Upon arrival at Coca-Cola Field on a cold, windy Saturday morning in late April, Jarrett Grube walked into the Buffalo Bisons clubhouse to check in and grab a sandwich off the buffet table. Grube knocked on a door and let pitching coach Bob Stanley know that he was good to go for his between-starts bullpen session. He then walked back into the hall, nodded hello to stadium staffers and walked to a maintenance area hastily set up as the home team’s makeshift dressing room. Earlier in the week the downtown sewage system failed and the plumbing in the Bisons’ space failed — the manager’s and coaches’ offices escaped damage, but the players’ room had to be closed off for repair. Of the myriad things that test minor-league ballplayers daily this was just the latest.
The dictum applies in baseball as it does in all facets of life: Everyone has to be somewhere. Grube and his teammates were wishing they were somewhere else, and not just because their real estate in the clubhouse had been taken over by plumbers and general contractors. No, everyone on the Buffalo Bisons wishes he was somewhere else simply because the International League is nobody’s life ambition. Triple-A is not the ultimate destination, just a stop along the way that hopefully lasts no longer than necessary.
In the makeshift dressing room a couple of spots have been vacated, those previously occupied by two other starters in the Bisons rotation, Casey Lawrence and Mat Latos. Grube overheard a trainer talking about the flights that Lawrence and Latos had to make to get to Los Angeles to catch up to the Toronto Blue Jays. Grube has seen it with dozens of teammates hundreds of times over the course of his career. It’s part of the routine, their routine anyway. He’s only had to pack twice himself. And for his trips to the majors, he didn’t need more than a carry-on.
We can look at Major League Baseball from any number of angles. We can look at it as physics, with spin rates and exit velocities. We can look at it as mathematics, with WARs and WHIPs. We can look at it as a big business, with hundreds of millions shuffled around, assigned to those who best combine physics, mathematics and free agency. Thus, MLB is at once fascinating and no easy thing to get all romantic about.
We look at minor-league baseball in an entirely different light. Small is unspoiled. Small is quaint. Small is accessible. Sure, minor-leaguers are effectively chattel of MLB clubs, but they run out onto diamonds away from the bright lights. If you like minor-league baseball, you think of yourself as a purist. Your love of the game — this bucolic, idyllic version — is somehow so much more righteous.
If you buy all that stuff about the minor leagues, you might not love this story. You might not want to know how unbelievably cruel the game can be to those who love it most. Namely, Jarrett Grube, a right-hander who pitched his first pro game with the Tri-City Dust Devils in 2004 and ran out to the mound in 459 more games in the minors through to this spring. Grube has gone 93-76 over his 13 seasons with 17 teams in five MLB organizations, and played in the Mexican, Venezuelan and Dominican Winter Leagues as well as a couple of turns with an unaffiliated independent-league team. He has criss-crossed the continent, cumulatively spent whole years on buses, pitched to thousands of batters you’ve never heard of. There’s no easy way to summarize Grube’s peripatetic time in the minor leagues, switching teams and organizations in the off-season or in midstream.
His career MLB line, however, is simplicity itself.
2014 LAA: One game, 2/3 of an inning, 1 hit, 1 home run, no walks, no strikeouts, 13.50 ERA.
Jarrett Grube was raised on a hog farm near Corunna, about a half hour outside Fort Wayne, Ind. “Our son had his chores and he worked hard but he wasn’t as much of a farmer as his sister, Shanna,” says Danny Grube, a soon-to-be-retired inspector for a gas company. The father, a former catcher, taught the son to pitch, squatting down and giving him targets to hit when he was six years old, coaching him all through Little League, which he was first called up to at age seven. “Corunna never had a great team — mostly because it was hard to find kids to play in a town of about 250 people,” Danny Grube says. “A lot of the time I’d let Shanna go through the order once — she could fool them the one time — and then bring in Jarrett to pitch the rest of the way.”
This isn’t quite a case of a marginal prospect making a slow, steady rise before hitting a plateau in Triple-A and coming to rest there.
Grube played junior-college ball about four and a half hours from Corunna at Vincennes and moved on to the University of Memphis where he was voted to the All-Conference USA team. The Colorado Rockies took him in the 10th round of the 2004 draft and sent him off to short-season A in Tri-City. He moved up a level a year — Asheville, Modesto and Double-A Tulsa in 2007, where he put in two summers. As he moved up he went from starter to spot starter to exclusively bullpen. He was in the clubhouse when guys were summoned into the skipper’s office, when younger players like Franklin Morales, who was only 21, would get promoted and be on their way to the Show. Still, he pitched effectively enough to believe that it was a matter of time before he’d follow them.
