This is part one of a two-part series. Part two will run Friday, Sept. 9
Cheney Stadium is perched high on the west side of Tacoma, Wash. It’s a picturesque setting, and spectators sitting along the third base line can admire Mount Rainier rising from the Cascade Range 50 miles away. On game days, 6,500 can squeeze into the 60-year-old stadium, welcomed by the PA broadcaster to “fans’ favorite ballpark in America.”
Cheney is home to the Tacoma Rainiers, the Triple-A-class Minor League affiliate of the Seattle Mariners, and on a balmy Thursday evening in late July, left fielder Dario Pizzano—three years removed from Columbia—is pinch-hitting in the bottom of the ninth inning.
El Paso leads 5-3, and righty Brandon Morrow looks to close out the game with two outs and a man on first.
Morrow’s first-pitch fastball crosses the plate at the numbers, and Pizzano fouls it off directly behind him. Morrow deals again quickly and drops a curveball into the middle of the zone for a called strike two. In an early hole, Pizzano steps out of the batter’s box.
Minor League Baseball is a vast, often unrecognized arm of professional baseball—easily the most robust development program of America’s major sports. Each of the 30 Major League franchises operates a constellation of minor-league affiliates—in all, 244 teams—spread across seven tiers. If the ‘majors’ are the tip of the iceberg, the ‘minors’ are its hidden mass.
Lower leagues allow prospects to hone their skills and general managers to eliminate the washouts and develop standouts into stars. The best performers are promoted through the system, and struggling players are “sent down” to regroup and improve. But every single one of the 5,000-some minor leaguers have one thing in common: an unlikely dream of someday, maybe reaching the Major Leagues—a goal which only 10 percent of minor leaguers will achieve.
Playing in Triple-A is closer than most come, but no one wants to stay there forever.
Pizzano began his minor league journey in 2012 when the Mariners selected him in the 15th round of the Amateur Draft. One month earlier, he had completed one of the best seasons in Light Blue history, raking 54 hits over just 44 games, tallying 36 RBIs, and posting a .360 batting average. His sharp eye at the plate earned him 31 walks, by far the most of any Ivy League hitter.
Pizzano signed with the Mariners the June before his senior year, and the organization whisked him off to Pulaski, Va. for “Rookie League,” the lowest domestic level in the minors.
That’s when Pizzano did the unexpected: He excelled. It’s uncommon for hitters to hit their stride quite so quickly, but his journey from New York City (population approximately nine million) to Pulaski (population totaling just over nine thousand) was surprisingly smooth. By September, Pizzano was thriving.
Ryan Young wrote of Pizzano’s success for Spectator after his first season: “By the end of his time with the Pulaski Mariners, Pizzano put up the best numbers of any hitter in… the league. In 53 games, he batted .356 with 15 doubles, a triple, four home runs, 28 RBIs, and 26 walks. He led the league with his batting average, .442 on base percentage, and .953 OPS.”
Pizzano hit well, but more importantly, he saw the ball well, routinely posting impressive “strikeout-to-walk” ratios, a viable measure of a batter’s ability to get on base. This highly valued skill set earned Pizzano a dizzying series of promotions through the minors.
At the close of his season in Pulaski, Pizzano was shipped to Short-A in Everett, Washington to catch the final six games of the season. Pizzano made enough of an impact in his stint—a .333 batting average and impressive discipline at the plate—to start the next season at Single-A in Clinton, Iowa. A strong year moved Pizzano up again, to Long-A in Adelanto, Calif., before settling in at Double-A in Jackson, Tenn. for a year and a half.
Over this stretch, Pizzano swapped out the Light Blue uniform for the jerseys of the AquaSox, the LumberKings, the Mavericks, and the Generals. In 2015, Pizzano earned the promotion to Triple-A Tacoma, where he became a Rainier, just one step away from a Mariner.
But even on the doorstep of The Show, Pizzano hadn’t lost his boyish enthusiasm. “[I’m] moving on up, man...next level!” he bellowed after batting practice in Tacoma. “One step away, one call away. Keep progressing.”
Pizzano just misses a fastball, fouling it off behind him again. Morrow’s fourth pitch—a curveball—dives into the dirt, and Pizzano doesn’t bite. The count is one-and-two as Morrow gets set once more, and the 5,145 Rainier faithful on-hand lend some encouragement to the batter.
Pizzano’s strong suits—his trained eye and ability to make contact—earned him his ticket to Tacoma, according to Rainiers manager Pat Listach.
“My first impression is that he’s a guy who knows how to get on base. He’s an on-base guy,” Listach said. “Those are things that got him to this level. His bat is his ticket to the big leagues, and he knows that.”
