No matter how hard life in minor league baseball gets — from the long days to the confidence-shaking cold streaks to the thousands of miles on a bus — at least it’s not a pit.
That’s where Boise Hawks outfielder Ryan Stephens spent the summer of 2014, digging in-ground pools to complete the internship for his concrete industry management degree after not being drafted following his senior season at Middle Tennessee State.
“Digging them up, putting in steel walls, pouring the concrete and all that,” Stephens described his summer. “Ten-hour days in the Tennessee heat, 120 degrees in a hole is not that fun. So credit to those guys who do it every day.
“That kind of fueled the desire to keep playing, to give it another shot. I knew I had it in me. It’s just a matter if someone was going to give me another opportunity.”
Stephens received that opportunity in the form of Michael McKenry, a former Colorado Rockies catcher now in the minors with the Rangers.
McKenry attended Middle Tennessee State and returned to the school in the offseason to train. He picked up Stephens as a workout partner, and after Stephens went undrafted, he burned up the phone lines to get his fellow Blue Raider a tryout.
“He helped me put the foot in the door, and I had to do the rest,” Stephens, 23, said.
The Rangers bit first, flying Stephens out to Arizona in February 2015 for a tryout. The Rockies later offered to take a look at the outfielder while he was in town.
Stephens worked out with the Rockies the day before his flight home to Tennessee. He was the only tryout at Colorado’s facility that day, taking batting practice with MLB All-Stars Carlos Gonzalez and Nolan Arenado as they prepared for spring training.
“That was definitely one for the memory books alone, regardless if I was going to make the team or not,” Stephen said.
Ninety minutes later, he ran into Chris Forbes, the Rockies’ manager of player development, in the halls of the Arizona complex. Forbes invited him into his office, where he offered Stephens a chance to come to spring training.
Two days later, the Rangers also called with a spring training invite. But Stephens had already committed.
“Regardless of what was going to happen, I had peace of mind,” he said. “I busted my butt. I gave it my all. I’m fortunate enough they granted me an opportunity to play.”
Stephens quickly made the most of that opportunity, homering twice last season in his professional debut with rookie-level Grand Junction and earning a promotion to Low-A Asheville, N.C.
“The game is not fair,” Hawks manager Andy Gonzalez said. “Who knows? There are no guarantees in this game. He didn’t get drafted, but he got signed. At the end of the day, the most important thing is for you to get signed. He got a chance to show his talent, and he’s here taking advantage of the situation.”
He ended his first year in Asheville, hitting .225 and earning a ticket to Boise for 2016. He’s fighting for playing time on a roster with six outfielders. But not even a demotion and a slow start this summer — he’s hitting .143 in eight games — can shake Stephens.
They’re still not a pit.
“Anything,” Stephens said, “beats that.”