We’ve all been fired. We know what it feels like to have our boss tell us we suck. Most folks can’t comprehend, however, the feeling of having our childhood dreams snatched from our clutch. That’s what happens to a minor league player when he is released for the first (or last) time.
Baseball is all Justin Viele knows. It’s in his blood. How was he to move on when his uniform was ripped from him? The lesson was not in how he was knocked down but how he picked himself up. We’ll let him teach today.
Sometimes the moment you least want to happen are the critical moments in your life.
My college coach used to use the Charles Swindoll phrase, “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” In anything, attitude dictates how you are going to tackle successes or failures. If you go into something with a poor attitude, you will most likely have poor results. Baseball is so competitive nowadays, you have 7 year olds playing travel ball year round and working with different instructors to try to up their game. But that hard work that baseball players put in year round often leads to them adopting the habit of hard work and being able to take it into other fields. It used to be cute when someone was working hard, taking those extra swings or ground balls, but now it seems like a lot of baseball players have caught onto the fact that that’s what it takes to get to the next level.
To me, not being good enough to help the team was always my biggest fear. I never wanted to feel like poor performance came from lack of work. Hard work isn’t always enough though. It really sucks when the day comes where your coach, manager, or player development coordinator tells you that they don’t see a future for you playing anymore. The goal is to delay this conversation as long as possible. Unfortunately, mine came sooner than I anticipated.
Nobody wants to be told they can’t play the game they love anymore. Some guys get told in high school, some in college. Some might be lucky enough to never be told they can’t play anymore. In that moment when you’re cut, released, let go, all the hard work that baseball players put in to be the best feels like it’s all for nothing. But these moments teach you a valuable lesson about yourself. In the process, you learn a lot about who you really are.
For me, the fateful day came this April at the end of spring training. I walked into the complex like it was any other day, ready to put my cleats on and hit the field. Checked the board to see the schedule, and I noticed a sheet on the board with several names on it that read “SEE BRIAN GRAHAM.” Brian Graham is the player development coordinator, and no one wanted to see that note. There had already been several days of cuts, and I happened to get by the first couple, but when I saw my name on the board my heart dropped. Panicked, I hurried to get dressed.
When I walked in, before I could even sit down his first words were “Sorry Viele, we don’t have a spot for you on any team.” Millions of thoughts raced through my head when I heard those words.
“How could I have let down so many people?” “Should I go play Indy Ball?” “How am I going to tell my friends and family?”
I was speechless and very pissed off when I heard him say that. I had a decent spring and swung the bat well when I had the opportunity to play. I thought there would be a chance; maybe I would hook on with a team as a fourth infielder. But the meeting wasn’t done. Brian Graham then said “How would you like to coach first base in High A?”
I was so pissed off when he asked me this. I don’t really even remember the exact words I said, but it was something like “There’s no way I’m going to coach, I can still play, put me in extended spring training I don’t care.” Brian told me to take a day to think about everything and not to make a decision to quick because emotions were running high.
I left his office, thinking I was going to pack, get in my truck and make the 3 day drive home ASAP. There were so many emotions coming over me in that moment. In order to reach his office, you have to pass by the gym. The other guys know why you are walking over there, and they know that there’s a good chance that you’ll be walking out in tears or pissed off, never to return to the complex. That walk across the gym isn’t very sexy, and there is no way to make it sexy. I walked back quickly and awkwardly.
Then I started thinking about how good of an opportunity coaching would be for me. Every time I used to take ground balls or especially hit, I would think to myself, “I know how this is supposed to look, but I seriously can’t do it.” Every time I watch somebody else, I have always been able to see something they were doing well or something they were doing poorly. I couldn’t physically make my body do those things to make myself a great baseball player, but maybe I could help other guys do it.
I took about five more minutes, read an article about Joe Madden (manager for the Cubs), and it stated that he had played two seasons in the LA Angels organization before becoming a coach.
