Just as a college professor weeds out first-year students, or as New York City -- the place Trenton Thunder players aspire to reach -- challenges the moxie of aspiring actors, Double-A baseball often tests players in ways more challenging than any they've experienced in their careers.
There are just 30 Double-A teams across the country -- one for each Big League organization -- compared to the 82 clubs that play in seven different affiliated A-ball leagues. The significant decrease in roster spots as players climb the Minor League ladder means the talent level spikes at Double-A. The tier is filled with prospects on their way to the Majors, along with some veterans trying to hold on for another season.
"It's an opportunity to play against better competition," said Yankees vice president of player development Gary Denbo. "It's an opportunity for hitters to face better arms, better command, guys that have control of their secondary pitches. It's an opportunity for pitchers to face hitters that are more advanced in terms of their discipline at the plate and their ability to hurt you when you make mistakes."
When Gary Sanchez reached Double-A for the first time in 2013, the 20-year-old catcher hit .250 with just eight extra-base hits in 23 games. First baseman Christopher Austin, meanwhile, spent parts of four seasons with the Thunder before finally advancing to Triple-A in 2015.
Once players surpass Double-A, anything is possible. Sanchez found Big League success so quickly -- after just one incredible late-summer run -- that his image is already alongside those of Dellin Betances, Brett Gardner, Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte on the façade of the suite level at Arm & Hammer Park in Trenton.
In 2017, another special group of Yankees prospects will strive for success under the brighter spotlight of the Eastern League. Trenton's 2017 Opening Day roster featured third baseman Miguel Andujar, shortstop Gleyber Torres and starting pitchers Chance Adams and Justus Sheffield -- four of the Yankees' top 10 prospects, according to MLB.com -- as well as seven players, including Torres, getting their first taste of Double-A.
"A lot of these guys haven't been to this level," said second-year Thunder Manager Bobby Mitchell. "So they don't realize the jump and the attention to detail that it takes here to win ballgames and move up to the next level."
Big Leaguers in the Making
Under the palpable expectations of the big club's fan base, the Thunder welcomed Boston's Double-A affiliate, the Portland Sea Dogs, to Trenton for their home opener on April 13. Mitchell handed the ball to right-hander Chance Adams who -- compared to many of his Thunder teammates -- almost qualifies as a Double-A veteran.
New York's fifth-round draft pick in 2015 went 8-1 with a 2.07 ERA in 13 games for the Thunder in 2016 and opened this season with 5 2⁄3 no-hit innings at Erie on April 8. That Adams found fast success in the Eastern League is not totally surprising; pitchers posted a 3.80 ERA across the three Double-A leagues in 2016, almost four-tenths of a run better than the Major League average. In general, at this stage of development, the arms have a tendency to be ahead of hitters.
"Everybody has more control," said Torres, the Yankees' top-rated prospect. "I think it's the biggest difference from High-A to Double-A."
Adams went out and proved Torres right, striking out four of the first nine hitters he faced and holding the Sea Dogs hitless through four frames. The Thunder staked the right-hander to a 5-0 lead before Rafael Devers, Boston's No. 1 prospect, singled to begin the fifth, becoming the first player to notch a hit off Adams in 2017. Adams' night came to an end after he allowed three runs -- one earned -- and could not escape the sixth. Nonetheless, he was named Eastern League Pitcher of the Week.
"He seems to be pretty much ready for the next level," Mitchell said. "Some of these guys are so good and talented that they're just kind of refining stuff, and Chance is one of them."
The same can be said for Justus Sheffield. Despite appearing in just one Double-A regular-season game prior to 2017, the southpaw from Tennessee looked plenty comfortable picking up a win in his season debut on April 12 at Akron, allowing just one unearned run in 5 2⁄3 innings.
"We expect a lot of good things from him as long as we have him," Mitchell said. "He's just a Big Leaguer in the making really, as you watch him pitch and mature."
While the arms were posting zeroes on the scoreboard, the position players were trending in the right direction. Andujar, who hit just two home runs in 72 games with the Thunder in 2016, clubbed two home runs on April 9 at Erie and drove in four runs on April 12 at Akron. And center fielder Rashad Crawford, who stands 6 foot 3 and was recruited to play basketball out of Mundy's Mill High School in Georgia, looked primed to continue his streak of improving his on-base percentage and his stolen base total each season since 2014.
"Baseball is a very mental game," Crawford said. "There's a lot of challenges in the game; it's a game of failure. Playing other sports besides baseball helped me athletically, adjusting, but I have to work on the mental part -- day-by-day, pitch-by-pitch."
