Here we are, down to the last week of Extended Spring Training. After a 4 week Spring training, and 8 week Extended Spring, a lot of guys are hoping to get out of Florida and head to Tennessee to play for the Elizabethton Twins in the Appalachian League. Now the guys that aren't on that Elizabethton team will stay down here in Florida and play in the rookie Gulf Coast League, a league I played in 2 years ago with the GCL Phillies. Now a lot of people may look down on the Gulf Coast League since it is the lowest level of Minor League Baseball, but no one actually knows how hard the league is to play in.
The routines are almost the same as Extended Spring, you wake up at 7:00am, catch the 8:00am van to the field, be out on the field at 9:00am, then play a game at 12:00pm. Every once in a while the coaches may decide to have a show-and-go, which means you turn up around 10:30am and then play the game, which is their way of adding variety to the schedule. Doing the same thing nearly everyday, your life starts to feel like groundhog day.
In any other league you play in, you play 95% of your games at night, while here in the GCL all games are played in the middle of the day in the hot Florida sun. You do get used to the heat after a few weeks, but it's still tough playing in the temperatures of 104°F, which is the hottest it got while I was pitching in a GCL game 2 years ago. The key to playing through the heat, is to always be hydrated. Every night I try and drink up to 3 bottles of water to stay hydrated for the next day, and while at the field I usually drink up to 4 litres of water a day. To go along with the large amounts of water we consume, we continuously sweat all day, even when we aren't doing anything. As soon as you walk out of the clubhouse, you start to sweat and by the end of the day your uniform is saturated.
Another factor that makes the GCL a tough league, is the crowd, or should I say the lack of a crowd. The average crowd at a Minor League game will be around 5,000 people, but down here in the GCL, the only crowd you ever get are when your parents come down to watch. Now, some people may think having no crowd should make it easier on a player, since there is no one watching and no one to impress, but for me, I love having a crowd there. In the Australian Baseball League I pitched in front of 2,000 people on my birthday in my home town. Now the first three batters I faced got on base, but I fed off the energy from the crowd to come back and end up only giving up 1 run that inning, and then come back to throw a scoreless inning.
Something that makes the GCL so different to any other league is that they have a limit on how many years you can play in the leauge. the ages of all the players. You can not have more then 3 years of service in the league if you are under 20 years old, and if you are older then 20 years old you are allowed only 2 years of service in the league. So if you play in the GCL when you're 18, they can keep you there for 3 season and then choose to move up to another level. Which for some young players, who are so eager to play and enjoy the game so much, spending 3 years in this league may be disheartening, but you still get to play baseball everyday. There is also a wide range on the ages of players, there will be players that have just turned 16, and guys that are 23 who have just finished their senior year at college.
At the end of the day, or sometimes the beginning, you take a second to think about your goal of always wanting to be the best that you can be on a baseball field and would do anything to play baseball at a professional level can quickly disappear with all the physical and mental fatigue that may cause you to resent your job down in the GCL, but after all, we're living our dream, one day at a time.