THE 26th MAN
For Tyler Moore, baseball's a game of being ready: for the next at-bat, the next call-up, the next shot at his dream
PAWTUCKET, R.I. — The lights flickered at McCoy Stadium and by this point, after 10:15 p.m., the grainy shadows had long since been established. In the majors, the sheer wattage — so many bulbs on so many giant towers — obliterates even the slightest chance of shade on the field. Here, in the International League, Tyler Moore stepped into the batter’s box, and hazy images of his 6-foot-2 frame fell in the dirt around him.
This was the top of the ninth, down a run, man on, cleanup hitter at the plate. At Nationals Park, it’s what baseball players live for. At McCoy Stadium, they have to stave off the reality of their lives. “You don’t get the goose bumps here,” said Ryan Mattheus, Moore’s teammate with the Syracuse Chiefs.
Moore has been in this very spot in the majors, with the Nationals — shoot, in the playoffs. But this is late July in the International League. Even the 9,397 who showed up for Ladies Night — each woman got a long-stemmed rose — drifted out into the parking lots. Had this been Boston vs. Washington, the ballpark would have hummed. This was Pawtucket vs. Syracuse. Moore’s shadows danced in the dirt as he took a warm-up cut.
“This is our livelihood,” he said later. “This counts.”
Moore is 27, and his native Mississippi falls from his lips with every “Yes, sir,” and “No, ma’am.” He is a home owner newly married to his high school sweetheart. He is doing exactly what he wants to do far from where he wants to be. It is the essence of Class AAA baseball.
“The hardest level for personalities,” said Randy Knorr, the Nationals’ bench coach who once managed the team’s top minor league franchise. “No one wants to be there. No one thinks they should be there.”
And yet here Moore stood, digging into the box in the ninth inning, finding focus. He has done the same in the big leagues — 427 times over the past three years. As a rookie in 2012, he smacked 10 homers and stayed on the roster through a run to a division title, a promising piece of a postseason team.
“Felt like I was never gonna go back down,” he said. “You discover: You do.”
And then, if you’re one of the dozens of players like Moore across the major and minor leagues, you go back up. And you come back down. Then you . . . well, try to keep your sanity. Moore’s home is in Madison, Miss., but he’s living at the Staybridge Suites in tiny Liverpool, N.Y., outside Syracuse, three miles from his home office, NBT Bank Stadium. In Washington, he relies on the kindness of teammate Adam LaRoche, who lets him stay in a small apartment in his house. When he’ll be in either place, no one really knows.
With his suitcase nearby, Syracuse Chiefs first baseman Tyler Moore watches television in his hotel room in nearby Liverpool, N.Y., his home away from home during the season. The red circle was sewn onto Moore's bag after he was called up to the Washington Nationals.
“You pretty much become a professional at packing and unpacking,” he said. Moore must stay ready for his next game, his next at-bat. He must also stay ready for his next phone call, his next flight to meet the major league team, putting disappointment and frustration in a box somewhere, lid shut tight. In the shadows, he must somehow focus on possibility and opportunity.
Twice this year he has been called up. Twice he has been sent back down. If the major league life brings a grinding rhythm that wears on the hearts and minds and bodies of even star players, at least it comes with charter flights and checks with all those zeroes. In the minors, the everyday-ness is the same. The payoff is not.
Moore dug in against Pawtucket Red Sox closer Heath Hembree.
“In a big league game in that situation, there’s 30- or 40,000 people, especially if we’re trying to win the division,” Moore said, sitting outside the team hotel in downtown Providence, midnight approaching, a breeze cooling him. “There’s gonna be . . . ” and he trailed off, eyes distant, and managed a chuckle.
“If we’re in Washington playing the Braves, there’s gonna be some pressure there,” he said. “Here? You just try to stay focused on: Be small at the plate, think simple, and just try to come through for the team.”
Keeping an eye on the bigs
Seven hours earlier, in the visitors’ clubhouse that same day, the small stereo set up on the floor in a corner blared an endless string of country hits, Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean strumming out the soundtrack of minor league life. On the television screen above, Nationals reliever Drew Storen took the ball in the ninth inning of a game in Miami. Two card games held at separate tables sputtered to a slower pace. Eyes darted to the screen, then back at the cards, then back to the screen again.
“I consider a lot of those guys good friends,” Moore said, looking at the Nationals game. Wherever he has been, he prides himself on being a good teammate. That could be in Washington, where his job has mostly been to sit to the side and learn, a bit player. Here, it is to play first base and bat fourth, a key cog.
