you can hang them up, I’m still going to say, ‘Well, I don’t believe you.’ When I can’t physically play any more, that’s going to be the last day I play. When I wake up and say, ‘I don’t want to play any more,’ that’ll be the day. That’s not any time soon.”