For most of these guys, its like a field trip in the beginning. At first it’s like ‘I want more! I want more!’ Then after a little while you start to see the change in attitude. Not in a bad way. They just start to see that it's work now. —Bill Richardson, Orem Owlz manager
The Orem Owlz are just 30 games into the 2013 season and have already made considerable strides to improve as a baseball team. That includes learning how to play baseball for a living instead of just for fun.
The shift from a prep or collegiate schedule to a minor league one can be as difficult to get accustomed to as the higher level of talent on the field. Adjusting to playing a game every night seems easy at first, but eventually becomes as challenging as hitting a 93-mph fastball. Especially when you add on all the batting practice, infield workouts and bullpen sessions that are now a part of a ballplayer’s everyday life.
Even though rookie-level professional baseball plays only half a season, beginning shortly after MLB’s First Year Player Draft in mid-June and wrapping up a week into September, there are still more than 70 games that get played.
For a roster of 31 young men ranging in age from 19 to 23, the transition into playing at the first level of professional baseball can be daunting at times.
First-year Orem manager Bill Richardson has taken his share of long bus rides during his minor league career, so he is no stranger to the change in lifestyle. But for most of his young players, it is a learning process that doesn’t conclude in just one summer.
“For most of these guys, its like a field trip in the beginning,” Richardson said. “At first it’s like ‘I want more! I want more!’ Then after a little while you start to see the change in attitude. Not in a bad way. They just start to see that it's work now.”
The Owlz are in the second half of their longest road trip of the season. It’s an eight-day stretch that began with a 9½-hour bus ride to Great Falls, Mont., immediately following their last home game on June 15.
The overnight drive left the team with an off day, only its second so far this season, on June 16. Their first scheduled game against the Voyagers the following night was postponed due to lightning. This forced the Owlz into a double-header the next day. It was a bit of a bumpy start to the trip, which only makes finding a routine for the young guys even harder.
Once they got the series going against Great Falls, they won two out of three before loading up the bus and rolling 4½ hours across Montana to Billings.
Owlz director of broadcasting and media relations, Trevor Amicone, who travels with the team on road trips to handle Internet and radio broadcasting duties, told of a moment, while on the air, when he woke up in the very early hours of the morning and noticed a few of the Owlz players stretched out on the bus floor.
“It’s tough for them to get used to at first,” Amicone said. “Once the reality that playing (baseball) is now their job sets in, there is a sense of urgency so to speak. But once they get used to the rigors, I think it allows them to be more comfortable on the field. It’s all about getting settled into a routine.”
Amicone, in his second stint and third season with the Owlz, has noticed a big change in the way the players handle themselves since first arriving in Orem in mid-June. “It takes awhile for the guys to get used to their surroundings,” said the voice of the Owlz. “But you can definitely see the change.
“Guys need to get in a routine find out who they like to hang out with and what to do with some of the off time,” he added. “It's as much a part of it as the game itself.”
The Owlz players, despite the huge lifestyle change, are performing well as a team away from Orem. They currently have a winning record on the road at 10-6 after Monday night’s win over the Mustangs.
“I’m pleased with the way the guys are playing, don’t get me wrong,” said Richardson. “But there have been a few miscues — or mental mistakes, that come with being on the road.
“I take responsibility for those,” the skipper added. “But the guys need to realize they have to focus a little harder and work just a bit extra to keep sharp. Especially since they’re still so new to all of this.”
Richardson, not one to take the father-figure role too far, stating that he’s “only adding on to the great work of these guy’s parents,” puts the season thus far into perspective by focusing on doing things the way the Los Angeles Angels’ organization wants.
“You know, as frustrated as I get with these guys — not rounding the bases like they should or forcing things at the plate I really am proud of the way they are embracing our philosophy of team baseball,” Richardson said.
“We’ve gotten a lot of compliments out here on our guys, and that’s what the Angels want — good-character young men. It says a lot.”
After Monday’s 9-5 win, the Owlz hope to take the final game of the series before the long overnight ride back to Orem. Sitting now at 16-15, and still very much in the hunt for a post-season berth, it’s important for the young Owlz to continue building on their recent victories.
“Hey, I want to win,” said Richardson. “It’s the way I’m wired. But it’s a double-edged sword at this level, and we know that. As long as we continue to talk team baseball and work with each guy individually, the team will win.”
The Owlz manager knows this road trip was important for his team as a character builder. When it’s over, the players and coaches will have spent many hours on the bus and in the hotel, missing their homes away from home.
“We’ll know a lot more about ourselves when we get back,” Richardson added. “It can be a lonesome time for these guys — away from their homes and away from their families even their countries. But we’re a team, and we support each other, if nothing else.”
No matter the outcome of the series finale in Billings, the Owlz will be heading home with more wins than losses. More than likely, with only a handful of games remaining in the first half, the Owlz have no shot at first-place Grand Junction, which continues to win, keeping its four-game lead in the Pioneer League South.
The Ogden Raptors are a game behind Orem in the current standings as they await the return of the Owlz for a four-game series at Brent Brown Ballpark.
Kenny Bristow is the staff sports writer for the Wasatch Wave and contributes to the Deseret News high school coverage for the Wasatch region. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.