Either place, he must hit, which is essentially all he has ever done since he signed with the Nationals as a 16th-round draft pick from Mississippi State in 2008. That year, he was handed the schedule for the Vermont Expos, then Washington’s entry in the short-season Class A New York-Penn League. It showed 77 games in 80 days. He laughed.
“A lot of guys coming out of college, they don’t know how to fail yet,” Moore said. “This game is really all about failure, and just trying to handle it and understanding how to get yourself back when you do.”
Back then, he had no clue about any of it. Guys in the low minors, they’re all on the rise. They look at the major league roster and wonder where they might fit, even when such a prospect is several years and countless organizational decisions away. “The biggest lesson down here,” said Syracuse Manager Billy Gardner Jr., who has managed at every level in the minors, “is control the controllables.”
But the major league team that played on the screen in the visitors’ clubhouse — well, when you’re at Class AAA, you’re one tweaked hamstring away. Each player at each locker stall, the guys strewn on two couches, those peeking up from their card games, they all knew it. On April 6, it was snowing in Syracuse. The Chiefs had played one game of their season. And Moore got the call: Reserve outfielder Scott Hairston was down with an oblique strain. Get to Washington.
“There’s nothing like your first time,” Moore said, “but it’s always exciting.”
That first time came two years ago, when Moore was in Syracuse with all the credentials. He hit 31 homers and drove in 111 runs in 2010 for Class A Potomac, hit .314 .270 with 31 more homers in 2011 for Class AA Harrisburg. He was blowing through the minors. Late the next April, Tony Beasley, then the Syracuse manager, called him at 1 a.m. He had to be in Los Angeles the next day. Dodger Stadium. The majors.
Tyler Moore, second from left, plays cards in the clubhouse with his teammates before a game against the Pawtucket Red Sox in Rhode Island. Moore usually gets to the ballpark five hours before a game.
“That was stressful, but in the best way,” Moore said. No sleep, two flights, deciphering the taxis at LAX. He got a hit in his first major league game. He became a starter because of injuries. When he hit his first two major league homers in mid-June in Toronto, the Nationals sat in first place, and Moore told reporters: “It just keeps getting better. It’s a fun place to be.”
The next season, he made the team out of spring training. And in his first 95 at-bats — sporadic plate appearances as a pinch hitter, a fill-in starter — he hit .158. “Your skills don’t diminish,” Knorr said. “But you don’t get to do it enough.” It’s the Class AAA conundrum: Play every day in the minors and find a rhythm, or stay in the majors and face inordinate pressure with each at-bat, because there’s no telling when the next one might come.
Moore was sent to Syracuse. In a way, he was introduced to his current life.
“You can make all the excuses in the world but it doesn’t make it any better,” Moore said. “It’s just like, ‘Hey, you know what? This is the best thing for me. I need to go down here and get my confidence back and get some at-bats, and find out what was going on.’ ”
Back when he was in Class A, at Potomac — a short drive down I-95 from Nationals Park — Moore began figuring out that every minor league season would bring both success and struggle, some of each for sustained periods. At the all-star break, he was hitting .190. “For two months,” he said, “I just lost it.”
So he took to writing in a journal during whatever hot streak he could find. “I wanted to be specific,” he said. What did he feel like at the plate? Where were his hands? His head? His feet? What did he do before the games? Then when things turned sour, he had a touchstone.
“The more that you can kind of hang onto the good things, then I feel like the more successful you’ll be for a longer period of time,” he said.
He had his journal with him in Pawtucket. He had it in Washington, where he stayed for a month this spring, started five times, hit .200 and was sent back down. Five days later, the Nationals put LaRoche on the disabled list with a strained quadriceps. Moore was back on a flight, meeting the team in Oakland. By the end of May, he was sent back to Syracuse. He hasn’t been back to the majors since, his life a series of nights at the Staybridge, breakfasts with teammates at the American Diner, calls back home to his bride, bus rides through the night from Pawtucket to Scranton and back to Syracuse, 6 a.m. commercial flights for longer trips — with games that night.
“You have to keep your head down,” Moore said. “There’s no other way to do it. You have to keep working hard.”
