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Snapper players eat and sleep baseball while dreaming of the big leagues

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Mike DuPre'
April 10, 2008
— “I’d like a stack of pancakes with that.”

“Hey, can I get some waffles, please?”


As the waitress at Salvador’s took orders from four Beloit Snappers and their visitor Saturday morning, one thing became obvious: The four young baseball players could eat their way through a grocery store if they had a chance.


Joe Benson, Ozzie Lewis, Steve Singleton and Greg Yersich each ordered a big skillet breakfast plus either waffles or pancakes on the side.


Between bites, they talked about life in what some call the bush leagues and their long-shot odds of making it to Major League Baseball.


Going out to eat is a staple of their day just like stretching, batting practice and the game itself.


Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t have done much home cooking last weekend, their first of the young Midwest League Season. The guys were just settling into their three-bedroom apartment, where Singleton and Benson share the master bedroom.


Their furniture consisted of a rented projection-screen TV, rented couch, a couple of rented beds and two beds and a chair that Benson and Yersich, who live in Illinois, brought from home.


No kitchen table.


“Not yet. We’re working on that right now,” Singleton said.


On the counter waiting to be washed was a frying pan, the household’s sole cooking utensil.


“We’re still trying to get our pots and pans and stuff together,” Benson said.


They’re also trying to get their professional baseball careers together.


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Each of the guys was a standout ballplayer at his respective school. If they hadn’t been, the Twins wouldn’t have drafted them.


Each plans on playing in the major leagues, “The Big Show.”


The odds they face are staggering.


The four Snappers stand on one of the lower rungs of professional baseball, but not the lowest. The Snappers are affiliated with the Minnesota Twins, an organization that has six minor-league teams, each with a 25-man roster.


Beloit is a low Class A team but still ranks above the Gulf Coast League Twins, a rookie team, and Elizabethton Twins in the Appalachian League, an advanced rookie league.


Above the Snappers are the high Class A Fort Myers (Fla.) Miracle, Class AA New Britain (Conn.) Wildcats and Triple A Rochester (N.Y.) Red Wings.


Of 802 players who played for either the Beloit Snappers or Brewers over 26 seasons, 96 of them—about 12 percent—made the major leagues. That doesn’t count big leaguers on rehabilitation assignments in Beloit. And while some former Beloit players became big-name big-time players—Prince Fielder, for instance—many others would be known only to the most avid baseball fans.


The Twins’ organization alone has 150 minor leaguers. Major League Baseball has 30 teams, each with its own minor-league system. Then there are college leagues throughout the country, such as the Northwest League in which the Madison Mallards play.


Every year, more young baseball players—athletic, strong, fast, talented, skilled and with baseball stars in their eyes—graduate from high school and college.


And across the Caribbean, deep into Mexico, down to Colombia and Venezuela, across the Pacific to Japan and South Korea, young baseball players yearn and work for “the bigs.”


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An indication of how far down the ladder the Snappers are from the big leagues was the small TV that nine or so of them were watching in the clubhouse before the team’s opening game was rained out.


No big screens here.


Lewis wasn’t watching the Cubs-Brewers game on TV.


He was scrubbing his playing shoes clean.


“I like to look neat,” he said.


What would be really neat is making the big leagues.


The four young Snappers were asked if they had any doubts about breaking into the bigs.


“If you do, you shouldn’t be here,” Benson said.


“No doubts, the money’s not good enough to just play baseball in the minor leagues,” Singleton said. “Anybody who puts the uniform on, their dream is to play in the major leagues.”


While signing bonuses can be hefty, minor-league money is not good.


Benson was the highest drafted of the four, selected in the second round of the 2006 draft. He signed with the Twins for a $575,000 bonus. Baseball America ranks him as the Twins’ second best overall prospect.


Benson said he hasn’t touched the money, which his father is investing for him.


But now he’s playing for the same money as his teammates: $1,300 a month during the season; $25-per-day meal money on the road, $10 a day for food if the Snappers are commuting to a nearby out-of-town series.


