I took a photo of this ballplayer in June and I wondered how he got here. So I wrote this:
“Can he hit a curveball? How many times has he taken cuts at batting cages attached to mini-golf courses? Maybe he doesn’t like to carry change, those quarters clinking in his pockets. I wonder if he had to miss the family reunion for a tournament when he was 15.
Does he read The Atlantic? Does he ever think about playing in Japan instead of a Double-A team in Arkansas? I wonder if he ever gets tired of playing long toss and whether he chews on ginger candy so he doesn’t get motion sickness during 12-hour bus rides.”
(Excerpt, “The Ballad of an Unknown Ballplayer.” OlAbner.com. 29 June 2017.)
I guessed, but I was curious about the truth. So, I added the photo to Instagram and asked for an interview. A couple of days later we chatted on the phone for about 20 minutes. His team, the Arkansas Travelers, had just finished batting practice prior to a game against the Northwest Arkansas Naturals in Little Rock.
Ryan Casteel, 26, is a first baseman playing in his eighth professional season, his second in the Seattle Mariners’ organization. He’s advanced as far as Triple-A with the Colorado Rockies.
“I’ve had good years and I’ve had some unfortunate injuries, but when you work so hard from such a young age, the dream never really dies,” he said.
Buses are easier with busses; his wife travels with him to games within the division. She works as a personal assistant during the off-season, and he trains year-round.
“We don’t have any kids, and we really have no responsibilities, so it’s easy,” Ryan said.
I brought up a recent Missouri State player, Jake Burger, who was drafted 11th overall by the Chicago White Sox this June. I mentioned that we, the fans, expect him to reach the majors right away. Maybe it’s the $3.7 million signing bonus, or maybe it was watching him hit a ball over the scoreboard.
“I think the misconception is you get drafted, then you’re in the minor leagues for three or four years, then you’re in the big leagues,” Casteel said. “I think the average age to actually break into the big leagues is 25-26. People see Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, and they think that’s everybody, but I’ve played with guys who didn’t get called up until they were 30.”
I wondered if he gets discouraged. He doesn’t.
“If you get discouraged you’re just doing yourself a disservice. You gotta enjoy it. I know a lot of people would give a lot to be able to do what we do – whether it’s Double-A, Rookie ball. They’d give anything to play professional baseball.”
And he’s been close to the majors.
“I thought I was on the fast track. I was in Double-A when I was 22 years old in Tulsa, had a good year, and the next year I went to Triple-A. I was hitting .380 in June and I’m thinking ‘Man, I’m gonna be in the big leagues soon’ – and then I got hurt and then you realize how the game really works.”
And if you get called up to the majors after all this time, and you only have 20 at-bats to prove yourself?
Casteel says he channels the pressure, and with good reason:
“If you can’t handle the pressure you can’t play in the big leagues,” he said. “You got 30,000 people watching you play every night and you’re trying to win – if you don’t perform you’re not gonna be there too long.”
Next up, in part 2 of our conversation: handling failure, how faith affects him, regrets, and the age-old question – do you ever get tired of baseball?by