Living in the Minors
Nearly every team in the majors has a player in its system like Tyler Moore. The club believes he has the potential to have an impact at the major league level, but there’s no spot for him to play regularly. So he plays every day at Class AAA, is called up when there’s an injury, and goes back down when everyone’s healthy. Moore, 27, has played this role since 2012. “The good thing is he’s still somewhat young enough to where he could have a long big league career,” said Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche, with whom Moore is close. “He’s just kind of waiting for that window to open up.”
Nov. 11, 2011: Purchased from minors After hitting 31 home runs for Class AA Harrisburg, Moore is added to the Nationals’ 40-man roster, a sign that the franchise considers him a piece of the future.
March 18, 2012: Sent to minors In the middle of his first major league spring training, Moore is sent to minor-league camp, a typical transactional move for a player at his stage of development. He begins the year at Class AAA Syracuse.
April 29, 2012: Called up from Syracuse Veteran infielder Mark DeRosa went on the disabled list, and Moore got the call every minor leaguer dreams of, joining the team in Los Angeles and going 1 for 3 in his major league debut.
May 28, 2012: Sent to Syracuse After getting just 19 at-bats and three hits — all singles — over the better part of a month, Moore is sent back to the minors when the team recalled catcher Jhonatan Solano.
June 7, 2012: Called up from Syracuse When catcher Carlos Maldonado went on the disabled list, the Nationals again turned to Moore, who was hitting .309 and slugging .653 with nine homers in 101 at-bats for the Chiefs. He started the next day, went 2 for 4 with a double and stayed in the majors the rest of the season, hitting .263 and slugging .513 with 10 homers and 29 RBI in 75 games.
June 9, 2013: Sent to Syracuse Considered the top right-handed pinch hitter at the start of the season, Moore struggled in a part-time role, hitting just .158. “I’ve been swinging out of the strike zone a little bit, but just stuff wasn’t falling the way it usually is,” he said.
June 25, 2013: Called up from Syracuse After just 12 games in Class AAA, in which he went 8 for 45 (.177), Moore got another chance when right-hander Dan Haren went on the disabled list. Moore serves as insurance against Jayson Werth’s balky groin.
On the television screen, Storen got the final Marlin to hit into a fielder’s choice, and the Nationals clung to a narrow victory. Moore, still in shorts, went into a corner and grabbed a black bat, slipped two white gloves on his hands, walked past the refrigerator with the ketchup and the relish and the Coffee-mate, and headed to the batting cage beneath the stands to begin his work.
‘Fighting for their lives’
As the Chiefs finished their batting practice session at McCoy that evening, the view from their dugout suddenly became cluttered with clipboards lowered on strings by early-arriving fans in the seats above. There were sheets for specific players, baseball cards encased in plastic, each with a Sharpie attached.
“I already signed this one,” Mattheus said as he looked at his clipboard. “That’s what happens when you’re 30 and you’re still in Triple A,” and he scribbled his name on another card.
Class AAA is something of baseball’s halfway house. Seven of the players in the Chiefs starting lineup that night had been to the majors. None wanted to return here. McCoy Stadium is a patchwork of 80 billboards in the outfield. In between innings, two stuffed bears aim a T-shirt gun at the crowd. The version of “God Bless America” is taped. And in between it all, the players try to work.
“Guys there are fighting for their lives in the game of professional baseball,” said Doug Harris, the Nationals’ vice president of player development, who oversees the farm system. “It’s a very interesting mix.”
Each player involved in the mix has considered his situation carefully, either by curiosity or necessity or both. Moore knows this is the last season in which the Nationals can “option” him to the minor leagues as many times as they want. It is a fact on which he does not want to dwell. Typically, players have three option years. After that, a player must be exposed to other teams — who could claim him — before he passes to the minors. Next year, there will be no shuttle between Syracuse and Washington for Moore, because some other team would certainly pick him up, give him a chance.
“It pops into your head every once in a while,” Moore said. “But you can’t think about it.”
Yet it’s an inevitable battle, an individual battle. Some players can’t help but obsess with the entire roster at every level of the organization — who has how many options remaining, who is performing poorly in the majors, who they might replace. They know so much. The major league minimum salary is $500,000, and players make a pro-rated version of that for each day in the majors. Typical Class AAA salaries are around $2,100 per month, though some minor league free agents can earn $60,000 to $70,000 for a season. All those numbers dance through heads, which can be crippling.
“For young guys, it’s very hard,” said Greg Dobbs, a 36-year-old first baseman for the Chiefs who has nearly 2,100 major league at-bats over parts of 11 seasons. “They can’t think that way. That’s when you can see the wheels start turning and they start showing their frustration outwardly. They may say or do things that are out of character. But that’s why they’re doing it. They don’t know how to handle that, and they can’t quite grasp it. They haven’t been through it.”
