America’s filthiest motel room
I’d just finished pitching in the U18s national championships grand final, 2008. Our NSW team had lost to Queensland, so I was walking out of the clubhouse upset.
My dad, Peter, was one of the first people I saw. He was smiling. I walked up to him and he shook my hand and hugged me.
He said, ‘You’re now a professional baseball player’.
It took me a moment to realise what he’d just said, then he told me that he and mum had agreed to a deal with the Philadelphia Phillies.
It was January 14 – my 17th birthday.
In November that same year, dad passed away after a long battle with cancer. He was just 59.
I remember my dad telling me when I was younger, when I was upset after a really bad game I pitched, ‘You will become a professional pitcher one day. This is just one bad day’.
And the last words he ever said to me, the day before he passed away: ‘Never give up, believe in your dreams. I’ll always be with you’.
They are words I hold dear to my heart.
Dad’s passing was a devastating moment on what was a pretty rough road before I even got to the US.
I had to finish school in 2008, then we lost Dad, and in January 2009, I caught glandular fever and that delayed my arrival to the States by a month.
I didn’t do too great my first year there in 2009, playing with the Phillies’ Gulf Coast League team; a rookie team on the fifth-tier of pro baseball, below MLB, AAA, AA and A.
I was facing much harder competition than ever before. I was away from home by myself for the first time and I wasn’t mentally prepared for the physical grind.
I turned up to spring training in 2010 and didn’t produce straight away, so the Phillies released me. But the grind was only beginning.
I’m currently unemployed.
Unfortunately, the Minnesota Twins decided to release me not too long ago – for the second time.
It came as a huge shock, because I’ve pitched really well for the last five years here, been on three all-star teams and won two championships at AA level. I felt that record warranted a spot on the team. But after five solid years, the Twins saw that I hadn’t pitched well for a two-week stretch and that I had a minor injury – so they cut me.
It was after a night game. I was getting ready to leave the field and the manager called me into his office.
Before I had the chance to say anything or wonder why I was in there, the manager said, ‘We’re going to give you your release’.
In the few days prior to this happening, we acquired a few other pitchers in trades with other organisations. So the reason they gave me was, ‘We just couldn’t find a spot for you’.
Part of the dark side of baseball, unfortunately, is that if they don’t have any money invested in you, you’re very expendable. I signed for no money – so I was gone. It’s a ruthless business.
I’m in the middle of finding my next team. Baseball is all I’ve known as a job; I’ve never really put much thought into what else I could be doing.
The last words dad ever said to me, the day before he passed away: ‘Never give up, believe in your dreams. I’ll always be with you.’
The Twins gave me my second chance right back in 2011. After being cut by the Phillies, I returned home and paid my way to attend the MLB Australian Academy on the Gold Coast, in the hope of signing in the States again.
I pitched well enough there for Minnesota to give me a shot in 2011, but again, I just underperformed. During the offseason, the Twins released me.
Back home, I was lucky enough to pitch in the Australian Baseball League with the Sydney Blue Sox. My velocity spiked and scouts started calling me, asking if I wanted to play professional baseball again. Obviously, I did. In February 2014, just a few weeks before spring training that year, the Twins gave me my third chance.
That’s now come to an end, but I’m hoping there will be a fourth chance, somewhere. I’m still only 27.
If I didn’t think I could pitch in the major leagues, I wouldn’t be here still. If it never happens, I at least want to know that I chased my dream as far as the universe allowed me to.
Obligatory “my old teammate/roommate/ one time catch partner is making his big league debut today so here’s a photo of us together in our minor league days” photo
Many proud. Much excitement. The Franchise pic.twitter.com/fB16lP91Bf
— Todd Van Steensel (@toddvs35) August 20, 2018
WHAT THE MINORS ARE REALLY LIKE
Minor league baseball quickly reminded me that I’m not special.
I went from being the big fish in a small pond to the small fish in a huge pond. Everyone was as good, if not better, than me. It’s a huge adjustment to make. You really have to humble yourself.
You play with players from Latin America, Europe and Asia, and they’re all hungry for your spot. There’s not one day where you get to relax and take it easy, because those guys don’t.
The biggest misconception of the minor leagues is that we make big money, just like MLB. Far from it.
Some guys are lucky enough to get million-dollar signing bonuses, but once you start playing, you’ll be lucky to bring in $1500 a month in salary.
This year, playing with the Chattanooga Lookouts in Tennessee, was the most I’ve ever been paid: $1900 a month before taxes. After taxes, $1523. It’s enough to get by, but there are some struggles that come with making such little money.
My apartment’s rent was $736 this season, so on pay day each fortnight, nearly all that salary was going straight to rent. I lived with three other teammates. People always say we shouldn’t complain, because we’re living out a dream; just because it’s a dream doesn’t mean there aren’t struggles.
A sad story in 280 characters:
8/1/18 -Get paid $729
8/5/18 -Pay $736 rent
8/7/18 -Get released
Get told by apartment complex they can’t reimburse me for my rent
Get told by former organisation they can’t reimburse me for my rent
Don’t like it, play better #AllPartOfIt
— Todd Van Steensel (@toddvs35) August 13, 2018
Sometimes, home seems like luxury.
One of the worst places I’ve ever stayed in on the road, and I’m sure many guys who have played in the Midwest League would agree with me, is a certain inn located in Beloit, Wisconsin. I slept fully clothed on top of the blankets and put a shirt over my pillow. The place seemed like a health risk.
The longest bus ride I’ve done was 14 hours, from Fort Myers, Florida, to Elizabethton, Tennessee. The worst part was that with about an hour to go, the bus broke down. We spent three hours on the side of the road.