“It’s less than minimum wage when you consider all the hours,” Benson said. “If you don’t love it, you’re in the wrong profession.”


Minor leaguers don’t get paid for spring training, but they are provided motel rooms and three buffet meals a day.


“That you don’t want to eat,” Yersich commented.


“People don’t see all the work we put in before a game,” Benson said.


“Or the training in the off-season,” Lewis chimed in.


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Lewis works out one to three hours a day four to six days a week during the off-season.


When the Snappers play home games at 6:30 p.m., the players typically get to Pohlman Field at Telfer Park between 1 and 2 p.m.


A 2 p.m. game means getting to the park at 11:30 a.m. unless it was a day like Sunday, when the players weighed in and worked on fundamentals. The team’s 0-3 start probably was a factor in the players being required to be at the park by 9:30 a.m. for on-field drills.


A typical work day runs nine to 10 hours.


“It’s a job,” Singleton said. “Whenever people go to watch a game, we’re working.”


The Snappers’ regular season is 140 games. Making the playoffs—as the Snappers did in 2007—stretches the season past five months. But even without post-season play, minor leaguers are on the diamond for 25 spring training games and another 25 to 40 games in a fall instructional league.


“The first half of the year, you don’t really get tired,” Singleton said. “‘You’re playing new people, seeing new parks. But then you’re seeing the same people over and over again.”


“You’re excited to get going, but with the season, it starts to die down,” Benson said. “Your body starts to die down. There are days when you just want to stay in bed and rest.”


Spring training also means rubbing shoulders with major-league players.


“They’re all great guys,” Benson said. “You think of big leaguers as upper tier, snobby, but they’re not.”


“Regular people,” Yersich interjected.


“They give us a lot of stuff,” Singleton said. “Bats, cleats, batting gloves.”


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But nobody is giving them a pass to the major leagues.


And that’s where the glory and big money are.


Many ballplayers have tried to shortcut their way to the bigs with steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs.


“We’re tested up to four times a year,” Benson said. “We’re tested once in the spring and a couple of times a year. You don’t find out until you get to the field. … There are always jokes in the clubhouse.”


Lewis added: “Everybody knows where you can get it. You know, you see guys at the gym (who are obviously juiced).”


Benson noted:


“It’s become a lot more than just steroids. You have to be real careful about stuff (supplements) you get at GNC.”


Not only can a supplement contain a banned substance as part of its formula, he said, but one machine can be used to blend different supplements, creating the possibility of unintended contamination and a positive drug test.


As for the gym, the Snappers lift weights at the Beloit YMCA two mornings a week during the regular season.


“We don’t bench (press),” Lewis said. “They don’t let us bench. It’s bad for our shoulders.”


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Back at the apartment, the players’ prime pastimes are video games—“Guitar Hero” is the current fave—and watching sports on TV.


“There’s a lot of down time, hanging out where we live,” Singleton said. “We’re not making a ton of money, so we try to save a little.”


Singleton challenged Lewis to a round of “Guitar Hero.”


“No, it’s not happening,” Lewis replied but soon relented: “Let me get on this, so I can embarrass myself.”


He fingered the colored buttons on the guitar-shaped game controller but wasn’t scoring well.


“Stay with the rhythm,” Singleton coached. “Click, click, click, click-click. By the end of the summer, I should be a pro at this.”


Helped by the tips, Lewis proclaimed: “I’m kicking a— now!”


The next evening, he, Benson and Singleton were digging into dinner at La Casa Grande with two of Singleton’s friends who had come to visit.


“I’ll probably go home and play some more,” Lewis said. “That game (“Guitar Hero”) is addictive in a stupid way.”


Singleton nodded toward Benson: “Joe is slightly better than me.”


“Head over heels better,” Benson shot back, adding:


“Being professional athletes, sports are the biggest part of our life. We’re all fans of college sports. We get into a lot of college debates, which is better. We are competitive people: sports, video games.”