So as the Nationals traded last year for Hairston and signed veteran outfielder Nate McLouth in the offseason, Moore had no control. Something similar has happened to almost every player on the Syracuse roster. This spring, right-handed reliever Aaron Barrett blew away opposing hitters and, in turn, the Nationals’ front office. He made the majors for the first time. The collateral damage: Mattheus, who helped the Nationals to the playoffs in 2012, pounded his fist into his locker in a pique of frustration in 2013 — breaking his hand — and hasn’t re-established himself in the big leagues.
“It’s human nature to play GM,” Mattheus said. “We all see the rosters. We all kind of know where we stand. We’re all biased in our own eyes.”
Fans dangle clipboards hoping for signatures, including that of Syracuse's Tyler Moore, lower right, pictured in a Washington Nationals uniform. In 2012, Moore played 75 games for the Nationals and even became a postseason hero.
Mattheus had two four-day stints in the majors this year. In four appearances, he didn’t give up a run. Each time, he was sent back down because someone else returned from injury. The first time, he stormed out of Manager Matt Williams’s office. Syracuse? Again?
July 8, 2013: Sent to Syracuse The Nationals trade for veteran outfielder Scott Hairston, who is accustomed to the sporadic playing time that comes with a reserve role. Thus, after appearing in only four games over nearly two weeks and going 1 for 11 with a solo homer, Moore returns to the minors. “We still think that he’s got the potential and the ceiling to be an everyday first baseman,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said at the time. “And he needs to play.”
Aug. 17, 2013: Called up from Syracuse Playing every day for the Chiefs since his July demotion, Moore hit .367, slugged .664 with eight homers and 38 RBI. He gets another chance because right-hander Taylor Jordan strained his back. He remains in the majors the rest of the season, hitting .344 with an .834 on-base-plus-slugging percentage over his final 21 games.
March 25, 2014: Sent to Syracuse Moore hit .265 in spring training, but was squeezed out because the club kept Hairston and Nate McLouth as extra outfielders. “Tyler’s history is that when he has consistent at-bats, he does well,” Manager Matt Williams said. “It’s tough when you’re not getting those at-bats. He’s a player that needs them to stay sharp.”
April 6, 2014: Called up from Syracuse Moore went 0 for 4 in the Chiefs’ opener, but got his chance when Hairston went on the disabled list with a strained oblique.
May 7, 2014: Sent to Syracuse After appearing in 18 games with just five starts, Moore, hitting .200, is caught in a numbers game. The Nationals needed a roster spot for right-hander Doug Fister, who was returning from the disabled list, and they elected to keep three catchers as they headed into an interleague series at Oakland.
May 11, 2014: Called up from Syracuse Before the series against the Athletics is over, Moore returns to the majors to take the place of the injured Adam LaRoche. He starts that day, going 0 for 3 in a loss to Oakland.
June 3, 2014: Sent to Syracuse With Ryan Zimmerman returning from a fractured thumb, Moore is again the odd man out. In 16 games, including 11 starts, since his latest recall he hit .225 with a homer and a double. But he has been with the Chiefs ever since, hitting .288 with eight homers -- including a walkoff Thursday night -- in 250 at-bats at Class AAA.
“I had the poor-me attitude,” he said. “I had the ‘it-should-be-me-up-there’ thinking. And it’s sad to say, but I almost looked at it as: ‘I’m better than this. I shouldn’t be here.’ I almost threw away a month-and-a-half of my season because of that. . . .
“It can happen to a whole clubhouse. The popular thing to say is, ‘We should all be there.’ So if we’re all negative, we all kind of feel comfortable being negative around each other. It’s a vicious cycle.”
Thus, the most delicate and significant of Harris’s daily tasks can be monitoring the mental state of some six minor league teams simultaneously. “Such an underrated part of the job,” Harris said. But it’s obvious: The Nationals can’t have players giving away six weeks of their seasons because they’re mad at the organization for perceived slights.
“More often than not,” Harris said, “these are difficult conversations.”
And yet Moore, even at the low points, has made it easy. “He set every record we had,” said Jeff McClaskey, Moore’s coach at Northwest Rankin High, “and he was humble the whole way.” The son of a school principal and a nurse who grew up in the county seat of Brandon, Miss., Moore is, Harris said, “the consummate professional. He has unbelievable class as a player and a man.”
