The Lessons of Baseball at Low-A: Reflections on Travis Demeritte’s Suspension

I have two adult children (plus one who is a middle schooler), including my son, who is currently 20-years-old at college. We can see him pretty much anytime we want to make the hour drive up the mountains to Boone. But my wife and I generally leave him to be who he is and make his own path. It was difficult to drop that first kid off to college; it was no easier for the second.

I can’t help but think about my kids – they will always be my kids – as I meet the players who come to Hickory to play baseball each year. Many of them are 18-20 years old, the approximate age of my son.

When they come here, they have already accomplished a great deal. They were the best of their various hometown high schools, or travel teams, or baseball academies. A few of them were among the best in their state or region. They may have been the best at a showcase event. Then they come to Hickory and the real learning about baseball begins.

You see, playing baseball as an 18-20 year old is more than about the game. Where most kids – especially U.S. kids – have had everything in life done for them, now they’re on their own. Part of learning the game at low-A is the “off the field”. It’s simply learning how to be an adult.  How to get an apartment, how to turn on the electricity, the water, the cable… how to find your way around a new city… (If you’ve never been to Hickory, it’s an adventure to find such things as 15th Street Place NW; trust me on that one.)… if you don’t speak the language, finding teammates that do and leaning on them for support and rides to the ballpark… how to budget your time away from the park – what little off time you do have – how to budget the meager money you make … finding a way to get your car fixed, and the money to do so… How to make a home in a strange city, but then to be ready to pack it all up at a moment’s notice and move to another city. There’s so much you have to pick up and learn, especially off the field.

Often I will ask the younger players what’s the hardest part of adjusting to pro ball. Their answers are almost always about learning to deal with stuff off the field.

When I look at these kids, and then think about my own, I wonder how they do it. How do they grow up in a few short months after living at home? I wonder how much they miss home, just like my kids did. I wonder what goes through their minds when they struggle to find that same groove they had “back in the day” that for many was just a few months earlier.

I imagine they have parents, who wonder like I did:  Are they ok? Are they getting enough to eat? Are they being treated well? Are they happy? When they struggle in a game, or in a stretch of games, do they call home longing for a kind word from a parent after being reamed out by a manager or coach, or after tough run-ins with teammates? Among the struggles of life itself, they’re still there to do one thing: play baseball for 140 games in 152 days. And you’d better be good, or else you’re out of your dream job at an early age.

It’s a man’s game, this baseball is; but at this level, it really is played by boys learning to be men. Some can handle it; some can’t… even the top-round picks. Baseball is a game about failure. At this level, failure is a new experience for the kids who were once the best. Some figure it out quickly and have the drive and self-motivation to work through the rough patches of their profession. The others, who were all-world at home, can’t understand the failure they now wallow in.

I thought about this stuff tonight after finding out about Travis Demeritte’s suspension for the use of a banned substance. Demeritte is from the area (Winder, Ga.) where my grandmother grew up, so we occasionally struck up conversations about the area—me about the past, him about the present. I did a feature column on him last year and spoke in passing a few times this year about how things were going. Demeritte has always been positive in my conversations. He never ducked questions about his strikeouts or his struggles at the plate. He had his ups-and-downs, but more positives than negatives, especially with his defense. Now this. All I could say when I saw the news was, “Damn.”

Here is a kid 20 days older than my son, who apparently felt so much pressure to succeed that he committed “an error in judgment” (the term used in his statement) to take a substance used in horse racing. Ironically, in this race to succeed, he’s likely now further behind than at any point of his pro career and that’s sad.

Having a 20-year-old who’s trying to figure out life, and struggling to do so, I can see him taking a shortcut here and there, hoping no one finds out. I think many of us at that age have had those moments. And I think many of us have learned it never really works out.

Unfortunately, that’s another lesson a 20-year-old learns; it’s just far too late with potentially far bigger consequences for his career.

I wish Travis the best and hope he gets it together… lesson learned.

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