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Monday, July 15, 2024

For the love of the game

It’s almost midnight and former Aggie Andy Suiter has already spent a day on the job. He’s leaving work and has a six and a half hour bus ride looming in the near future before he arrives in a new city and gets ready for tomorrow. Suiter doesn’t have a normal nine to five job – he’s a professional baseball player.

From April to August, Suiter travels from city to city making under $20,000 a year to play baseball. A Northern California native, Suiter currently plays in the minor leagues for the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization. This means Suiter spends almost the entire season on the road.

“Five months is a long time to essentially not have a home,” the left-handed pitcher said.

There are a growing number of minor and major league baseball players who have gone from playing as Aggies at Dobbins Stadium into the professional ranks.

Daniel Descalso of the St. Louis Cardinals is the only UC Davis alumnus currently in the major leagues. On Tuesday, the infielder belted his first career major league home run to help the Cardinals to a 7-5 victory over the Florida Marlins.

“There is no feeling like stepping into the batter’s box with 40,000 sets of eyes on, ready to see the one-on-one battle between you and the pitcher,” Descalso said. “It’s the best feeling in the world. I put so much hard work and so many hours of practice into making it to the big leagues that it seems like not making it would be a failure.”

Few other Aggies have been as fortunate as Descalso.

“What a lot of people don’t know is that it can take a really long time for someone to get a shot at the majors,” Suiter said.

Catcher Jake Jefferies and pitcher Eddie Gamboa currently play Double-A baseball – two levels shy of the majors. Infielder Tyler Kelly plays his ball at the Single-A level in the Baltimore Orioles organization.

While the former Aggies are all playing professional baseball now, they all share the experience of playing at Dobbins Baseball Complex.

“My experience at UC Davis played a huge role in preparing me for professional baseball,” Descalso said. “Being able to play everyday for three years against top competition allowed me to improve in all aspects of the game and put me in a position to get exposure come draft time.”

Jefferies said he owes a lot to the UC Davis coaching staff.

“I had a great experience at UC Davis,” said Jefferies, who plays in the Tampa Bay Rays organization. “The coaching staff does a great job. Head coach Rex Peters worked with my swing and taught me a lot about the mental game. [Assistant coach] Tony Schifano had over 10 years in professional baseball and prepared us well for what was coming.”

Gamboa, who plays in the Orioles organization, had some adversity when it came to collegiate baseball, but said Peters kept him motivated to reach professional baseball.

“I missed all of 2006 with an arm injury,” Gamboa said. “Even though I didn’t get to play at all that year, Peters and the staff made sure I was kept involved with the team and didn’t feel left out.”

Even though the former Aggies didn’t all play at the same time, the connecting factor while at UC Davis was Peters. The nine-year coach played in the Dodgers’ organization for a few seasons.

“Our goal is to teach them what it’s like to play day in and day out,” Peters said. “Baseball is a game of failure. The long bus rides, along with the sub-par facilities that come with minor league baseball, can be hard to deal with.”

While the long bus ride is commonplace in minor league baseball, Jefferies has one in particular memory that stands out.

“We had one that was supposed to be 14 hours long and it ended up taking us 22 hours,” Jefferies said. “Our bus driver got lost and was stopping on the side of the road to take a nap every couple hours.”

Minor league baseball players clearly don’t live the glamorous life that their counterparts in the majors do. They almost always take buses instead of planes and are more likely to stay in a Motel 6 instead of a fancy hotel.

“I’ve stayed in some pretty bad motels,” Suiter said. “A lot of the time the cities we’re staying in are so small that they only have the one option.”

According to Descalso, the major league life can be more glamorous. He once texted Suiter a picture of his hotel room because it was so nice.

It’s not just the rooms that get larger in the big leagues. Major leaguers get about $125 a day while on the road to cover expenses.

“We get $25 [a day], which means a lot of Denny’s and Cracker Barrel,” Suiter said. “I’m pretty sure I couldn’t spend $125 on food even if I tried.”

Aside from the long bus rides and bad motels, minor leaguers don’t get paid much for their time. A first-year player usually gets around $1,100 a month, but this total increases as he reaches higher levels. Still, it never reaches a substantial amount until they get to the majors where the league minimum is $414,000 a year.  

Despite the low salary and other poor conditions, Kelly and other former Aggies are thankful for their opportunity.

“We get to play baseball every day as our job,” Kelly said . “It’s a pretty cool thing to be able to say.”

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