Baseball players take one last swing at big league dreams

Frank Joyner looks like a pro on the pitcher’s mound.

He holds his black-and-red glove up in front of him and changes his grip on the ball to keep the batter guessing. He winds up with a big leg-kick, then strides forward with his tall, athletic frame, going through the motions with the sort of fluidity that only comes from years of practice.

The 20-year-old’s fastball can hit 86 mph on the gun—a speed that would blow past most bats in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia. But when I meet him in late July, at Major League Baseball tryouts in Hampton, Virginia, that fastball is actually his weakness.

The tryout, open to anyone over the age of 16, drew 282 Major League hopefuls. It’s the last of six open sessions held throughout the year, where unknowns can walk onto the baseball diamond to chase their dream of making the Show. Almost everyone who came to try out on a recent rainy Thursday was young and talented. But only a few are good enough to ever get a second look from scouts in attendance.

MLB scout Brad Fidler, a former college player who runs the open tryout, tries to temper expectations before the opening pitch. He calls the young men over and asks them to take a knee in the outfield. Pitchers, he tells them, will need to throw in the 90s to get noticed.

“So you guys in the 80s, I’m sorry but it’s going to be a quick hook,” he says.

Joyner heads to the bullpen with the other pitchers and prepares to throw. It’s a moment he’s been preparing for rigorously. He works out six days a week—full-body on Monday, legs on Tuesday, arms and chest on Wednesday, cardio on Thursday, and full-body again on Friday and Saturday—and has attended five different training camps.

Still, the odds are slim of him getting the nod from a professional team.

The young men who attend the open tryouts are all talented ball players—my beer-league softball team would be thrilled to have any one of them as ringer. But the bar for making the Major Leagues is so high that even high-school standouts have a hard time getting noticed.

As with all true baseball fans, hope springs eternal. The love of the game and the potential payout for a Major League contract is motivation enough for these young players to keep their mitts oiled. But in some cases, a healthy dedication to the game can sometimes turn into an unhealthy obsession.

“People whose entire lives are wrapped up in becoming a professional athlete are vulnerable when, almost inevitably, they don’t end up playing professional baseball,” said Mark Hyman, the author of Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids.

The odds of being drafted by a professional baseball team for a high school baseball player are roughly 200 to 1, according to a report by the NCAA. That’s far better than most sports, mainly because of the numbers; there are 30 MLB franchises that carry 40-man rosters and an extensive farm system of minor league teams across the country. But getting drafted is one thing, and getting called up the Show—even for a “cup of coffee”—is something entirely different.

Young people who devote their lives to becoming pro players are taking a big gamble, according to Hyman. “It’s not a function of working really hard and wanting it badly,” he said. “You need those things, but you also need to have the genetics that put you on that path.”

Even with the right physique, the intense training that comes with playing a sport competitively can lead to injuries, derailing a young player’s career in an instant and potentially saddling them with pain or disability for the rest of their lives.

Talent also has a short shelf-life, according to Earl Smith, a professor of sociology at Wake Forest University who specializes in sports. High schools and colleges identify and groom star players at a young age; so athletes who aren’t put in the pipeline early don’t have much a chance of catching up later on.

“There used to be this phenomenon called the walk-on athlete, and everyone was excited when it happened,” Smith said. “Well, it doesn’t happen anymore.”

At the MLB tryout in Virginia, I spoke to Frank Joyner after he threw off the mound for the scouts. Ten pitches—that’s all he got to showcase his talent. The scouts watched the radar gun, but didn’t offer any reaction. “I was throwing harder than people around me, so that’s all I’m happy about,” Joyner says after walking off the mound.

Joyner’s father, Frank Sr., is optimistic. He drove through the night to get his son to the tryout on time. “We’ve done this for every vacation he’s ever wanted,” the elder Joyner told me. “I say ‘You want to go to Disney?’ He says, ‘No, I want to play baseball.’”

Frank Sr. is not the only parent at the tryout. Many of the younger players, some in their late teens and others in their early twenties, come to field with their dads.

The scene reminds me of my own teenage years. My grandfather (“Pop”) drove me to every baseball practice and game, and usually stayed to watch me play. I was a decent-enough player in the local leagues in Philadelphia, but didn’t made the high school squad.

Still, Pop was convinced that I could—and should—play in the Big Leagues. So when the Philadelphia Phillies held their own version of open tryouts back in the mid-1990s, he hounded me until I agreed to try out.

I appreciated the experience in the end. The tryout was fun, even if I never expected to be Lenny Dykstra’s teammate. But now, as an adult, I wonder whether that experience might have been more painful if I had indeed been a better player with inflated expectations of Major League glory.

Still, even Smith, the sociology professor, says he can’t blame a player for trying. “You’d be a fool not to give it a try,” he says. “The money is unbelievable.”

And you can’t really blame parents for supporting their kids for trying to make a team, even if it’s a statistical longshot. “You always want your kids to be able to pursue their dreams, as long as they’re mildly realistic,” Smith said.

The hard part is determining when the dream has gone from “mildly realistic” to “out of reach.” At 20 years old, Frank Joyner was one of the younger guys at the open tryout. Others were in the mid to late twenties. Some of them were good enough to merit a closer look from scouts, but no one walked away with a contract.

Hilary Levey Friedman, author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, believes children and parents need to be realistic when it comes to their commitment to sports as a career. “Even if a 26-year-old made it, what are they going to be doing when they’re 46?” she asks.

But she isn’t dogmatic about it.

“If someone is obsessed with it, that’s obviously unhealthy,” she says. “But this could just be developing another part of your personality. Working out, your physical health, the camaraderie…there are lots of benefits, but you don’t want to be obsessed with it.”

After the pitchers finished throwing, Fidler taps a few of them for a second round bullpen session. One colossus of a man who hit 96 mph on the gun piqued his interest, along with a few other young arms.

But the scouts never approach Joyner. He walks over to Fidler and speaks with him for a minute. Afterwards, I grab him for a moment to ask how it went. He’s composed, but his eyes appear moist.

“They’re not looking for accuracy, they’re looking for power, so I’ll have to throw harder next year,” he says.

I asked him what happens next.

“There’s plenty of adult leagues where I can continue my training,” he says. “And if they don’t like me next year, then maybe that will be it.”

Video produced by Geneva Sands and Jordan Fabian for Fusion Live. Video shot by Geneva Sands and edited by Geneva Sands and Gary Westphalen.