“Just always try to see the good in things,” Moore said. “Sometimes, this world can be hard.”
He said this sitting outside the Hilton Providence, his bed beckoning. His wife was nearly 1,400 miles away, tending to her job and their house — to their lives, of which he’s a part just half the year. “If there was any security,” he said, “she’d be here.” But there isn’t, so she’s not. The next day’s game started at noon.
Moore’s been there before
When Moore took his spot in the batter’s box against Hembree, Chiefs outfielder Steven Souza Jr. was on first base. Moore already had a double, and here was his chance to tie up a game on a July night in a dank neighborhood on the outskirts of Providence.
Two seasons earlier, the Nationals Washington trailed by a run in the first postseason game in franchise Nationals history. Men were on second and third in the eighth. And then-manager Davey Johnson called on Moore to pinch-hit.
“Biggest at-bat of my life,” he said. Facing Cardinals left-hander Marc Rzepczynski, Marc Rzepcynski, Moore flared a single into right field that scored Michael Morse to tie and Ian Desmond to take the lead. The Nationals won.
Here, in July in Pawtucket, such moments can’t be created from thin air. Hembree didn’t play along anyway, and Moore laid off four straight pitches, drawing a walk. Brandon Laird, the next hitter, flew out to end it, and Moore jogged into the dugout, then walked into the clubhouse, which was dead quiet even 15 minutes later. Players sifted over what’s considered the best spread in the International League, on this night beef tips or baked scrod, broccoli and loaded baked potatoes. A fridge stocked with a few Bud Lights and Coors Lights went untouched. At any level, a loss is a loss.
“You just try to process your night,” Moore said. “You think about the pitches you wish you wouldn’t have swung at, happy about the pitches you got a hit on that you did swing at. But you can’t dwell on it. When I leave here, it has to be gone.”
He shuffled to the shower. At 9:30 a.m. the next day, he was back at the park, back in this room, back with these guys, back playing cards, back taking a few cuts in the batting cage under the stands. Moore has also joined the Chiefs’ Bible study, which draws on his Mississippi roots.
“Sometimes, you get sent down, and it’s just discouraging, and you try to figure out some of the pieces to it,” Moore said. “You just get lost. You’re trying to understand why everything’s going on, and a lot of times, I just read the Word, and it really helps out. It’s the rock.”
The other rock, though, is each other. It is, above all else, what minor leaguers have. No one else has tasted what they’ve tasted — the hotels, the food, the money, the crowds, the intensity — and then been forced to eat gruel for months at a time. The Chiefs play Ping-Pong in their home clubhouse. The visitors’ clubhouse at McCoy has a foosball table, and it saw action. The card games, the breakfasts, the saying “Hey” to guys you saw just hours before — it makes it all tolerable.
“Whatever it takes to stay sane,” Moore said.
Two boxes of Dunkin’ Donuts sat on a table across the clubhouse. The MLB Network squawked from the television, news of the trade deadline, something that could have affected anyone in that room. Zach Walters, an infielder with the Chiefs called up to the Nationals earlier in the month, was dealt to Cleveland. “Crazy,” Moore said.
Yet he doesn’t know whether he’ll be here next year. LaRoche is a free agent, but is having a fine season and could be re-signed. Ryan Zimmerman could also take over at first base. The outfield has Bryce Harper, Denard Span, Jayson Werth. Where would that leave Moore?
“I’ve said for a couple of years I would love to see him get traded,” LaRoche said. “Selfishly I want him here, because I like being around him. But this guy could be an impact player playing every day for somebody. It’s just a bad situation here.”
Moore doesn’t see it that way. “The Nationals is like a family,” he said at his locker. “Can’t really imagine leaving.”
In August, though, Souza got called up for his major league debut. When Souza got hurt, the Nationals brought up outfielder Michael A. Taylor.
And Moore kept showing up for work, kept hitting. The International League regular season ends Sept. 1 — the day major league rosters can expand — and the first-place Chiefs may well have the playoffs after that.
Yet those aren’t the playoffs about which any of the Chiefs truly care. The Nationals, too, are in first place. What would Tyler Moore give for one more call to get on that shuttle, for another chance to stick in the bigs?
“It’s where we all want to be,” he said, and at 3:30 p.m., he walked past the minor league spread of chicken and green beans into the minor league showers, full of major league hopes.