Multi-million dollar contracts. World-class clubhouse perks. The roar of 50,000 die-hard fans as you crush a clutch homer. These are the things baseball is all about, right?
Actually, that stuff is just for the big leaguers. The reality of playing in Double-A ball is quite a bit different, and Suns leftfielder Austin Dean suffers no illusions about the lack of glamour involved.
“It’s tough,” he said about life in the minor leagues, with its long bus rides, small paychecks, frequent lack of comfort or routine, and uncertainty about where and when you might be promoted (or demoted) next. “The whole point of it just to play and get out of here and make it to the big leagues.”
That may seem harsh coming from Dean, who, in his first season with the Suns, is leading the team in both home runs and RBIs. But as he sits in the stands behind home plate on a hot, suffocatingly humid afternoon at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville just before pre-game warmups, he adopts a laidback air that reads as part humble, part bemused and part just plain tired.
He’s at his most animated when asked about the difficulties of traveling across time zones and trying to get on a solid sleep schedule during the season. His admittedly subtle grumbling and eye rolling underscore the fact that years of slogging through the minors can take a toll on even the most positive, hardworking ballplayers — like Dean.
“Especially in this league, your body doesn’t get used to the travel and stuff like that,” said Dean. “We’re the farthest away from any other place in this league, and we’re also one of two in this time zone. So our sleeping schedules get messed up.”
This doesn’t seem to have made Dean any more than mildly jaded, however. He talks about the fun he has in the clubhouse swapping stories with his teammates, and the perseverance of his goal to make it to the majors. That’s even after years spent in the minors – even though, at 22, Dean is the currently the youngest player on the Suns’ roster, he’s still a five-year veteran of pro ball.
A native of Spring, Texas, the Miami Marlins took Dean in the fourth round of the 2012 draft out of Klein Collins High School, an alma mater he shares with Cleveland Indians rookie outfielder Tyler Naquin. Dean played infield in school, but the Marlins decided to convert him into an outfielder immediately.
“I kind of got stuck out there and didn’t know what I was doing,” he recalls of his initial days playing the outfield, but speaks with pride about how hard he’s worked to improve his outfield play and how far he’s come as a result.
Dean spent four years working his way up through the lower levels of the Marlins system before finally getting the call-up to Double-A this year to play for the Suns, an experience he describes as “awesome.”
“The fans are good here, the atmosphere is good, the ballpark’s great,” said Dean, who has responded with a season that netted him a spot on the Southern League South Division all-star game roster and has solidified his position as one of the consensus top 10 prospects in the Marlins organization.
That attention and success hasn’t gone to Dean’s head though.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “Guys can get caught up in it and tell themselves that they’re prospects and stuff. Our manager’s told us before — there’s no such thing as prospects here. It doesn’t matter how good you are, you still gotta go out there and play.”
Besides, good scouting reports don’t make Dean’s game day routine any less harried or strongly oriented toward baseball and sleep.
“When I get up, the first thing I do is make myself breakfast, and by that time, I’m already headed for the field and getting ready for the day.”
As a result, Dean doesn’t get to experience much of Jacksonville in his scant free time, opting to rest and be a homebody instead.
“After a game, I’m pretty tired … I’ll usually go home, play cards at the apartment, play some PlayStation, watch a movie on Netflix and then go to sleep” he said, adding he’s a pretty average dude. “I’m not the going-out type.”
The closest he comes is occasionally going fishing in the ponds by his apartment complex. “I haven’t been to the beach.”
Once he does get to the ballpark, the day becomes a whole lot of playing hurry up and wait. For a 7 p.m. game against the Mississippi Braves, a loose informal team warm-up begins at 3:40, followed by the start of batting practice about 20 minutes later. During Dean’s turns at the plate, he displays a quick, compact swing that allows him to spray hard-hit, gap-to-gap line drives around the field. Those rounds of batting practice, however, are teasingly brief, and Dean spends most of his time standing around the batting cage before heading out to leftfield to shag flies. When batting practice ends, the players head into the clubhouse for the next two hours.
Dean doesn’t have any particular pre-game rituals he undertakes during this downtime, but he does have one peculiar post-game superstition.
“If I do good one day, I’ll wear the same underwear for the next couple [games] until I don’t get a hit,” he admitted before adding, “Don’t worry, I usually clean them.”
Once this evening’s game finally does get started, Dean is ultimately outshined by Suns starter Dillon Peters, who, in his second start since getting the call-up to Double-A, pitched six strong innings, challenging hitters up in the zone with a zippy mid-90s fastball, striking out five, and giving up just one run en route to picking up the win.
Dean doesn’t get a hit in the game, despite ripping two hard-hit balls deep into the outfield that the Braves centerfielder is ultimately able to track down, but he does walk and scored once on a homer by teammate Brian Anderson. He also makes a slick shoestring catch in left in the fifth inning. An understated, but vital performance. The Suns win, 5-1.
Directly after the game, the Suns are scheduled to pack up and embark on a nine-hour trip to Kodak, Tennessee for a series against the Tennessee Smokies. The impending bus ride weighs on Dean’s mind (he doesn’t expect to get any sleep), but despite a hitless evening, small victories are enough to brighten his spirits.
“I hit the ball really hard,” he asserted. “I can’t get hits every day, but if I hit the ball hard, I’m okay with it.”
Plus, luxurious lodgings await after the arduous journey to come.
“In Double-A we stay at really nice hotels,” Dean said, grinning. “In A-ball we stayed at some very sketchy hotels. That’s a good luxury here — we’re in nice beds, nice hotels, so we get good sleep on the road.”