UNIVERSITY PARK — Opportunities at times can be sparse, but everyone still logs the same hours and does the same work under the same unrelenting summer sun, while muscle soreness and wilting confidence equally beleaguer both body and mind.
Undoubtedly one of the top hitting teams in the New York-Penn League, the State College Spikes entered Saturday night’s game against the Connecticut Tigers first in batting average and slugging percentage and second in on-base percentage, RBIs, hits and runs.
Steven Ramos (.421) leads the league in average with teammates Bruce Caldwell (.326, sixth), Jimmy Bosco (.314, 12th) and Cesar Valera (.305, 19th) also near the top. Jamestown — which leads the Pinckney division — is the only other NY-PL team with four players in the top-20.
A deep and talented lineup is a managerial luxury, but also is not without its challenges with just nine lineup spots to fill.
“It’s extremely difficult,” Spikes’ manager Oliver Marmol said. “When they’re not hitting I can get the lineup done in about five minutes,” he added with a smile.
What about everybody else?
“The main thing is to just stay positive,” shortstop Michael Schulze said. “You’re going to fail a lot at this game. It’s a tough thing, but everybody goes through tough periods. Just stay positive and keep working hard.”
For players like Schulze and third baseman Trevor Martin, playing behind top-level prospects can make an already grueling schedule worse when hard work isn’t promptly rewarded with opportunities. Martin has hit just .244 in 12 appearances with the Spikes. Schulze is batting .150 in 12 games.
St. Louis Cardinals minor league hitting coordinator Derrick May recently called Valera one of the top shortstops in the franchise’s system. Carson Kelly, a 19-year-old second-round pick in 2012, is a coveted commodity at third that the Cardinals gave a reported $1.6 million signing bonus.
“I’ve had to just be patient and just tell myself it’s baseball,” Martin, a 20th-round pick in 2010, said Friday night. “It’s just something you have to love to do. There’s guys ahead of you but you have to try to (put) yourself into the lineup ... It’s just the way baseball is. You just have to wait for your opportunity.”
Ironically, the 21-year-old Martin was promoted to Single-A Peoria on Saturday in part to get more playing time. He had 10 hits with the Spikes in just 41 at-bats.
Martin, who like Kelly was drafted out of high school, was hampered by shoulder problems early in his career. Rehab was a struggle, but he learned a valuable lesson.
“Just how humbling everything is because you don’t know when it’s going to be taken away from you,” he said.
The patience needed to overcome the injury is the same he’s had to employ while waiting his turn this season.
Sharpening a tool every day can be monotonous when you never use it. However, for motivation, players in the Spikes’ clubhouse do not need to look far.
Ramos, a 22nd-round pick in 2010, started the season on the bench, but capitalized when his number was called in July.
He has 24 hits this month and is batting .486 in his last 10 games — five of the multi-hit variety — and an equally impressive .514 on-base percentage during the span.
“He was kind of like me a little bit,” Schulze said of Ramos. “Not (playing) every day ... and he just got on a streak and now he’s hitting the crap out of the ball.
“That just shows anything can happen to anybody. You have to stay positive.”
Schulze’s journey in baseball took a slightly negative detour when he quit playing after his first year of junior college at Iowa Western.
The 22-year-old from Lee’s Summit, Mo., stayed in school and took a job with a moving company before a friend steered him toward the team at Missouri Western State.
“It was a major grind and I wasn’t ready for it out of high school,” he said. “I just had to get away. I made a premature decision and decided to hang it up.”
The moving company job wasn’t for him.
“I hated it,” he said, adding with a laugh, “I decided I wasn’t ready to work.”
Two seasons later, Schulze decided to forgo his senior year after he was taken in the 19th round in June.
He has no regrets, but adjusting to professional baseball hasn’t been easy. He has just six hits in 40 at bats this season.
“You go to college and practice for a couple hours a day and maybe play five days a week. And you get here and it’s every day. It’s a grind.”
Surviving minor league baseball necessitates physicality, but it also requires girding one’s mental fortitude to avoid the game’s masticating grind.
Until Schulze gets his chance, that’s exactly what he’ll try to do.
“You see your name in the lineup and you just try to play your game,” he said. “You don’t play every day and it’s tough, but it’s a process. You just have to stay positive and take it day by day.”