In 2009 it came apart. “I wasn’t really hurt but I tried to pitch through some tightness,” Grube says. “It was a rough season.” Splitting the campaign between Tulsa and Triple-A Colorado Springs, he went 1-3 with a 6.56 ERA in 18 games before the Rockies released him in early June. It could have ended there, and for most minor-leaguers it would have. Grube, then 27, started over almost from scratch, pitching for Southern Maryland in the independent Atlantic League. “I had to get healthy, show what I could do and re-establish myself as a starter,” he says. “And that’s what I’ve done most of the way ever since.” Across 12 starts through the end of the Indy-league season and eight starts the following spring, Grube showed enough to get picked up by the Seattle Mariners — he reported to West Tennessee in Double-A and worked his way up to Triple-A Tacoma. The next season he did just about the same thing, dividing time between Double- and Triple-A, getting his starts but watching others get the call.
In 2012 Grube took a step sideways and down rather than the jump up — he went from the Mariners’ Triple-A squad to Arkansas, the Double-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. He was 30 and if it wasn’t already there the label of minor-league journeyman was stuck on him. He held out hope that the stars would still line up, though, and in his third season with the Halos they finally did, however briefly.
Grube was with the Salt Lake City Bees for the 2014 season and between starts. On a Friday night in late May, he was in the dugout charting pitches for a game that stretched into extra innings. At the end of the night he was called into the manager’s office and greeted by grim faces — he was told that he had messed up the charts. It seemed like an extreme reaction but Grube was left dangling until manager Keith Johnson told him that he was getting called up. That’s baseball: Such momentous occasions provide too sweet an opportunity for a good prank. Johnson told Grube that the Angels were going to be in Oakland Saturday night and he was to be there. Grube didn’t have any illusions about his role — he wasn’t getting called up to start, just to fill in as long relief in a bullpen that had been overworked. And of course, getting any particular showcase was the last thing on his mind. The call-up set off a not-quite-24-hour series of events that were more frantic than magical.
“Because it was a night game and because of the time difference it was real late by the time I called my wife [Alyssa] and she had her phone off,” Grube says. “I called my folks and my mom asked what was wrong and I told her that she’d want to wake up dad for this.”
On Saturday night, Grube was summoned out of the pen in the eighth inning of a small blow-out and in less than ideal circumstances: one out and two men on for the heart of the A’s order, Josh Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes and Derek Norris. After getting Donaldson to line out to third baseman David Freese, Grube got behind in the count 2-0 before Cespedes yanked a three-run homer to left. Grube managed to get out of the inning when Norris lined out to shortstop Erick Aybar. A scoreless top of the ninth sent the game into the books as an 11-3 Oakland win. And Grube went into the books as that single line, at age 32.
Alyssa and her mother managed to make it from Fort Wayne but Grube’s parents just missed out. “We got there in what we thought was enough time but the shuttle that was taking us to the ballpark, the driver didn’t speak English and we got there a half-hour late,” Danny Grube says. “Missed it, but we managed to get some pictures in uniform the next day.”
And after that, Grube was sent back down to Triple-A.
Last August Grube thought he might get a shot to better his career line. He was back in the Mariners organization and it looked for all the world like he was going to get a second chance. By the middle of the month, the Mariners bullpen was stretched to breaking during a home-stand and a game that went 15 innings had management reaching down into the organization for temporary help. Grube was set to start the next day, so he’d be good to go in long relief if necessary. He had his ticket for Seattle and again there were phone calls to family and a scramble to make travel arrangements.
Before the game, the Mariners’ radio broadcasters brought in Grube and asked him about getting his chance to pitch in a major-league game at age 34. “I’ve faced quite a few big leaguers, but it’s all just kind of my journey. Right now, I couldn’t be happier being up here with everybody.”
He could have been happier with the way things turned out, though. “Felix [Hernandez] ended up pitching a gem — seven innings giving up three hits and a run with a low pitch count,” Grube says. “There was no need for middle [relief]. They went straight to their set-up and closer.”
It’s hard to say if not getting called up is a fate worse than getting called up and not playing, although to Grube it must have seemed like the latter when he was returned to Tacoma the next day. And likely his parents, too, who had made the trip from Fort Wayne to Seattle in time to see their son sit in the bullpen.