My first two years of pro ball, I didn’t have an iPhone, so bus rides really sucked. But now I have all the Netflix I want to watch. That helps time fly by. Also, a bunch of my teammates and I each bought a Nintendo DS and Mario Kart. We were able to connect up eight at once and we spent hours racing on the bus.
It really is fun. But there are some very stressful times. When the season starts and you have two days to find housing in a city you’ve never been in, that’s always tough. I spent five nights sleeping on a couch at the start of the 2017 season.
I slept fully clothed on top of the blankets and put a shirt over my pillow. The place seemed like a health risk.
The bus rides aren’t always fun, especially when you travel through the night on an eight-hour ride and don’t get any sleep because you’re doubled up with another teammate and then you have to be at the field by 2pm the next day.
We usually get one day off every two weeks, so most days run exactly the same. You turn up to the field around 2pm, stretch out and head to the training room to loosen up. Then I like to relax before we head out for stretch and batting practice around 4pm. Once that is all done, which usually takes just over an hour, we get ready for the game, typically starting at 7pm. Then sleep, repeat.
We can complain all we want about any of this crazy stuff, but it’s all part of the grind. All part of what makes these times so special in our lives.
There are days when you question whether it’s worth it. Days when you pitch badly and you wonder if you’re wasting your time, or when you’re pitching well and guys get promoted instead of you. Then you think to yourself, ‘What am I doing here?’
At the end of the day, those are just small thoughts, because you realise you get to do something you really love for a living. That trumps any negatives about being a minor leaguer.
FANS, TEAMS & BROKEN BONES
The fans in minor league baseball tend to be pretty tame, but they like to heckle you from time to time.
One of my favourite places to play was in Daytona Beach. The fans are right on top of us in the bullpen and they like to give it to us. They Google our names, find out whatever they can about us and use it against us while we warm up. It was always in good fun there and they never crossed the line. Only when fans start to get personal and curse loudly do you take exception.
Last year in Jacksonville, we had streakers run on to the field during the game. One teammate who had had enough said he would tackle the next guy who did it. Credit to him: the next night, a fan jumped the fence, started running, but didn’t get too far, as my teammate got a hold of him and tackled him to the ground. I couldn’t believe he actually did it!
Our ballpark in Chattanooga, AT&T Field, was one of the older ones in the league; capacity a little over 6000 and falling apart. Our bullpen was tucked away behind the outfield wall and we’ve seen some wild things back there. Cats, raccoons and one day, a homeless man gave us a shock when we saw him rustling around in the nearby bushes.
Last year’s Chattanooga Lookouts was the most enjoyable team I’ve been on, easily.
We won the division in the first half of the season and in the second half, we went 58-22. We had a lot of veterans and young prospects, we gelled well together and seemed destined to win each night.
We made the championship series against Montgomery, and with the series tied 2-2 and down by one run in the ninth inning of the fifth and final game, destiny was on our side. Our lead-off hitter hit a weak infield single and he beat it out. Then our team MVP, Jonathan Rodriguez, launched the first ball he saw over the left field fence to win us the championship. It was an amazing end to a fairytale season.
"Great moments are born from great opportunities"
— Todd Van Steensel (@toddvs35) September 12, 2017
I had a chance to play with Corendon Kinheim in the Dutch Major League in 2012, and it was a lot of fun. Each game is played with so much passion. I played with guys who had been to the Olympics, as well as guys who had never played outside Holland; a really different group.
Looking back on how it panned out, I can only laugh.
My friend, Luke Wilkins, who was playing in Belgium at the time, came to Holland to hang out for a few days. We played a small game of one-on-one basketball and at the end of it, I decided to dunk. I had the ball. Dribbled up to the rim. Jumped. Grabbed the rim, slammed the ball against the backboard, then came crashing down and landed on my left elbow.
I really did a number on it. It was dislocated, broken in three places; the radial head was shattered and I tore my medical ligament. To this day, I still can’t straighten my left arm and I have nice scar to show people.
The worst part was that I missed out on winning the championship. I left Holland with about six weeks to go in the season and the team went on to win it all.
But a few weeks later, I received a gold medal in the mail from my team, with a small note that just said, ‘You are Dutch Champion’. Beautiful.
PLAYING FOR AUSTRALIA
I played my first game for the Rooty Hill Blues U8s, back in 1998.
I played second base and didn’t have any baseball pants or cleats. I turned up in my black track pants and Lynx joggers. I have an everlasting memory of my coach, George Ward, walking off the field with his hands raised saying, ‘We won!’ The season before, his team didn’t win a single game.
I didn’t start taking baseball seriously until I was 14 or 15 years old. I used to try-out for representative teams and got cut regularly. It motivated me; I wanted to prove people wrong.
Since I didn’t know about professional baseball, let alone the minors, my big goal growing up was to represent Australia at the Olympics. I remember watching Australia beat Japan at Athens 2004 to advance to the gold medal game; I told myself, ‘That’s what I want – to go to the Olympics’.
We have been preparing for Tokyo 2020 for years and, in all honesty, we will be putting a squad together with the ability to shock the world, just like 2004. Our young guys will only get better and our veterans will continue to steer the ship, so I really like our chances.
— Australian Baseball League (@ABL) August 23, 2018
Each time I play for my country is a blessing, but if I had to choose a No.1 moment, it would be playing for Team Australia against the Arizona Diamondbacks at the Sydney Cricket Ground. It was an amazing experience to be able to represent my country, in front of my friends and family, against a Major League Baseball team on one of the most famous sporting grounds in the world.
I remember running out to the mound and telling myself to slow down and take it all in, because this might be a once in a lifetime opportunity. I wanted to savour every single moment.
I hope that wasn’t it; my one and only chance to pitch against a major league team.
I’m still dreaming. Still grinding.