The young men sit behind tables in three neat rows, black three-ring binders open, pens in hand. The room is in the bowels of AT&T Park, down the hall from the Giants clubhouse. It is usually used for press conferences. But during this week in November, it has been transformed into one of the most exclusive schools in the world.
“There’s going to be somebody in this room who’s going to play for us next year in the big leagues,” Giants general manager Brian Sabean tells them. He sits on a raised dais next to Giants manager Bruce Bochy.
Several students shift in their chairs. Some nod. Most try hard to show no reaction, assuming as best they can the unflappable posture of a star. But you can see it in their eyes: The anticipation of what might come. Some might someday land on the cover of Sports Illustrated someday. Some might become so famous they have streets named after them.
But for now, at this moment, they are just guys with great curve balls, guys with wicked swings, with other guys with great curve balls and wicked swings, in a room full of hope.
These 20 young men are among the Giants’ top prospects, handpicked from the farm system to come to San Francisco for five days of Here’s What It’s Going to Take. One player graduated from high school just four months earlier. The others attended at least some college. Most have spent a little time in the minor-leagues, living four to an apartment, riding buses, budgeting their few-hundred-dollars-a-week salaries – all to earn their own three-foot-wide locker at 24 Willie Mays Plaza.
The curriculum for the week was The Giants’ Way – how to get in top shape, how to play with integrity and enthusiasm, how to behave professionally, how to engage with the media and fans. The young players spent their mornings with the Giants conditioning staff, pushing themselves through tough workouts. They spent their afternoons in this makeshift classroom with Giants front-office staff, learning that making it to the major leagues takes more than talent.
“Attitude is so big in this game,” Bochy tells them. “You have to be full of optimism. You have to have a gut-level belief that you will play at this level. We all know you have the ability. That’s not the question. The question you have to ask every day is: Do I have the attitude to leverage my capabilities to be a major-league player?”
Sabean leans toward the microphone to deliver the hard facts, the ones these players won’t hear on SportsCenter. They have to be willing to put baseball before everything in their lives, Sabean says, which means making sure their loved ones are willing to make the commitment with them. They have to play on rock-hard fields in Arizona’s midday sun in front of near-empty bleachers. They have to play in the Dominican and in Puerto Rico. They have to play and play and play and play. They have to figure out how to keep their sanity in the face of repeated, sometimes unrelenting, failure.
“I’m not sure what the wash-out rate is today, but it used to be that just 5 to 8 percent of players signed made it to the major-leagues,” Sabean says. “You have to be one tough SOB to play this game.”
He offers an example.
“Barry Bonds never put himself in a position to let his guard down,” Sabean says. “He never showed his frustration — threw a bat, kicked the dirt. If he hit a ball well and it was caught, he tipped his hat to the other guy knowing he did the best he could. He rarely showed any emotion to an umpire. He acted as if it never happened because he never wanted the pitcher to think he wasn’t in control.
“His complete control made his talent that much more to deal with.”
Earlier in the week, new managing general partner Bill Neukom told the 20 hopefuls that the Giants’ Way meant fundamentals, attention to detail, preparation. The Giants, he said, have made sure there are great teachers at every level of the organization.
“As Giants players, you will be better conditioned and better informed than your opponents,” Neukom said. “You will be more focused. You will have an approach to every at-bat, to every pitch at that at-bat. As good as you are, you will get better.
“We wouldn’t swap this group of young players for any other group,” Neukom says. “You not only are the best in the Giants organization, you are the best in baseball. You’re here because we think you’re warriors, because you love to compete. We want to help you express that. But you will be the ones to decide if you’re going to get here.”
In the makeshift classroom at AT&T, Sabean and Bochy are wrapping up. Sabean throws in another piece of advice: “Sign autographs. Connect with fans. It’s a relationship you need to have.”
The players close their binders and head down the hall to the clubhouse, where, for one more day, the lockers of Lincecum and Molina and Zito are theirs. They don’t know that Willie Mays is waiting there for them. It’s a surprise. A gift. Another lesson in what it means to be a Giant.
Soon the 20 young men will return to Michigan and Florida and New Jersey, wherever they call home, until another conditioning camp in Arizona in December and spring training in February. In the meantime, the Giants pass around a sign-up sheet for an optional tour of the ballpark on their final day. Nothing special. The same thing any fan or tourist gets.
Seventeen of the 20 sign up – a sweet reminder that even future baseball stars are, at heart, romantics like the rest of us. They know, or at least seem to know, that baseball is more than the dugout and the diamond, more than the players. The real classroom of baseball is the park itself, housing as it does our memories of past summer days and delivering each spring another dose of hope.