The trip to Seattle wasn’t the worst time in Grube’s baseball career. Nor was getting released by Colorado. Nor any time that he was in the clubhouse and another pitcher was getting good news instead of him. No, the worst moment came back in 2007, in the middle of one of his best seasons. Grube was pitching for the Tulsa Drillers and was still a prospect on the rise — he’d wind up going 7-3 with a 2.53 ERA. That summer, Mike Coolbaugh joined the club to work with hitters and serve as the first-base coach. Coolbaugh had been a Blue Jays’ 16th-round draft pick and spent more than a decade in the minors before getting a few weeks in with Milwaukee and St Louis, a whole 44 career MLB games. At 35, Coolbaugh gave up chasing a return to the Bigs and made the decision to try to stick around the game on the management side. On an awful night in Little Rock that July, Coolbaugh was standing in the first-base coach’s box when he was hit by a line drive off the bat of Tino Sanchez. He suffered a catastrophic head injury and died right on the field.
“The worst part for me was that we had bussed to Arkansas and Mike had only been with the organization a few weeks,” Grube says. “He reached out to me that night [on the bus]. He had spent the first few weeks trying to get to know the hitters and wanted to get know the pitchers. He said, ‘Hey, man, let go have a few beers together and talk.’ And I said, ‘Oh, man, I gotta pitch tomorrow. Let’s do it after the game.’ He said, ‘That sounds good.’ That next day I ended up throwing and giving up a couple of runs and I was beating myself up in the dugout. I was pretty much right down the first baseline in the dugout and saw the whole thing happen. The worst memory I’ll have in the game.
“It was a really hard time that whole summer. Not just going to the funeral and seeing his wife and kids. We played for weeks like we were zombies. We kind of wanted the season to be over with, but we wound up in the playoffs. I was all set to go home and they said, ‘Hey kid, you’re going to the fall league.’ It was like the game wouldn’t let go.”
At 35, even a minor-league lifer has to acknowledge that there might be a life other than the minor leagues. Grube says that he and his wife took time over the winter to talk about committing to another season. “We have a young daughter now and so Alyssa is staying back in Fort Wayne with her,” he says. “I stayed at home this winter instead of playing winter ball. I played the last four seasons in Venezuela and the Dominican, but some things — like being a dad — are more important than baseball.”
Grube says that it hadn’t occurred to him that there might be some symmetry in his signing with Toronto this spring. He hadn’t thought of Mike Coolbaugh’s time with the Jays. It had occurred to him in spring training that he was in the same Dunedin clubhouse as one of two hitters he retired that night in Oakland but he didn’t mention it to Donaldson or even introduce himself. “Josh hurt his calf down there and so I just wanted to give him his space,” Grube says. “He’d never remember me anyway. I’m just one of a thousand guys.”
To an extent that’s how Grube understands his place in the game. Bisons pitching coach Bob Stanley suggests that Grube is just one of a legion of ballplayers who “get caught up in a numbers game.” He says more player movement through free agency at the major-league level has worked out great for proven players but has hurt those who’ve put in their time in the system and waited for a chance to show their stuff. “It can look like you’re going to get a shot, but then the big-league club goes out and signs someone who takes that roster spot that you’d been aiming at.”
When Stanley is asked how he would feel if he had a chance to tell Grube that he was bound for the Jays, the pitching coach demurred. “Like I would any other player, really,” he says. “It’s our job to get players here ready to go to the next level and you’re happy when any of them gets a chance to go up to the big club.”
Minor-league baseball is where sentiment goes to die, you suppose. That’s the harsh reality shrouded by all the gauzy romanticism fans embrace.
Danny Grube says that he has talked with his son about sticking around the game like Mike Coolbaugh had wanted to. “Maybe it would be a coach or a scout, I dunno,” the father says. “It’s living out of suitcase again and maybe he’d want to have some family time before ever going that way.”
That Saturday morning in April it was cold enough on the field at Coca-Cola Stadium for Jarrett Grube to see his breath while throwing his bullpen session, colder still for him to see the two empty stalls in the Bisons’ makeshift dressing room. “Getting one more call-up would mean the world to me,” he says, “the world.”
Big Read: Have the New York Yankees found a new Core Four?
With a stacked farm system, a crop of young talent already in the bigs and the deepest pockets in baseball, the New York Yankees are set up to build a juggernaut. Again.