When pitcher Zack Greinke signed a 6-year, $147 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers, it was hard not to think about players like Matt Antonelli.
As TV revenues increase and more and more guys like Greinke sign wildly lucrative contracts, you can't blame baseball fans for feeling farther and farther separated from the athletes they support. It's easy to lose sight of the fact that most professional baseball players aren't like Greinke or Alex Rodriguez, C.C. Sabathia, Cole Hamels, Josh Hamilton etc. It's easy to forget that those players are still the exception, not the rule.
Most professional baseball players are like Matt Antonelli.
Antonelli isn't a multi-millionaire. In fact, at the moment he's unemployed. The former 17th overall pick in 2007 has played 21 major league games – all in 2008 – and 513 minor league games since being selected by the Padres. He was released by San Diego in 2010 after three years of battling injuries. Since, he's played minor league games for the Washington Nationals, Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees' organizations.
But he hasn't made it back to the majors. Even after hitting .297/.393/.460 in 86 games for the Syracuse Chiefs in 2011, Antonelli wasn't so much as given a September call-up.
Entering last off-season, the Peabody, Mass. native was as healthy as he'd been since 2007 and confident he'd be back in The Show in 2012. His aspiration seemed even more obtainable when the Orioles signed him to a major league contract. Even general manager Dan Duquette's quotes in the team's press release intimated he'd be with the big club.
After 34 at-bats with the O's in spring training, though, he was assigned to Triple-A Norfolk where he expected to be the starting third baseman.
“One of the reasons I came to Baltimore is that I thought I'd have an opportunity hopefully at some point to play in the majors,” Antonelli said over the phone last April after his minor league assignment. “Whether it would be at the very beginning or whenever to be contributing at that level. That's my goal.”
But when he wasn't in the lineup on opening day, Antonelli began to wonder if things were going to work.
When he did get in the lineup, the plate discipline that intrigued the Orioles was still there, but the line drives and home runs were missing. And the thing about playing in the minor leagues is, with one-year contracts and little patience for slumps, pressure mounts quickly.
A few weeks later – while he'd been bouncing in and out of the lineup and struggling at the plate - the second baseman tweeted a picture of a snow-filled, Single-A ballpark. The stadium has wooden advertisements as a wall and bleachers that only fits about 2,000 without alerting the fire marshall. Norfolk was there to play the Scranton Yankees, who were without a home while their new stadium was being built. It was still a Triple-A game, but it felt like one of those how-did-I-get-here moments.
“It was my weirdest season by far to say the least,” Antonelli said last week.
In the following weeks, the Orioles started shaking up their roster. They signed several players who would play a key role in their run toward the playoffs, including outfielders Nate McClouth and Lew Ford. Antonelli, however, was the odd man out. On May 13 – only about two months after a spot on the MLB roster seemed possible - he was released. He finished with only 116 plate appearances for the Tides.
“Obviously I was disappointed at how it went,” he said. “But if I had shown up to Baltimore and played well and played like I did in Syracuse, things would have been different. So I can only blame myself.”
Four days later, he was picked up by the New York Yankees. They assigned him to Triple-A Scranton. Things didn't work out much better there than they had in Norfolk. The Yankees' lineup was pretty much set by the time he walked in the door and when he did play, he didn't hit. Then, he injured his hand.
“At that point, I was thinking 'this is the season from hell,'” he said.
The former first-round pick only played 15 games with the Yankees. He was DFA'd, picked back up and DFA'd again along the way. His final stat line for the season was 44 games, .201/.324/.286, two home runs and 11 RBI – nothing close to what he'd hoped.
Antonelli doesn't want to call this upcoming season a crossroads, but there's no other word. He's 27 and fully believes he can fulfill his potential as an everyday major league infielder. However, the reality is that mountain gets harder and harder to climb each year that it doesn't happen. Every season, a whole new crop of rookies enter the league who are pegged to be everyday players. It's like a game of musical chairs with 1,000 players fighting for one seat.
That's the life of a professional baseball player. Not mansions and Maseratis. It's time away from home, low pay and long bus rides. It's being cut and traded, sometimes even misled. If you aren't a star, there's a constant self dialogue about what's next and when you'll call it quits.
But Antonelli isn't ready to have that conversation yet. Even when things were down, he was inspired by his former Syracuse teammate Gregor Blanco, who was the starting left fielder on the World Series-winning San Francisco Giants. Blanco was mostly a minor league player and fourth outfieder who took over in left field when Mekly Cabrera was suspended for PEDs.
Blanco made several key plays during the World Series. Antonelli was watching.
“Gregor is a great player,” he said. “Sometimes a guy has a bad season and people write him off, then the next thing you know he's contributing in the majors. It happens with tons of players. So, I know I'm not young anymore, but I'm only 27 and I still think that can be me.”
Antonelli said he and his agent are still working on finding a spot for next season.
READ MORE ABOUT MATT ANTONELLI'S ROAD TO THE SHOW AT BIZ OF BASEBALL.COM