Minor leagues a big adjustment on, off field for high school players

Some of the best players ever to wear Dayton Dragons jerseys were here as teenagers.

Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Homer Bailey, Wily Mo Pena, Taylor Trammell to name a few.

Several have been on the current edition of the Dragons, including pitcher Hunter Greene – who turns 19 on Aug. 6 – and middle infielder Jeter Downs, who became a 20-year-old on July 27.

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Downs, a supplemental first-round draft choice as an 18-year-old out of high school last season, played 50 games at rookie-level Billings and is in what professional baseball calls a full-length season. Downs has already played in about 100 games, and if the Dragons make the playoffs, he could appear in up to 50 more games.

He’s not sure age is such a factor.

“The more you play this game, the better you’re going to get,” Downs said. “I played 50 games in Billings. I learned. Age isn’t such a huge factor as the amount of experience you have. You can be 25 and haven’t played as many games, or been out there many more times as a 20-year-old.

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“There are 20-year-olds in the big leagues already. They have a lot of games under their belts. They’ve been playing since they were 16.”

They’ve also learned how to pace themselves.

Coming out of high school after playing a few games a week to playing 50-80 games in rookie ball is a new experience. It’s an even bigger jump from there to a 140-game schedule.

“Now that I almost have a full season, I’m more experienced about things I should do and shouldn’t do,” Downs said. “At the beginning of the year, I was kind of in the (batting) cages a whole lot. I kind of cut that back a little bit, so I can go into the game and be fully ready to go.”

Dragons manager Luis Bolivar, once a player, knows the drill.

“The hardest thing for a guy 19 is to come and play every day, play five months, play 140 games, prepare for a long season,” Bolivar said. “In high school, you only play 3-4 times a week. Here you play every day, you have road trips. Basically, you don’t have any days off.

“I don’t say it’s going to be an issue for them. It’s more like a learning experience. I was a little older (22 when he played his first full season). At the same time, I didn’t know what a whole year would be. It never came to your mind to play every day. Once you go through that first year, you know what to expect the next year. You prepare better, you mentally prepare.”

It’s not only on the field where the players learn. They learn off the field as well. In rookie ball, many of the players are teenagers. By the first full season, college players are blended with those signed out of high school along with players repeating a year of low Class A ball. The age difference is magnified.

“I’m 19,” Downs said a couple days before his birthday. “I can’t go out to clubs, I can’t drink; I can do other stuff.

“For some guys, that’s what they like to do to keep their mind off the game, just go out and have fun, not necessarily drink all the time, but go out and have fun at a bar or something like that.”

Downs pals with other players below the minimum age, such as Greene.

“I don’t really go out,” Downs said. “I just enjoy myself with them. Off days, I do rest and recovery, stay hydrated, stuff like that. Doing stuff other than baseball, keeps your mind off it.

“When you play (and not think baseball all day long), you stay free, stay focused. Not going crazy every day, every day, every day - being able to separate when you’re on the field and when you’re home.”

He watches what the older players do.

“They have more experience than I do,” Downs said. “They figure things out. Little tweaks that you can only figure out when you’re playing. The guys who learn the quickest are the ones who get to the big leagues the quickest.”

Bolivar said it’s a learning process that has to be lived as well as taught.

“It’s hard to explain to them,” Bolivar said. “They have to go through it. How you prepare for every single game, how you rest your body, how you work out. How you go through the whole year.

“We always say, ‘Work smart.’ Go on quality, not quantity. Maintain your swing. Don’t overdo it. Over the year, your arms get tired. They won’t work the same way.”

With that next birthday comes another year of experience.

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