Jack Kruger was about to start a season with another minor league baseball team, the Salt Lake Bees, an AAA Division team in Utah, when his cell phone rang.
Boarded the first plane to Los Angeles, his manager said.
The Angels, Salt Lake’s parent club, are pitching Kruger to specialists to replace a concussion catcher. The Angels were playing the Tampa Bay Rays that night, May 6, 2021, and he was supposed to be there.
Kruger, a 2016 20th-round drafter who spent five seasons with the underage team, hopped on a plane and arrived in the Angels’ locker room an hour before his first game.
In the dugout, everything feels eerie. He looked around and spotted Shohei Ohtani, and beside him was Mike Trout. Not too bad for a new pair of teammates.
He watched from the bench as the game went by quickly. Fifth round. Friday. Saturday. Finally, in the ninth inning, Kruger received the nod. He jogged over to the plate, eyes focused, wearing shin guards, chest guards, and a catcher’s mask.
There is no time to properly warm up. He made only six throws instead of his usual practice of 40. What if he had to make a quick shot to base two? Will the ball go to the field? Will it hit the thrower?
But everything went perfect. The Angels had three quick appearances. Final score: Tampa Bay 8, Los Angeles 3. Kruger’s team lost, and he never beat, but at least he tasted big time.
Here’s the thing about professional baseball: It didn’t take long for harsh reality to crumble.
The next day, as Kruger prepared for his second game against the Angels, a team executive pulled him aside. Kruger thought he was about to receive a warm congratulations. Instead, the executive informed him that he was being assigned to a mission – a kind of baseball purgatory. If no other team wants him, the Angels can either send him back with a minor or cut him off completely.
The day after Kruger achieved his baseball dream, he didn’t know what would happen next. He is 26 years old.
Next season could be another baseball year ravaged by a labor war between major league players and team owners. Spring training? Delayed. Regular seasons? Threatened.
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But as billionaires argue with millionaires, the minor league baseball leagues continue. Not bored with the big league talks, its teams are holding spring training. The season will begin on April 5.
What better time to celebrate the underdogs, the overachievers, and the untested talents that humble minors?
I contacted Kruger after he wrote on social media about its tagline through minors. Hearing his story in a series of conversations, I found that he embodies an often overlooked type of intrepid persistence that focuses heavily on the big league stars.
In the days after his throat was cut, uncertainty intertwined. Will the Angels bring him back? Will some other team pick him up? Baseball’s moves are often dictated by time, and if timing is off, will this be the end of his quest?
Kruger has always been an underdog. As a child, he contracted Perthes disease, a hip disorder that forced him to use crutches for nearly two years in high school.
When he was done with crutches and the pain subsided, he began to practice baseball. The sound of a ball hitting his bat, the thrill of making a blinding throw – every part of the game made him feel that’s exactly where he belonged. Because the disorder slowed his growth, he was often the smallest player on the field until mid-year in high school.
“The only way I can keep up is to be really skilled,” he told me. “Also, by working harder than everyone else and never listening to people who tried to set limits on me.”
He will build on that determination after struggling as a player during his freshman year at the University of Oregon. He transferred schools and played for a junior college team, perfected.
Few could have imagined his comeback then. But John Cohen, who served as the coach of the mighty Mississippi State, saw Kruger’s wish. His leadership. His intelligence. Outside of school, Kruger tries to read one book a week. He taught himself to play the ukulele. He likes to talk about science, history, religion – anything and everything.
Cohen, now Mississippi State athletic director, said: “Jack has what I call a ‘findable ingredient”. “He’s the guy who can figure out how to get off the island. He could be on Wall Street right now, he could be in business right now, he could be a lawyer right now. But he loves baseball too much.”
Kruger, then broad-shouldered, strong and over an inch tall, played a single year at Mississippi State, displaying phenomenal potential. He won the all-round title, finishing with a batting average of 0.345 and eight home runs. But his throwing shoulder surgery overshadowed the interest of professional scouts. The Angels, who declined to comment for this column, took a look at what kind of person he might be. They lured him in from his senior year with an unusually large sum for the 20th round drawer: a signing bonus of almost $400,000.
So began Kruger’s mini-tournament journey.
2016: Rookie ball in Utah with Orem Owlz.
2017: Class A, split between the Burlington Bees of Iowa and the Inland Empire 66ers of California.
2018 and 2019: AA in Alabama with Mobile BayBears, who moved and is now The Pandas in Rocket City’s Trash Thùng.
2020: The start of the pandemic season is cut short, as he runs away between tournament minor games in Southern California.
He remembered each stop as if he were still living there. The loneliness of being away from home and family for six, seven, eight months a year. Incredibly long game seasons ending near midnight, meals of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, 10-hour and 12-hour bus rides to small-town games that you’ve never heard of.
After paying his agent and his taxes, Kruger deposits his signing bonus into savings and uses it to increase his minor league salary, which ranges from $1,000 to $2,500 a year. month. He drives a broken-down 2002 Lexus and rents a two-bedroom apartment in San Bernardino, California, where he shares a room with six teammates. Sometimes a player will sleep on an air mattress in the kitchen.
Through it all, perhaps the hardest part is the precariousness.
Sometimes, young novices fall into a mindset that Kruger calls “playing GM.” It’s tempting to read the CEO’s mind and determine if every move of the main office what it means for each player’s future.
You worry and you worry, and then he says, “You start to feel like you have to perform better and better. You have to produce. Now there is too much pressure on you. And you’re away from friends and family, you don’t make a lot of money, so that’s a worry. You are not eating properly and are not getting the right nutrition. You don’t get enough sleep. A domino effect begins, and it can take your eyes off the prize for the sake of the end.”
He needs focus and determination more than ever when the Angels assign him a mission.
And this time, everything was fine. One afternoon a few days later, as he was walking with his wife on a beach in Ventura County in California near his childhood home, his cell phone rang again. This time it was his representative.
“Congratulations,” his agent said. “You are the Texas Ranger. Texas just declared you. ”
Come here, thought Kruger. A new adventure.
Kruger vowed to keep honing. It helps that playing halftimes in the pro leagues automatically increases his farm salary: He says he now makes about $60,000 a season.
He will most likely play this year in Texas for the Round Rock Express, the Rangers’ AAA Division team, where he ended last season in a tear.
“I find myself at Rangers, behind the food, helping lead the team to victory in the World Series,” he said. “You have to be delusional in a way. Confidence in you 110 percent believe you are the right person for the job. And if other people don’t see it, they’re wrong, and you have to show them.”
“I’ve done that my whole career,” he added.
Last week, he drove an hour west from his small apartment in Mesa, Ariz., to Rangers’ spring training stadium in Surprise, Ariz.
At the stadium, he reveled in his spacious new locker, which has his name engraved on a red plaque next to the “T” logo representing the Texas Rangers.
He put on his uniform and walked on the field, busy doing business, focusing on the task.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/28/sports/minor-league-baseball-jack-kruger.html A Leaguer’s Long Slog for the Young Masters, and His Short Trip back