Baseball is back, but not all the way. The big-league season is entering its third full week and at least some fans are in the stands, restoring a modicum of normalcy.
One big thing, however, remains missing.
Raise your hand if you can’t wait for the return of minor-league baseball.
“I can’t wait,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said. “One of my favorite things to do as a manager is to read the minor-league report every day. You get the box scores and you see who was doing well and I didn’t get to do that at all last year, so I’m really looking forward to it.”
Plenty of people miss the minors even more than Girardi. In places like Allentown, Reading, and Lakewood, N.J., the spring and summer of 2020 wasn’t the same without the IronPigs, Fightin Phils, and BlueClaws. Baseball is finally scheduled to return to all those places May 4 and the Phillies’ top three affiliates will all open their seasons with six games at home.
“I’m excited for the minor-league season to start because these kids need to play,” Girardi said. “It’s the only way to improve and the only way to stay sharp and be ready if we need them and that was taken away from them last year and now it has been delayed this year.”
All minor-league players were impacted in one way or another by the COVID-19 cancellation of the 2020 season, but some players had to endure more than others. Jeff Singer and Zach Warren, a couple of left-handed relievers from South Jersey, fall into that category.
Singer, a 2011 graduate of Holy Cross Academy in Delran, took a circuitous route into the Phillies’ minor-league system, playing for three different schools (Gloucester County College, Monmouth University, and Rutgers-Camden) before working at a car dealership in the Northeast while keeping his dream alive by playing in the Rancocas Valley League in Burlington County. That led to a gig with the now-defunct Camden Riversharks, which led to a minor-league contract with the Phillies in October 2015.
Singer’s climb up the minor-league ladder has been slow and steady and he felt he had earned a non-roster invite to big-league spring training in 2020 by posting a 2.34 ERA and striking out 74 batters in 61 2/3 innings during his 2019 season at double-A Reading.
It did not come. He did not complain, but he did get a chance to pitch in a couple of big-league spring training games last year before camp was shut down by COVID-19. Singer got a save by striking out the only batter he faced on three pitches in a Feb. 23 game against Pittsburgh and then struck out three Boston Red Sox hitters on nine pitches on March 7. His second outing ended with a called third strike on Jeter Downs, one of the top prospects in baseball.
“I thought I should have had a big-league invite in 2020 and then I kind of felt like after what I did in spring in 2020 that I would get invited to the alternate site last year,” Singer said. “And then I thought I had a shot to get invited to this year’s big-league camp, but it’s just another thing I have to work hard to overcome. I just have to keep grinding.”
He did eventually join the alternate-site camp in early September after staying in shape by working out at the Scanzano Sports Center in Cherry Hill, where he both trains and teaches kids the art of pitching. The instruction helped him as much as it did the kids.
“When I got sent home, I was working at the Scanzano facility and I felt very lucky to be able to go there and train kids,” he said. “I really enjoy doing it because every time I tell the kids what they should be working on as pitchers, it’s usually something that I have to work on, too.”
Singer, 27, admitted to “feeling sorry for myself” at times last summer, but those thoughts are gone now. The focus is back on his big-league dream.
“One of the big things we talk about with our mental-skills coach here is that if you can’t control it, why worry about it?” Singer said. “Sometimes that’s the hardest thing, but we lost that time and now it’s in the past, so I’m just working hard to do whatever I can to get to the big leagues and help the Phillies.”
Warren, a 24-year-old lefty who graduated from St. Augustine Prep in Richland, N.J., in 2014, admitted his emotions last summer went beyond feeling sorry about his situation.
“I was downright ticked off most of the time,” he said. “At this point in my career you’re looking at putting a string of one or two good months and either being in the big leagues or at least knocking on the door. And then you have this hiccup that was out of your control. It stunk. It was terrible. You can say that we are back this year with the same opportunity, but we had a whole year shaved off our career. There’s no getting that back.”
Warren would have likely started last season at double-A Reading after accumulating a combined 180 strikeouts and a 2.62 ERA during the 2018 and 2019 seasons at Lakewood and Clearwater.
Unlike Singer, Warren was invited to big-league camp as a non-roster player and it meant the world to him.
“Absolutely huge,” he said. “It was a very close call. I think I might have been the last guy invited and I was unbelievably grateful for the opportunity. From a mental standpoint, it felt like the biggest thing in the world.”
Warren appeared in four games and was asked to get just one out in the first three. His fourth appearance came during a disastrous eighth inning against Detroit late in spring training. As a team the Phillies gave up eight runs and blew an 8-1 lead. Warren walked all three batters he faced.
“It was the inning from hell and I didn’t help at all,” he said.
Singer believes he is better now than before even though more than 14 months will have passed since his sensational nine-pitch Grapefruit League performance against the Red Sox.
“I think I’m better,” he said. “I was able to sit back during the off time and break down my game as far as my strengths and my weaknesses and I really feel like that helped me coming down here this year. I’m in great shape as far as how my arm feels and I’m really confident and strong. I’m ready to go out there and compete.”
Warren, likewise, is ready to compete. He was disappointed that he did not get an invite to the alternate-site camp out of spring training, but now he thinks it could be a blessing in disguise.
“I can’t wait to get back in a regular-season game where the scores really count and you can help your team win a game,” Warren said. “There’s nothing like the satisfaction of going into the clubhouse and everybody is happy that you’ve won.”
There’s nothing like minor-league baseball either and fortunately – COVID-19 permitting – it is going to return to ballparks near you soon.