Courtesy of Tacoma Rainiers / Red Williamson
But this next step that Listach lays out—the jump to the “big leagues”—isn’t a trivial one.
“Yeah, I was in the show,” journeyman catcher Crash Davis tells his teammates in the 1988 baseball classic Bull Durham. “I was in the show for 21 days once—the 21 greatest days of my life. You know, you never handle your luggage in the show, somebody else carries your bags. It was great. You hit white balls for batting practice, the ballparks are like cathedrals, the hotels all have room service...”
Davis earns the rapt attention of his teammates, all a decade younger than he, as he finds the truth of the minors. Everyone is trapped between two forces: a sincere sense of self-worth, earned after slogging through the minors, and a burning desire to finally reach The Show.
Pizzano knows this balance well.
“There’s a feel of this league, man. A feel,” he said after a game in early July. “You don’t want to think about it, because it’s still the same game, but I keep thinking, ‘I’m in Triple-A now.’”
Pizzano’s gut feeling isn’t unique: There’s a high-pressure aura in which Cheney marinates on game days, cultivated in equal parts by Major League veterans striving to return and younger call-ups hoping to debut.
This pressure spills off the diamond and permeates the entire stadium.
“I think that pressure to perform is pretty common anywhere in pro baseball, but it really ratchets up in Triple-A,” Rainiers broadcaster Mike Curto explained. When batters bemoan a strikeout, it isn’t just a dash to their ego—it’s an opportunity wasted. Indeed, every bad chop, hitless slump, or error holds more gravity for the individual.
And while a clear majority (about 70 percent) of Triple-A players will eventually make it to the majors, most don’t last very long.
“For a lot of these guys, it’s not about making it,” Listach says. “It’s about staying there.”
Safeco Field, home of the Mariners, is tantalizingly close—just about 45 minutes straight north on the Interstate 5—but at times, it feels a lot farther.
This realization didn’t come immediately for Pizzano. “The first week was great. … It was awesome to be labeled: You made it to the next level,” he said. But then, he said, “You’re in the next level, [now] you have to make an adjustment.”
Morrow’s next pitch misses high and away. It’s not easy to check a swing on a borderline pitch with the game on the line, but Pizzano stays home and gets the call: two balls and two strikes.
Midway through the season, Pizzano is batting .259 with 27 RBIs and a pair of home runs, modest figures compared to his scorching numbers in prior minor league stops, but within his target range. And he’s aware of that. “[At] every level there’s a series of adjustments that have to be made,” he said. “Adjusting to the league, the travel, the talent.”
But it’s Pizzano’s walks—the bread and butter of his toolkit—that have declined. After earning between 30 and 60 free bases in his first few years, Pizzano struggled to work the count in Tacoma, only cracking a dozen by late July.
Anders Jorstad of SB Nation’s scouting blog, “Lookout Landing,” featured Pizzano in a profile about a month earlier and zeroed in on the same problem.
“He's facing a real challenge in Tacoma so far. … His strikeout rate has ballooned to 17.6%, while his walk rate is a career-low 5.9%,” Jorstad wrote. “Triple-A is often where fringe prospects like him get exposed; whether he is able to turn it around will say a lot about his potential to make an impact in the majors as well.”
Curto, the broadcaster, isn’t surprised by this drop.
“Pitchers have much better control in Triple-A, especially with their breaking and offspeed pitches,” he said. “They just aren’t throwing him strikes—pitchers are coming right after him. They’re challenging him more.”
Pizzano is in the midst of addressing this problem, and he thinks that it’s largely mental.
“Usually, I’ve hit in the three or four spot, playing every day,” Pizzano said, referring to his starting spot as cleanup hitter with Columbia, Pulaski, and Clinton. “But we got a veteran group [in Tacoma]; we’re a very talented team, and a lot of guys who have been in the big leagues. I’ve got to play when I play.”
Amid the veteran lineup—including legitimate Major League contributors Mike Zunino and Franklin Gutierrez—Pizzano feels the pressure to stand out.
“Whenever they put me in, I try to make the most of my opportunities and get the job done,” he said. “I put pressure on myself and said, ‘If I’m not playing tomorrow, I have to get three hits today.’”
This fallacy stung Pizzano in the early part of the year, and he struggled over his first several weeks. It wasn’t his first slump in his professional career—he went through a similar hitless streak in Clinton in 2013—but it was one of his toughest.
“I started spiraling out of control at the start,” Pizzano admitted. “Now I’m just trying to take it at-bat by at-bat. It’s starting to click a little bit, though.”
And a week after the El Paso game, Pizzano reached the 200 at-bat benchmark. “That’s the point where you start to be comfortable,” he said. “So, I’m starting to feel like I belong. It’s starting to feel a little more comfortable.”