His comment goaded Singleton.


“What happened in FIFA (video soccer) last night? I beat you twice,” Singleton said.


“Once at most,” Benson countered.


“I won. Nobody beats me at FIFA,” Singleton said.


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But the Kane County Cougars beat the Snappers four times over the weekend.


“It’s a 140-game season. We got swept our second series last season, but by game 25 or 30, we had the best record in professional baseball,” Benson said with the philosophical attitude of an experienced baseball player or fan.


“You have a short memory for all of baseball, at-bats, games, even hits,” Singleton said. “It’s very much how life is. If something happens bad, you have to move on. If you do something good, you try to remember it.”


Yerisch’s parents, Greg and Sherri, remember just about every good and bad thing that has happened to their son on a baseball diamond. They came up from Chicago’s South Side on Sunday to watch their boy play.


Sherri brought pasta and pizza for the guys. Greg wore the championship ring his son won last season with Elizabethton.


Asked what they realistically thought their son’s chances were of playing major-league ball, Sherri quickly replied: “I always think he will.”


But Greg said quietly: “If he gets another year out of it, it’s a blessing. If not, life goes on.”


Also watching Sunday’s game were Yersich’s girlfriend, Jessica Tuider, and Benson’s girlfriend, Tabby Dent.


“Nobody knows how hard they work,” Tuider said. “They go to bed early; they get up early.”


“That’s all they talk about is baseball,” Dent observed.


Tuider and Yersich have been going together since junior high.


“We’ve talked about getting engaged,” Tuider said, “but he said, ‘Not until I can put a $100,000 rock on your finger.’”


The $100,000 diamond obviously would come after the big, big-league contract.


So, is there a lot of talk about the big money?


“We gotta get there first,” Benson said, nodding toward Singleton. “Steve and I have some travel plans.”


“Brazil, definitely Brazil,” Singleton said.


Benson came back to earth: “The reason why we’re all here is the love of the game. Granted, we all want to make the big leagues and sign the big contract, but if you don’t appreciate the game, you won’t get very far.”


“We have the greatest job in the world,” Singleton said.


“It really is,” Lewis added. “Sleep in, play at night, have a good time at night. Wake up and do it all over again.”


Bios

Joe Benson


Position: Centerfielder


Bats: Right; throws right


Age: 20


Height: 6-foot-2; weight, 205


Drafted: Second round in 2006


2007 season: Beloit Snappers


Hometown: Joliet, Ill.


Off-season job: Deliveryman for plumbing company


Favorite ballplayers: Kirby Puckett, Lance Johnson


Favorite band: Led Zeppelin


Favorite movie: “Raging Bull”


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Ozzie Lewis


Position: Corner outfielder


Bats: Right; throws right


Age: 22


Height: 6-foot-4 1/2; weight, 233


Drafted: 21st round 2007


2007 season: Beloit Snappers and Elizabethton, Tenn.


Hometown: Sylmar, Calif.


Off-season job: Training for baseball


Favorite ballplayer: Manny Ramirez


Favorite performer: Lil Wayne


Favorite movie: “Major League”


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Steve Singleton


Position: Middle infield


Bats: Left; throws right


Age: 22


Height: 5-foot-11; weight, 185


Drafted: 11th round 2006


2007 season: Beloit Snappers


Hometown: Oakland, Calif.


Off-season job: Baseball coach and instructor


Favorite ballplayer: Jimmy Rollins


Favorite band: E-40.


Favorite movie: “Glory Road”


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Greg Yersich


Position: Catcher


Bats: Right; throws right


Age: 21


Height: 6 feet; weight, 225


Drafted: Seventh round 2007


2007 season: Beloit Snappers and Elizabethton, Tenn.


Hometown: Chicago


Off-season job: Carpenter


Favorite ballplayer: Robin Ventura


Favorite performer: Rapper Nas


Favorite movie: “Major League II”



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