Jared Oliva’s first day in the minors followed a similar script to many getting their first crack at pro ball.
The Valencia alum, who spent four years at Arizona, was picked in the seventh round of the 2017 MLB Draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates. His first assignment coming with Class-A Short-Season Morgantown.
Oliva arrived at the ballpark with a group of fellow draftees and was exhibiting the kind of bravado that comes with a player who just inked his first pro contract.
Morgantown manager Brian Esposito put things back into perspective.
“We walked into his office and he was just like, ‘Who the hell are these guys?’” Oliva said while volunteering at a youth baseball clinic at College of the Canyons back in October. “That first experience set us up perfectly for pro ball.”
After being greeted by his new manager, Oliva and the group of eight other players were escorted to a laundry room to get changed. Then it was time for a six-hour bus ride to where the team was playing that night.
“You have to figure out on the fly what things you need to pack for the road trip and things like that,” said Oliva, who hit .266 in 56 games with Morgantown, appearing at all three outfield spots. “Then when you get on the bus, you don’t want to step on anybody’s toes and you don’t know where to sit.
“… Everyone was a big deal at their high school or college but when you get to the minors, nobody knows who you are at first.”
While details change, the trials and tribulations Oliva experienced on his first day are par for the course for minor league players.
The Santa Clarita Valley is – and has been – well represented in the minors. Just last season, Valencia alum Keston Hiura was taken with the ninth overall pick of the draft by the Milwaukee Brewers out of UC Irvine.
“It gives you an appreciation for all the luxuries you get in the big leagues.”
-Pat Valaika, Hart alum and current MLB player
Hart coach Jim Ozella has sent a handful of those players to the minors. Five former Indians were active on major league teams last season.
“It’s a real challenge,” Ozella said of playing in the minors. “Housing is a challenge. Food is a challenge. Workouts are a challenge. That’s not even getting into the challenges of playing at a higher level of competition and fighting for your job.
“The consensus between all players is that you want to get out of there as fast as you can.”
Former Hart infielder Pat Valaika broke through the threshold and spent his first full season with the Colorado Rockies last year and appearing in their lone postseason game.
Ozella recalled two years ago when Valaika opened the season with the Rockies’ Double-A affiliate in Hartford, Conn. The team was still in the process of building its new stadium, so it played only road games.
Before he had a chance to place down roots, he was promoted to Triple-A. Valaika made his major league debut later that season as a September call-up. Due to the Double-A team’s stadium situation, followed by multiple call-ups, Valaika spent the entire season living in hotels.
“It’s not as glamorous as people think,” Ozella said. “You’re living out of a suitcase most of the time.”
Maybe it was because he had just enjoyed a full season in the majors, but Valaika looked back only fondly on his time in the minors while volunteering at the youth clinic.
“At the time it felt like things were crazy,” Valaika said back in October. “Looking back on it, it went by pretty quick. It gives you an appreciation for all the luxuries you get in the big leagues.”
Some of those luxuries include team-catered food, rather than making McDonald’s runs with your teammates after games. Charter buses are the most common form of transportation as teams trek across the country. Hotels even differ depending on what level of the minors you’re in.
Not to mention, most players are either coming directly from college or high school.
“It’s definitely a struggle at times,” Valaika said. “Once you get playing and everything, though, you build relationships with the guys and it all comes together.”
Ozella has heard just about every quirky facet of playing in the minors at this point and lends his ear and advice to former players when he can. Last season, he visited former outfielder Luke Persico while on vacation. Persico was playing with the Oakland Athletics’ Single-A affiliate in Beloit, Wisc. after getting selected in the 12th round of the 2016 MLB Draft.
“It’s cold for those California kids in April and in Wisconsin,” Ozella joked. “… I could tell the season was wearing on him a bit — it had been at least 100 games by that point. I just told him to enjoy the process and work on getting better every day.”
Hart’s alums have leaned on each other when struggling with the process. Ozella said he reached out to Chicago Cubs left-hander Mike Montgomery and asked him to check on his former Hart teammate, Tyler Glasnow, who was scuffling in his rookie season with the Pirates.
“It’s the tradition,” Ozella said. “When you see guys who were in your exact shoes achieving the success you want, it’s definitely a motivation.”
Hart’s pipeline likely isn’t going anywhere, with players like Cole Roederer (UCLA signee) and Bryce Collins (Arizona signee) highlighting this year’s senior class. Both are on track to be drafted, whether it be out of high school or college.
Having players like Montgomery, Valaika and Glasnow come by in the offseason has given them the unique chance to hear them bounce minor-league tales off each other.
Ozella believes it’s given his players a leg-up on the battle to get to the big leagues.
“It’s not a physical deal, it’s mental for most guys,” Ozella said. “A lot of guys won’t make based off what they have upstairs. If you get to Double-A or Triple-A, you have the talent to play in the majors.
“The question is, what separates you from being the guy who has a cup of coffee or doesn’t make it, and the one who makes a career for himself.”