Even on the Spring Training fields in Peoria, there is quite a bit of glitz and glamour for players. Adoring fans line up to get autographs, women scream for Tommy Medica, and players perform in front of Fox Sports cameras. This is the life for the Matt Kemps and Wil Myers of the world. It’s also the life for Padres prospects that Topps has made baseball cards of and whom John Sickels and Kiley McDaniels have initiated coverage of, let’s use Austin Hedges or Matt Wisler as an example. A lot of this caliber of players rent houses in the Phoenix suburbs to house them during Spring Training, play golf after morning workouts, and have their families staying nearby.
As I learned this weekend there is a whole other side of Spring Training when you aren’t a name that means anything to the average Padres fan. At a tired looking Country Inn and Suites in Deer Valley, AZ, located about 10 miles from the Peoria stadium, the bottom tiers of the Padres minor leagues are put up by the team. The players are easy to spot, just pick out any guy going through the lobby that’s over 6 feet tall and odds are that they are Padres property. A lot of the guys are from the Dominican, and English was very much a second language at best for many of them. These players are part of a highly structured program including curfews, bed checks, and a shuttle to the backfields. I asked a player why they got put up in Deer Valley, instead of the multitude of Peoria hotel options that Padres front office staff and front line players/prospects inhabit. Like most things, it apparently comes down to money. The Country Inn and Suites is on average $109/night cheaper. The player also speculated it was also because there is little if any night life nearby the Deer Valley hotel, unlike Peoria which is surrounded by bars and entertainment. The players are a captive audience in Deer Valley.
The weekend I was there, a large group of kids and parents from Cypress were in town for a travel baseball tournament. Everytime one of the players came through the lobby carrying fast food bags, 11 yr olds swarmed them asking for an autograph on their baseball. These autographs were quickly followed by a “Who was he?” question for their parents, to be followed by a shrug. Even after talking to some of the players and finding out their names, I had to google them to find out who they were. We aren’t talking the Cory Spangenberg, Travis Jankowski or Rico Noel caliber of players that may get an inning or two in that days Spring Training game. We are talking the Mason Smith, Miguel Gonzalez, or Rafael De Paulas of the world. De Paula was caught up in a scandal related to his age being understated before the Padres acquired him in the Chase Headley trade. I jokingly asked him how old he was, which received a chuckle, and almost definitely muttering under his breath about the know nothing zilch asking the question as he walked away.
While their focus is on baseball, it’s also on women. These players are living under an 11 PM curfew that includes Padres personnel doing a room check at 11. I asked one of the players if AJ Preller ever does the bed checks himself. He laughed and said he wouldn’t put it past him. The 11 PM curfew means these guys need to hustle, get their business done, and get the girl out of the Country Inn and Suites before 11. Right before 11, I counted 6 different women walk of shaming to their cars after apparent trysts. Some of the travel ball parents turned the 11 PM hook up departure into a nightly event, gathering on the back patio to have some beers and watch the parade. Some of the players joined some of the more attractive travel ball moms in the Country Inn and Suites hot tub, hoping to pick one of them up. They failed (I think) but I applauded the effort.
The players gather in the morning for their 7 AM shuttle to the Peoria Sportsplex. Like a fraternity house after a party, the guys were swapping stories about the previous nights conquests, ribbing each other, or zoning out with headphones.
In the end, I felt for these players. Obviously with tons of talent and ambition, they are grinding to have their dreams come true in less than glamorous conditions. They were friendly, personable, and I think genuinely enjoyed the adulation from the travel ball kids. It’s not all glamour and luxury in Spring Training for Padres players. It’s also a lot of Country Inn and Suites, McDonalds and grinding to advance in the system.