Seeking Out Answers on the Minor League Trail; For Sullivan, Class AAA Proves a Difficult Hurdle

October 5, 1999

Brendan Sullivan is a 1993 graduate of St. Albans, where he was an All-Met selection. During the season, he has chronicled his experiences as a pitcher with the Las Vegas Stars in the minor league system of the San Diego Padres. This is his final journal of the season.

LAS VEGAS - In baseball, failure of any kind produces an immediate search for reasons and excuses.

Bad outings are often blamed on umpires, teammates and coaches; bad weeks on mechanical glitches or arm soreness; bad months on the ups and downs of the game. But what about bad seasons?

There were stretches of this past season, my first in Class AAA, during which I was very good. I had games where I dominated and no balls left the infield. I had series in which I would pitch effectively in three of the four games. I went almost a month surrendering just one run and without giving up a hit to a right-handed batter.

But the bad outings outnumbered the good and when I allowed runs, they came in bunches. The key to a solid season out of the bullpen is avoiding the big inning. In 75 appearances last year I never allowed more than one run in an inning. With Las Vegas, I pitched in only 45 games and gave up two or more runs at least 15 times. For me, all the crutches and excuses are in place. I pitched in a hitter's ballpark in a hitter's league. I did not get enough work, and when I did it was only in the mop-up role. The simple truth, though, is that I was not good enough.

Hard Work, Mixed Results

If I had to select a low point in a season filled with them, it would be a sweltering June Sunday afternoon in Las Vegas.

I was the last man in our bullpen summoned into the receiving end of a Vancouver Canadians blowout. After a three-up, three-down seventh inning, I had two outs and nobody on in the eighth. Three ground ball hits followed to load the bases, but I induced a routine popup to right-center field. Unfortunately our center fielder was shaded toward left, and the ball dropped in. Five runs scored in the inning before I registered the third out.

I was sent back out for the ninth and the proverbial wheels fell off. Two hits, a walk and a hit batsman later, I had given up another run without an out and was removed from the game, leaving the bases loaded for our shortstop and part-time knuckleballer. He allowed all of my runs to score before surrendering back-to-back-to-back home runs of his own.

I sat and watched, amazed at what this game can do to someone in just a matter of months.

In six months in 1998, I went from being the last reliever on a Class A roster to an all-star closing out a championship in Class AA. On April 5 of this year I was the first pitcher called into our season opener in Las Vegas and threw two scoreless innings in an eventual win. By Sept. 5, I had suffered through as poor a season as I could have ever imagined and owned a statistical line that could make the most casual fan wince.

A year ago I brought two weapons to the mound and dominated Classes A and AA. A sinker on the right side of the plate and a slider I could throw for strikes were all I needed. This season, command of my sinker was erratic, and I struggled to locate the ball on the left side of the plate consistently. I had trouble throwing my slider over the plate. Veteran hitters picked up these weaknesses quickly and waited for certain pitches and locations. Eventually I delivered.

I have added a change-up that may have finished as my most effective pitch. Mechanical adjustments made in July improved my command of the other side of the plate and added sink to my fastball and action to my slider.

The jump to Class AAA was a huge one for me. Borderline first- and second-pitch sinkers that became routine groundouts in Class AA and below were now balls when thrown to older, more disciplined hitters. I fell behind in the count regularly and paid dearly with walks and extra-base hits. This is no way to live in the Pacific Coast League. Trust me.

I am more comfortable with my mental approach to the game than ever before, and I truly feel that I know what I must do to pitch in the big leagues.

But knowing is the easy part.

Each of the 30 major league teams carries 25 players on its roster and the same number in Class AAA. Only 1,500 men play  baseball at these two levels in the world, and I am among them. I get paid to work in front of a crowd and to sign autographs for kids. I get paid to travel the country and do something I love. I get paid to play a game. I know I am lucky, but I am not content.

To me baseball is more than a game. It is a job where tireless hard work often does not bring success. It is a life where each bad outing, each bad week, and now this bad season, is a step backward, away from a goal that has consumed me since I first sat in the stands at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore with my dad and little brother almost 20 years ago.

The responsibility to get my career back on track is mine alone. Our roving pitching coordinator, who suggested and oversaw the midseason changes, was fired last week, along with our farm director (my boss) and our Las Vegas manager. The pitching coach that supported me so unbelievably during the year was demoted and will probably take a Class AAA job in another organization. He should. Each of the veterans in our clubhouse that taught me so much is a free agent. I may never play with one of them again.

An Encouraging Finale

The night before our second-to-last game, Labor Day weekend in Tucson, I sat on the deck of the hotel pool with my teammates Pete Smith, a nine-year major league veteran who appeared on a poster that hung on the wall of my college dorm room, and Ed Giovanola, a member of the Atlanta Braves' championship teams in the mid-1990s. As we did so often away from the ballpark, we talked -- and talked -- baseball. We watched the sun rise over the deck before I crawled into bed at 6 a.m.

That evening, I had one of my best outings of the year, tossing 2 1/3 hitless, scoreless innings and picking up the win in relief. I returned to that deck after the ballgame -- and found myself hours later watching in broad daylight as Smith simulated and analyzed my pitching delivery, searching for ways to make me better. Bedtime: 6:30 a.m.

The scoreless outing would be my last of the year -- a positive end to a disappointing season and hopefully a good omen for next year. Despite my many failures on the field, the season was both enjoyable and productive for me as a player and person.

No disastrous outing in the heat of a Las Vegas summer could ever affect me more than experiences like dawn in Tucson. No pile of earned runs can outweigh what I learned from coaches such as Tom Brown and veteran teammates such as Smith, Giovanola and Matt Whiteside. My love and respect for this game were tested daily for six months. They have never been stronger.

However, after five months of struggles, something must change. Maybe I need to watch the sun rise every morning. Maybe I need better luck, redefined goals, different coaches, a new slider, stronger legs, or a fresh start.

Or maybe I should just make better pitches.

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