Below is a guest blog from Katya Cengel. Her new book Bluegrass Baseball describes a year in the life of four minor league baseball teams in Kentucky that tell a larger story about the culture atmosphere of today's minor leagues.
Two years ago I was interviewing Jose Altuve in a crowded apartment in Lexington, Kentucky. Altuve had recently made the South Atlantic League All Star roster. But he wasn’t pleased with his performance. He was in the Minor Leagues; A, close to the bottom. He knew he could do better and he was right because today the 22-year-old second baseman is an All Star again — for the Major Leagues.
During the 2010 season I followed Altuve and his Lexington Legends teammate Jiovanni Mier for my book “Bluegrass Baseball: A Year in the Minor League Life” out this month. The two were both sweet, earnest hard working kids but otherwise a pair of contrasts, Mier at 6’2 as tall as Altuve, at barely 5’5, was small. Back then Mier was the one most people talked about. He was a first round draft pick out of high school and received a signing bonus of $1.358 million. Altuve was signed out of Venezuela at 17 for $20,000.
A California native with a former cheerleader for a girlfriend, Mier shared an apartment with two or three teammates and drove to games in a splashy SUV. His place was stocked with homemade casseroles and flat screen televisions. Altuve shared the same size place with close to a dozen Latin players who slept mostly on blow up mattresses and formed a line in the morning to shower. He had a bed but little else, leaving photos of family and friends back in Venezuela out of sight so he wouldn’t miss them as much. When I visited, his birthday had recently passed and deflated balloons decorated the otherwise blank wall above his bed. It was sticky hot outside and he had a plastic fan going. There was maybe a foot of space between his twin bed and that of his roommate’s. The entire apartment cleared out early so they could get rides to the ballpark with their car-owning American teammates.
Altuve’s energy impressed coaches who called him a “spitfire” and his matching dimples made him a fan favorite, but sports writers mused that his small stature might keep him from making the majors. Instead he got there in record time, bypassing many of his peers, including Mier, who are still climbing the slow ladder from A to AA and finally AAA before making the majors.
I imagine things are easier for Altuve now. I hope they stay that way. But as a writer I’ll always find his minor league years the most fascinating and exciting.