Morrow’s next pitch nicks the upper corner of the strike zone, and Pizzano slaps it away, foul, down the left field line. The count remains 2-2.
Pizzano is stocky, built more like a wrestler than an outfielder, and puts his 5’11, 200-pound frame into his swing. It’s not quite a Dustin Pedroia-esque contortion, but a full-body affair nonetheless. As the ball approaches, his inside shoulder dips into the plate, and his arms extend to maximize leverage.
It may not be a home run formula, but Jorstad, the blogger, likes the lefty’s stroke.
Courtesy of Tacoma Rainiers / Red Williamson
“Pizzano can control the strike zone, swing the bat, and he's hit at every level,” he wrote.
The swing is a good metaphor for Triple-A ball: big league quality, with a faint but present rawness. While the game isn’t sloppy, it’s a little looser. In a way, it’s more exciting. Hard-hit grounders and hooking fly balls are never sure outs, and batters in 0-2 holes swing their heads in frustration.
But these moments are outweighed by flashes of big league brilliance: Fastballs top out at 99 miles per hour, pitchers hang 12-to-6 curve balls that drop over the plate, and a week before the El Paso game, catcher Jesus Sucre saved the Rainiers’ game twice with gutsy tags at the plate.
The notion that Minor League Baseball isn’t elite couldn’t be more wrong, and Pizzano has proven this himself on several occasions with the Rainiers.
In an early June contest against the Las Vegas 51s (affiliate of the New York Mets), Pizzano lit up the scoreboard. Facing Major League veteran Rafael Montero in his first at-bat, Pizzano smashed a line drive into left field for a triple—his first with Tacoma.
A couple innings later, he squared off against reliever Paul Sewald, who took advantage of Pizzano’s short stature to pitch low-and-away. Down 1-2, Pizzano managed to get a handle of Sewald’s offering. Pizzano turned on the ball and crushed a home run to right field to cap off a 3-for-4 night. “I just reacted to it,” he said.
And earlier in July, Pizzano marked his first three-RBI game with an impressive individual performance against El Paso, notching a trio of gritty singles and ending a 2-for-20 skid. “I did all right,” he said after the game. “That should happen more this season.”
Pizzano is modest in his appraisal of his offensive ability, crediting team successes for his prowess at the plate. “When you get going, hitting is contagious,” he smiled.
But an array of statistic wonks and Minor League bloggers see something truly special in Pizzano. At the start of the 2016 season, Brian Helberg of Fansided pegged Pizzano as a top prospect.
“Dario Pizzano can flat out hit the baseball,” he wrote.
Carson Cistulli of FanGraphs included Pizzano in his weekly roundup of minor league prospects several times in 2014, noting his “surprising offensive skills” for a batter under six feet tall.
And as Pizzano racks up at-bats, it’s clear that he’s finding his groove in Triple-A. But Listach, Pizzano’s manager in Tacoma, is candid about his room for improvement.
“He knows what he needs to improve upon. It’s his defense,” Listach said. “It’s been what has been keeping him back.”
Helberg, the blogger who sang Pizzano’s praises at the plate, sees his lack of defense as a real liability.
“He is steady with the leather, but his lack of athleticism limits his range,” he wrote.
It’s not that Pizzano is sloppy. It’s that he doesn’t always make the “50-50” plays, like a diving catch on a tailing line drive, or an outfield assist to nab a runner pushing for extra bases. In fact, Pizzano has managed only one assist in 441 innings with Tacoma.
A day after the El Paso game, Pizzano made the start in left field. With a man on first and no one out, the batter sent a screaming line drive into Pizzano’s territory.
Pizzano ranged to his right as the ball hooked away. Four steps later, he stretched out to snag the ball at waist height.
Great play? Probably not. But it wasn’t a gimme.
Morrow looks in for the sign as the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive” is pumped into the stadium over the loudspeakers. The count is still two-and-two.
It can be just a whisker of difference that distinguishes a big league contributor from a Minor League journeyman. But the production of the Minor League game—from the stadium seating to the mid-inning entertainment—is entirely distinct.
While Marine choirs belt the National Anthem at Fenway, nervous high schoolers at Cheney Stadium choke on the lyrics, producing halting, often teary, renditions. And far from the rehearsed displays of the “Mariner Moose” or the “Philly Fanatic,” the Rainiers staff pumps up its fans in much more human ways.
On a mid-July summer night, a 20-something Tacoman nicknamed “The Lituation” serves as an auxiliary mascot, beloved by the Rainiers faithful. The in-house hype man sprints up and down the stairs, leading a trail of little leaguers in a war cry. The big screen disrupts the middle of the fifth inning to announce the start of something called “Cop Party,” which turns out to be live footage of first-responders drinking beer—seriously, that’s it.
