SARASOTA, Fla. -- Contrary to popular belief, the life of a professional athlete is not all glitz and glamour.
Skeptical? Ask any Minor Leaguer about logging thousands of miles on a charter bus headed for rural destinations spread across the country.
“It’s so horrible,” Orioles starter John Means said with a chuckle on Friday morning. “At [Class A] Delmarva, I think we averaged eight hours a trip. But back in low A, you’re just happy to be there. You’re happy you’re getting paid to play a game.”
Misery loves company, as the old saying goes, and Means said those trips were made infinitely better by a camaraderie forged between players. He’s lucky enough to have three of those long-ago guys still with him in the clubhouse this spring. Overnight bus trips and carrying their own equipment are now long-ago memories, but the bond the quartet formed in the early days continues to grow.
David Hess (fifth round), Tanner Scott (sixth), Stevie Wilkerson (eighth) and Means (11th) were all Draft picks in Baltimore's 2014 class. What’s more, they navigated the Minor Leagues at nearly the same pace, and all but Scott made their Major League debut in '18 (Scott broke through as a September callup in '17).
“We went from 12 hours on low A buses to plane rides,” Means said. “We’ve been together pretty much all the way up. It’s pretty rare for that to happen at every single level. Having a young clubhouse, you get to experience that, which is nice.”
It's a four-man club with an exclusive membership that provides the advantage of knowing intimately what’s happened in the past as well as lending a hand to the future.
Means spent the 2018 offseason working out at the St. Louis-based P3 Premier Pitching and Performance, something he credits with assisting his transformation from non-prospect to American League All-Star and the O's staff ace. As he saw Hess weather a difficult season on the hill in '19, Means dished about his time at P3 and Hess was off to the races.
“We’ve talked about tons of stuff,” Hess said. “I asked him what he did and what he learned, and I ended up going out there through his recommendation.”
The immediate payoff for Hess was glowing praise from manager Brandon Hyde, who called the 26-year-old’s offseason “huge,” and added the pitching staff was impressed with Hess’ transformation so far this spring.
Looking ahead, it may have also earned Hess a longer leash. He finished last year in the bullpen but will be stretched out in Grapefruit League games, Hyde said, because nothing in the Orioles’ rotation is concrete beyond Means and Alex Cobb.
There are nearly 40 pitchers in camp for Baltimore, and with Hess on the cusp of the rotation or bullpen, how well he performs in the next few weeks will ultimately determine his future.
“We’re going to see how the first three or four appearances go, giving him multiple innings, and then make a decision from there,” Hyde said.
As for the remaining pair, Scott is fighting for a spot in a crowded bullpen. Wilkerson was designated for assignment Jan. 31 to make room on the roster for Travis Lakins, but he remains in camp as a utility option for now.
If it were up to Means, the band would stay together, the same as it has all along. Hyde, who spent four seasons in the Minors as a player and another five as a manager, agreed there’s something special about long-term connections in such a transient sport.
“When you go through your player-development track, and you do it with the same people, that means a lot,” Hyde said. “Those players sometimes know each other better than anybody because of the experiences they’ve had together, whether it’s through winning and through losing and through all sorts of adversity.
“The things that you face together, there’s a togetherness that happens, and so it’s cool to see our guys grow together.”