Adrian Cardenas: Courage or Common Sense?


May 21, 2012; Houston, TX, USA; Chicago Cubs second baseman Adrian Cardenas (45) hits a double against the Houston Astros in the second inning at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Former major league baseball player (and budding writer) Adrian Cardenas wrote a provocative piece for the New Yorker that came out yesterday. I think this piece is an important one for everyone who has ever been a fan of minor league baseball and wants a little glimpse behind the curtain.

On it’s own, Cardenas’s essay is a way of explaining his own decision to step away from major league baseball after having barely made it to the pinnacle of the sport. Combined with some other literature, it shows how big and powerful the dream of major league baseball is and how relentless one must be in order to both achieve and be fulfilled by it. It also shows how the business of baseball is particularly ruthless and that players are only as valuable as their recent performances.

This essay is about how rare people like Cardenas are in baseball. I spent the 2013 season covering the Toronto Blue Jays minor league system at our sister site Jays Journal as well as for my own blog Blue Jays from Away. I want to thank the Blue Jays organization for their openness and their willingness to allow a blogger like me the kind of access that I got with minor league affiliates ranging from Rookie Ball to Triple-A.

What I learned from speaking to players, coaches, media, scouts and front office personnel was that these ballplayers, in addition to having huge amounts of sport-specific talent and ability, need an incredible belief in themselves in order to rise to highest level of the game without any guarantees that ability and talent will even get them to the top. Most of the players I met have this belief, but it is extremely rare to find a player with the type of self-awareness that Cardenas has: a player who knows that achieving their goals will not necessarily make him happy.

If you read Dirk Hayhurst‘s books, you’ll find another player who, while he had some measure of major league success, quickly understood the disparity between the major league and minor league lifestyles and how the major league carrot was dangled in front of minor leaguers to keep them playing for (what is for most) an ever elusive dream. When injuries derailed his career, Hayhurst stepped away from the playing field and is now providing a measure of incisive commentary that is not necessarily present when listening to ex-players who were long-time major leaguers. Thanks to his unusual self-awareness, Hayhurst’s observations have been recorded for us minor league baseball fans.

I can’t really compare Hayhurst and Cardenas too much. Hayhurst didn’t get a big signing bonus to sway him from going to college (he signed for $15,000) and every paycheque in the minor leagues was important to him. Cardenas signed for $1,000,000; therefore, he didn’t need to continue playing in order to avoid abject poverty (unless he spent all of his signing bonus in the intervening years). Hayhurst was forced to quit due to injury while Cardenas was “healthy and strong” (to use his own words).

What both men have in common is their uncommon understanding of themselves. At a certain point, both knew why they were playing and what they were playing for. Cardenas decided that he wasn’t getting what he needed from major league baseball and he stepped back. I applaud the ability to stay true to himself and follow his own path, although I can’t necessarily call it “courage” because Cardenas has a (hopefully) secure financial footing with which to start a new life (that he admittedly has already been pursuing in his university career). Most minor leaguers are working jobs throughout the winter in order to survive the beneath the glossy world of The Show.

Having a rudimentary understanding of minor league life and the characters within, I think that it’s almost more courageous for the players who may not have a future in the major leagues to keep playing. They persist because, for many, it’s all they know how to do. They may (and probably do) still love the game but the reasons they keep going are bigger than that. Many players in their late 20s and early 30s (or even older) keep playing because they have a family to provide for even though they hate the travel and the amount of time away; those are the courageous ones.