There’s something hokey—even cheesy—about the production (especially when the crowd joined together to sing the 1983 ballad “Red, Red Wine”), but there’s also a certain egalitarianism of the game in Tacoma. While tickets to The Show can easily go for hundreds of dollars for a decent seat, ticket prices at Cheney start at $5.50 and top out at $11.50.
Tacoma is not middle America. It’s home to the state’s largest port, a handful of universities, and 200,000 diverse residents. But Cheney Stadium cultivates a small town culture. And as the sky darkens and the lights turn on, “The Lituation” returns to lead a conga line around the stadium concourse.
It’s 8:36 p.m. as Morrow releases the final pitch. After a 30-minute break, the two sides will go back at it for game two of the doubleheader, which won’t end until 11:30 p.m.
Luckily for Pizzano, the Rainiers are in the middle of a homestand. But last week’s game against the Oklahoma City Dodgers stretched until 10:15 p.m the night before a road trip to Reno.
In lower leagues, teams can drive from one ballpark to another, and players ride buses to all away games. But in Triple-A, schedules are packed with opponents in Nashville and New Orleans, and the upgrade from Greyhounds to 737s, according to Pizzano, isn’t as great as it sounds.
“Well, actually, it’s worse,” he laughed. The franchise can afford to send the team on the road, but books cheap flights to save money. And when cutting costs, the bargain flights often board just hours after the final pitch.
“We go to the airports at 3:30, 4:00 a.m.,” Pizzano said. But he’s not complaining. “It is what it is. At every level, there’s adjustments that have to be made, and not just on the field.”
The tough travel schedule isn’t the only drag on minor leaguers: The exorbitant salaries and perks Major Leaguers receive often obscure the day-to-day difficulties faced by the legions of prospects yearning for a big league contract.
Strong bargaining power by the MLB Players’ Association secured a minimum big league salary of over $500,000 last year, but the average major leaguer scoops up far more (close to $4 million, according to MLB.com). And aside from salaries, big leaguers receive other perks: free agency rights, fancy hotels, and $100 road trip per diems.
Minor Leaguers, who can’t vote in the Players Association, make cents on the All Star’s dollar: A first-year Triple-A call-up like Pizzano makes just about $2,150 per month during the season—that’s the minimum, but the Rainiers declined to publicize the details of Pizzano’s contract. Though low, this bottom line increases for minor league veterans, and is a big step up from the $1,500 salaries of lower levels.
“You really count all the hours that a player spends at the ballpark, and most of them don’t make minimum wage,” The Ringer contributor Rany Jazayerli told Spectator this past March. “...They’re looking for $5,000, maybe $10,000 a year, tops. And you can’t live on that.”
The paltry salary is subject to scrutiny (and the basis of a pending minimum wage lawsuit filed by three ex-minor leaguers), but also just part of the challenge. Former minor leaguers describe crowding into shared motel rooms for season-long stretches, struggling for sleep on road trips, and the art of stretching a $25 per diem into three meals at the closest drive-thru.
But it’s the implicit competition that weighs the most on minor leaguers.
“Almost everyone you play is either in the big leagues or on their way,” Pizzano explained on Triple-A. “To play with guys like that? It’s great, but I have to learn how to be a different role on this team.”
Pizzano is no cutthroat—he’s humble and gracious toward his teammates’ successes—but he’s not immune to the big league bug.
“I’m not playing as much as I would like to,” he said after sitting out a game in mid-July. “I need to take advantage of every opportunity that’s dealt to me. … It’s just how it is when you get to the top level. There are guys coming down and guys on the roster. We’ve all got to play.”
And for every Dario Pizzano hoping to debut in The Show, there’s a 50-game Major League veteran striving to impress the organization and find his way back.
There are even former first-round draft picks, like El Paso’s Morrow, who washed up after seven seasons as a starter and swapped out the big league life for a swan song in the minors.
Behind the boyish optimism present in the clubhouse, the constant possibility of relocation and the specter of job insecurity can be crippling for the 20-somethings.
“It’s tough to get that team chemistry going where guys are going up and down all the time,” Pizzano explained. “You don’t always feel comfortable and know your role on the team.”
It’s a scene far-off from Pizzano’s days playing at Robertson field in the Light Blue.
“When you’re home, you generally feel like you have an advantage,” he said. But Tacoma isn’t home—at least not yet. “I’ve never lived here before,” he shrugged.
Morrow’s seventh pitch of the at-bat finds the bottom part of the strike zone. Pizzano’s swing just nicks the top of the ball, and sends the ball rolling toward the mound.
Part two of “Columbia’s Man in the Minors: Summertime in Baseball, USA” will run Friday, Sept. 9.