This is Part 4 of a series of articles written by Matthew Coller co-authored with professional baseball player Matt Antonellii about his 2011 baseball season.The series will chronicle Antonelli's journey trying to make it back to Major League Baseball. Read Part 1 here about Antonelli being non-tendered, then signed, Part II here about his time with the Washington Nationals, and Part III about his injury
Two hours before game time, Matt Antonelli sits down in the third row of the empty stands in Rochester's Frontier Field. The bag full of ice on his right hand is dripping all over the place. He's a spectator today after leaving the previous night's game with soreness in his right hand. For the first time in months, he won't be taking batting practice, throwing or playing.
The hand injury isn't serious – not like the one that kept him out for the majority of the last two seasons – it's just a little soreness. He could probably play, but with only a few days left on the Syracuse Chiefs' season and considering his injury history, it's better to take caution. So, today is different. He's been playing baseball or traveling every single day since March. He can relax a little.
Up until now, days off came with anxiety. First, there was the days off in April because of a mild hamstring injury. Then, the days off spent driving hours and hours from Florida to the Washington Nationals' double-A affiliate Harrisburg. Then, after getting called up to triple-A Syracuse, the days off splitting time in the infield trying to show he could play.
Today's day off comes at the end of Antonelli's best season as a professional baseball player. The 26-year-old hit .297 with eight home runs, 19 doubles and a .393 on-base percentage in 86 games for Syracuse. He was a triple-A all-star and, had he had enough at-bats to qualify, would have ranked 13th in OPS – just ahead of Rays' rookie Desmond Jennings and Indians prospect Jason Kipnis and a hair below Reds outfielder Yonder Alonso.
He had gotten so used to failure over the past three years. When he wasn't injured, he hit .215 and .196 in 2008 and 2009 in triple-A Portland. Then, he didn't perform well enough to make triple-A after spring training this season.
SELECT READ MORE TO SEE THE REST OF THIS ARTICLE
“When they told me I was going to double-A, I wasn't upset or disappointed,” he said. “I was just happy to be playing somewhere. I just wanted to on the field again.”
That's a stark contrast for someone who had never heard of failure before 2008. He was named Massachusetts Player of the Year in both Football and Hockey in high school and runner-up in baseball. In college, he hit .320 over three years and was rated in the top 30 prospects by Baseball America. He was a Cape Cod all-star. Then, after being drafted in the first round, he walloped minor league pitching hitting .307 with 21 home runs between high-A and double-A in 2007.
Antonelli acts surprised when told he's leading the Chiefs in OPS. But the reaction is more like, “Yeah, that's how it should be.”
Ups and downs are characteristic of baseball. Cartoonist Saul Steinberg said, “Baseball is an allegorical play about America, a poetic, complex, and subtle play of courage, fear, good luck, mistakes, patience about fate, and sober self-esteem.”
You might think from Steinberg's quote that he'd been following Antonelli's career. The display of courage through two years of injuries and rehab. Fear of never playing again. Mistakes – whether his fault or not – of coming back too soon and the patience that fate would give him another shot at The Show.
It won't happen this year. His team-leading OPS wasn't enough for the Nationals to give him a September call-up. He's too old now, at 26, to be considered a prospect. The Nationals' future plans are in another infielder, 23-year-old prospect Steve Lombardozzi.
“It isn't a big deal, really,” Antonelli says, putting his sandals up on the second row of seats. “I'll go home and start working on getting ready for next year.”
Maybe it's better that he didn't get called up. He's a free agent and another month of playing might be an injury risk. A simple tweak of the wrist could erase 86 games worth of production that would make him an attractive pickup for major league teams.
Antonelli predictably says he's not worried about being a free agent. “It's funny that people think I'm in all these negotiations,” he says. “My family is like, 'where are you going, what are doing?' I just work out and wait for my agent to deal with all that stuff. Of course, I have a say, but I'm really not as stressed as you would think.”
His agent will be looking for an organization that will give him a chance to compete for a role in the majors during spring training. But, that's not going to be easy. Many players his age the get the “four-A” tag and bounce from minor league team to team with limited time in the Bigs. What if that happens?
What if you never hits another home run in the majors?
“Sure, I'll be disappointed, but I know there's more than baseball,” he smiles. “If I never make it up there again, I feel like I won't spend forever thinking about it.”
So, he says he's a happy guy just making a living playing a child's game. But, something's missing here. Nobody takes it this far. Nobody rehabs for two years or spends eight months away from their five-year girlfriend to enjoy sun and well-tended grass. Nobody gets a hit off of Greg Maddux and hits a home run in the majors then says, “OK, that was fun.”
The motivation has to come from somewhere. Albert Pujols' comes from a grudge against every MLB team for not drafting him earlier. Michael Jordan's from every person who ever said an ill word or discouraged him...ever? And then let them all know during his Hall of Fame speech last year. Or Dennis Rodman's, who kept trying to defeat his personal demons one rebound at a time. There isn't an ounce of that fire or anger or pain?
“I don't think I have anything like that,” Antonelli says, his demeanor changing a little. “Maybe that's why those guys were the best.”
He sits up in his chair, forearm muscles clenched a little. He's trying to maintain a smile, but it's slipping the more he thinks about it. “Well, I would like to show the Padres they made a mistake in letting me go. And, man, all those people who say, 'he's injury prone or he's made of glass,' I would like to show them that I can play a whole season and can make it.”
“And, you know, every time they intentionally walk the guy in front of you to get to you? That really motivates me to slam one the next time up.”
Sure, you don't have anything like that.
But, he insists he isn't cynical or resentful, angry or bitter. Just another free agent looking for a job.
So, this winter, Antonelli will spend time in his new house. He'll play fantasy football and cheer on the New England Patriots. He'll bust his ass for eight hours or more every day to prove to every team he's every bit as good as they thought and he knew he could be back in 2006. He'll bust his ass to get out of the shadowy stadiums in gloomy minor league cities and back under the same lights as superstars. He'll remember the courage, fear, good luck and mistakes. He'll have patience that fate will give him another shot to play in the majors.
Matthew Coller is a senior staff member of the Business of Sports Network, and is a freelance writer. He can be followed on Twitter
Follow The Biz of Baseball on Twitter
Follow the Business of Sports Network on Facebook