As for the 20-year-old Torres, he was hitting .257 through April 16, on the heels of his MVP performance in the Arizona Fall League, but still reaching base at a healthy clip.
Forging a Connection
While on-field performance matters, the Minor Leagues also allow for more personal interactions between players and fans. The players aren't stars yet, so most of the fans aren't star struck. Ron and Lorraine Rabel have held Thunder season tickets since 1994, when the franchise -- then a Tigers affiliate -- moved to the Garden State from London, Ontario. Trenton was then Boston's Double-A team, from 1995 to 2002, before the Yankees took over in 2003. The Rabels are Yankees fans, but that's not the only reason they come back year after year.
"We were here through Detroit, and then eight years (of) Boston -- I was never a Boston fan, never will be," Ron Rabel said. "But I was here to support that they had a 'T' on their hat. It's a local team."
Players' parents often sit in the rows neighboring the Rabels' seats, striking up conversations and building relationships over the course of the summer. So it was with pride that Lorraine Rabel watched Jordan Montgomery limit the Rays to two earned runs in his Big League debut on April 12, just a year after getting to know his parents over a summer in Trenton.
The satisfaction the Rabels describe is reminiscent of the way Mitchell talks about the day batting practice screeched to a halt last August when the team paused to watch Tyler Austin make his first MLB plate appearance -- and hit a home run.
"It's always fun to see them go up there and have some success," said Mitchell, who played parts of four seasons with the Dodgers and Twins. "That home run that Tyler hit was awesome, everybody was just going crazy here in the locker room. Everything stops just to watch these guys [make] their debuts."
Austin was a member of the 2015 Thunder team that produced several players -- including Judge, Sanchez, Greg Bird and Luis Severino -- who are expected to contribute heavily to the Yankees this season. It's a team against which the 2017 Thunder will be measured.
"That year we were pretty darn good in the first couple months of the season and then you had Judge, Bird, Severino and even Sanchez start to graduate to Triple-A, which is great," said Thunder General Manager Jeff Hurley. "We'll see what this year entails, but to start the season, we couldn't have asked for a better prospect list than what we have."
This is Hurley's 14th season with the Thunder, and his second as GM. Like the fans, he welcomes the players back from Spring Training every April, but the baseball season to him also means showcasing Case's Pork Roll stand on the ballpark's concourse, greeting season ticket holders he hasn't seen all offseason and sharing in the sense of accomplishment his staff feels at the end of the night.
"The special part about Opening Day is that as a front office, we all come together as one because it's all hands on deck," he said. "Whether you're the general manager, controller or a ticket salesperson, everybody's staying after hours to help out wherever you can to get the ballpark the way it's looking tonight. To see all the fans coming through and ready for baseball in Trenton, it's like a sigh of relief that the season's here and you know you're ready to go."
A Light at the End of the Tunnel
After Adams exited the game with a 5-3 lead in the sixth, each team added one run before Cale Coshow closed the game for the Thunder with three strikeouts in the ninth. Trenton picked up its fourth win of the season, 6-4, in front of 6,873 fans -- the best crowd the Thunder have had for a home opener since 2010. Adams earned the win, and his batterymate, Jorge Saez, homered and drove in three runs. It was exactly the kind of night fans hope to get from the Thunder all year, the type of game that helps substantiate all the hype surrounding the Yankees' suddenly robust farm system. It was a night for the believers, a group growing by the day.
"We have a really talented squad this year, a lot of top prospects," said outfielder Zack Zehner, who hit .444 on the team's season-opening road trip. "I think we hold ourselves to a higher standard."
"We have a lot of talent, a great pitching staff, great position players, so an all-around good group of guys," Crawford added. "I'm hoping to get a ring."
For a player such as Adams, the top healthy right-handed pitching prospect in the Yankees system, the Big Leagues could be just around the corner. For Crawford, Torres or Zehner, three players who have never played at Double-A before, the Bronx might be further away, but it's still on the horizon.
"I think guys start to realize that you are very close to making it, and guys start pushing themselves," Zehner said. "I think they see the light at the end of the tunnel and say, 'You know, this is real. Let's get to work.'"
With hard work and the right mentality, members of the Thunder could go from playing underneath the images of Betances, Gardner and Sanchez to playing alongside them at Yankee Stadium by the end of the summer. It's a lofty goal. But what's the point of being a Minor League player -- or a Minor League fan -- if you're not going to dream big?