Holidays don't offer Drucker much of a breakMinors free agent pitching abroad in hopes of landing job in U.S.
By Jason Beck / MLB.com | 12/24/10 10:00 AM EST
While families and friends gather for time together around the holiday season, Scot Drucker will be spending his festive season in Mexico. He won't be on a sandy beach, but on a mound of dirt, digging in his spikes. He won't be looking for gifts, but outs, though he'll gladly take the gift of an out if any hitters are in a giving mood.
Drucker appreciates time with his family around the holidays as much as anyone, but this year is a working holiday for him. It's not exactly the glamorous image of a ballplayer, but it's what he and plenty of others have to do.
"I know my family is a little upset I will not be home for the holidays," Drucker wrote in an e-mail to MLB.com last week, "but they understand my work."
It almost sounds like an episode of Eastbound and Down, but this is serious business for Drucker, who's a long way from Kenny Powers. Drucker has never spent a day in the big leagues, but he has pitched at pretty much every level on the way up there, from low-Class A ball on up. He pitched in the independent American Association two years ago before hooking on with the Tigers organization. He put on a Major League uniform for Spring Training last year.
He has already had to work his tail off to get to where he's at.After two seasons at Triple-A Toledo, he was a Minor League free agent, looking for work. Pitching in winter ball was his best chance to show his stuff to scouts and try to line up a job in The States. He finally lined up his summer job back with the Tigers organization on a minor league contract.
"I attended the Winter Meetings in Orlando to catch up with some old colleagues and to let them know I'm looking for a job," Drucker said. "Many teams were waiting until after the Rule 5 Draft to start signing Minor League free agents to see what they needed to fill rosters with."
There are plenty of success stories in winter ball, and not just guys getting a cup of coffee. Nelson Figueroa rebuilt his resume for Major League clubs at age 33 after arm surgery by pitching in Mexico in the summer of 2007, then continuing into winter ball. A solid late-season stint that included a Caribbean Series appearance in 2008 drew enough notice from scouts to get him a solid deal back in the States.For players who don't get a big league salary, there's also a financial upshot that ends up a pretty nice present in itself."Winter ball can make a huge impact on your income," Drucker said. "Some guys in Double-A or Triple-A usually make around $2,200-$2,800 a month. In winter ball, you can make $7,000-$12,000 a month. It helps very much with bills, family and personal income. In these leagues, your first month's salary is guaranteed."
For Drucker, it's not his first winter ball assignment this year, let alone his first ever. When he pitched in the Puerto Rican League last year, he spent Thanksgiving with his fellow former Tigers farmhand Casey Fien. Instead of carving turkey, they went to a steakhouse. That, he says, was the first time winter ball kept him apart from family during holidays, but he adjusted.
He spent Halloween this year in the Dominican Republic, sitting in the bullpen for the Tigres de Licey. He didn't have as much of a problem with the Halloween part as the sitting part.
"Once I left the D.R., I was itching to throw somewhere else," Drucker said. "I only got to throw 1 1/3 innings down there, and that doesn't help trying to get work in and getting a job for next season. My agent was working with other winter leagues, and this [opportunity] did come up fairly quickly. I made sure I stayed in shape while back in Miami so I was ready to go when called upon."
That's where Mexicali comes in. The Aguilas are fighting for a playoff spot and looking for pitching help. It came at a time when many Americans playing winter ball are wrapping up their seasons, but after Drucker's Dominican stint, he didn't have that luxury.
The quirk is the schedule. The Dominican League wraps up its regular season in mid-December, then picks up the postseason after the new year. The Puerto Rican League takes a couple days off around the holidays.The Mexican League takes Christmas Eve off. The next day, the Aguilas will make a trip to Hermosillo for a night game.
"In Mexico, we play on Christmas Day," Drucker said.
"I just hope I get to watch the Heat vs. Lakers game."Drucker has drawn an online following from his writing, both on his MLBlog and his Twitter account.
As it turns out, he'll be part of the holiday entertainment. His chronicles of life in winter ball the past couple months, from the cultural appreciation to everyday life to notable games, has been eye-opening for many readers in The States who never get to a winter ball game.
They're experiencing what he's watching first-hand.
"Playing in these Latin countries has been extremely eye-opening," Drucker said. "It definitely makes you appreciate everything with have state-side. It also makes you appreciate where these guys have come from and what they have had to do to get to this level."Short-term, it's a win-win situation. If Mexicali makes the playoffs, Drucker will be in line for more pay. If the Aguilas are left out, he might still make it home for the holidays.
"Our season wraps up on New Year's Eve," Drucker said. "If we are out of the playoffs and I am not needed to pitch, I would like to get back in time for New Year's. I would hope to spend it with friends somewhere around Miami Beach."
It isn't quite the same as his favorite present as a kid, but it'll do.
"Coolest gift I have ever received was probably the original Nintendo," he said. "I remember just sitting five feet from my TV for hours upon hours trying to save the princess on Super Mario Bros. Every level never had the real princess, which would drive me crazy. I lost many nights of sleep at age six because of that gaming system."Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.