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They came to the California desert the month of February from familiar programs such as Stanford, Arizona and Ohio State, along with schools most of us never heard of like Baker (it's in Kansas) and William Carey (Hattiesburg, Miss.). Rosters were sprinkled with ballplayers from Japan and a few who had been released from major league organizations trying to get just one more shot.
This is the California Winter League in Palm Springs, which closed up shop this week just as spring training games in Florida and Arizona were moving into high gear.
Trying to gain the attention of professional scouts and coaches, approximately 250 aspiring athletes paid $3,000 apiece for the opportunity to play ball beginning in early February.
"You sign up online, put your credit card in," says Joe Becht, a product of Downers Grove South who graduated from Santa Clara University last spring before signing with the Windy City Thunderbolts last summer. "Honestly, I think they would take just about anyone. It's not glamorous, but you get to play ball."
Joe Becht at the plate on the auxiliary field.
The league began in 2010 with the intent of being "an instructional showcase league for free agent baseball players who are looking to earn a professional contract before spring training begins," according to Wikipedia. Games are played in Palm Springs Stadium, former spring training home of the Angels. An auxiliary diamond with a funky rubberized infield also is used.
The CWL website lists 69 players from 2018 who played professionally during the regular season last year. All but two were signed by independent league clubs as opposed to major league affiliates. The California league bills itself as the "Official Winter League of the Frontier League" which includes the Thunderbolts of Crestwood, the Joliet Slammers, and the Schaumburg Boomers. Becht's Windy City coach recommended him for the CWL, and a number of coaches from the Frontier League were on hand in Palm Springs, providing instruction and coaching.
Basically for paying $100 a day, the guys are put up in local hotels - clearly not the Ritz but not Motel 6 either, since you don't find too many of those in Palm Springs - along with a stipend for breakfast groceries, a provided lunch, and a gym membership. It's a 10-team league where pitching is at a premium, so games could last anywhere from five to nine innings, depending on the availability of pitchers.
Becht, who also received an invitation from the Red Sox to participate in a one-day tryout in Florida later this month, played six games a week, and the 23-year-old gave a fine account of himself. An infielder with good hands, speed, and notable baseball acumen, Becht hit .295 with an on-base percentage of .436. Among his 13 hits were three doubles and a home run to go with six RBIs and four stolen bases. He's already signed to play again for the Thunderbolts, whose 95-game season begins on May 9, providing the Red Sox don't offer employment.
What were Becht's expectations when he arrived in Palm Springs? "Run fast, hit the ball hard," he says simply. "Get back into my normal playing shape, get live reps, get ready for the season. The Red Sox called, and I don't want to go [to Florida] and not be in shape. I'll give it one more try and we'll see how that goes. At least I have a degree."
So Becht doesn't have to do this. He graduated in four years from Santa Clara, majoring in economics. (He also hit .290 his senior year, earning honorable mention All-West Coast Conference.) After graduation, Becht remained in California working for an IT company in the Silicon Valley. When he informed his bosses that he wanted to continue his baseball career, he was told that his job would still be there upon his return.
It's not so easy for young guys without the education that Becht received. "There are guys I played with in the Frontier League who are my age or even younger who got drafted out of high school and got released, and they never went to college," he points out.
You don't hear much about those youngsters because a prospect like future White Sox centerfielder Luis Robert, who got a whopping $26 million signing bonus two years ago, justifiably gets the headlines.
Meanwhile, consider all the 20-somethings playing either for a chance to be noticed or simply because they love the game. Becht's contract with Windy City for the coming season pays $700 a month. If a major league organization wants to sign him, it will have to write a $5,000 check to the 'Bolts, according to Becht.
Years ago there were six levels of minor league baseball from Class D up to Triple-A. Many of those small-town franchises lost money and folded. Approximately 20 years ago independent leagues began to take shape as operators realized the potential of offering the game at less than half the cost of a major league contest where the quality of play was of minor-league caliber. Spiffy new ballparks were built, and the promotions were fun and entertaining. And, despite what you hear, people still like baseball.
Furthermore, there has been no hesitation to having independent teams in metropolitan areas. The American Association counts the Gary Southshore Railcats, Rosemont's Chicago Dogs, and the Milwaukee Milkmen among its teams.
And as long as there are Joe Bechts, who leg out every ground ball and play with enthusiasm, populating the rosters, fans will come.
Looking ahead to the tryout with the Red Sox, Becht says, "I'll show up with my glove, my cleats and my bat and be ready to play."
Go get 'em, kid.
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