“Fuck it,” I mumbled out loud and proceeded to make the walk back to Brian’s office. Knocked once, he nodded for me to come in, and I told him that I would do it and that I was honored he thought highly enough of me not to actually release me, but to keep me on board as a coach. (In other words, “Listen dude, you can’t play anymore, how about you coach?”) I started getting more pumped up about it. I started as just an older baseball player trying to keep a dream alive, now I am the youngest coach in the organization trying to fulfill new dreams.
I grabbed my phone and called Dad. It was about [spp-timestamp time="8:30"]am EST, so back in California it was [spp-timestamp time="5:30"]am, but I knew he’d be up. I called, and right when he said “Hello,” I couldn’t help but cry. It was one of the hardest phone calls I have ever made. Telling your #1 fan that you aren’t going to be playing anymore was so hard I could barely come up with the words to tell him. I knew he was going to be ultra supportive of what I was going to tell him next because he has always been that constant support for me. I could’ve told him I was going to go try out for an NBA team and he would have responded with “You know what Just, I’ve always liked your jumper.” I wasn’t so worried about telling him that I wasn’t going to be playing anymore, but just the fact that he has been watching me play for the past 18 years or whatever and now is not going to ever watch me field a ground ball ever again made it hard to put the words together. But I explained to him the situation, and he was so excited for me, like I knew he would be.
The next day was weird. Went into the equipment room to see the head clubhouse manager so he could give me all my coaching gear. Stopwatch, fungo, leather belt, short sleeve windbreaker…the biggest challenge was walking out to the field wearing white pants and turfs instead of grey pants (all the players wear grey pants) and cleats. The last game of spring training was against the Rays, and it was my first opportunity to coach first base and learn a little bit about player positioning. I felt awkward standing at first base and kept thinking “What am I even doing here?” I was happy Spring Training was over and I only had to coach one game there. I was ready to start a season and do whatever I needed to do to help.
The weirdest part of coaching so far is that I have played with more than half of the guys on the team. At first, it was really hard for me to feel comfortable “coaching” or just saying something that I see. I’ve built friendships with most of these guys, and now I have to get on them for missing a sign or not hustling to first base on a ground ball to short. However, I’m lucky enough to be with a group of guys that treats me as a person. They don’t treat me as a player, coach, ex-player, but instead they all just treat me as a person.
I am almost done with the second month of my first season of coaching and I absolutely love the experience. As a player, each year would get harder for me when it came to anxiety and being a perfectionist. I rarely could enjoy a pregame spread or batting practice because I was so nervous about fucking up the game or playing poorly. Now, I literally get to enjoy every single game. Pregame is awesome now because I get to watch guys get better and I get to be apart of it. Hitting our shortstop slow ground balls in the hole during BP and watching him make the same play in the game fires me up. Positioning guys based on spray charts of other teams and watching our second baseman get to a ball because of my positioning might be my favorite part of coaching. Picking up tendencies on opposing pitchers so that our base stealers can steal bases with ease is exciting, and I almost feel like I’m swiping the base. I am finally free of the feeling that others guys are coming to the yard to try and steal my job. Now, I can honestly enjoy every single person that I work with now and most importantly, now every day my feeling when I get to the yard is what I can do today to help every single one of these guys get to the big leagues.
This transition would be extremely difficult without support from my family, my friends, and most importantly, the players and staff that I work with. I’m lucky enough to enjoy my first year of coaching under the same manager that I had as my first year of playing professional baseball. He’s been coaching longer than I have been alive and then some, so I learn something from him every day. Without the group of guys on this team, I think it would be really hard to feel comfortable doing this, but they have made me feel wanted and needed as a coach. I’m proud to say that I am perfectly content with being a coach and I hope to be doing it for a very long time.
So 10/90, because when you’re positive and excited about whatever happens to you or whatever you’re doing with your life, you’re always at the beach. So for now, my beach is the first base coach’s box.