Former Cav getting chance at pro ball

Published 11:07 pm Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Playing for the love of the game might be the way it is for the millionaires on TV, but at times it rings a little hollow even for the biggest fans among us.

Then there’s playing the game for $600 a month and getting stuck overnight at a gas station somewhere north of Cincinnati, when the team’s bus breaks down on the way to the next night’s game in Ypsilanti, Mich.

That’s major-league love for the game, and that’s what Lakeland graduate Robert Hedrick is doing this summer with the Washington Wild Things of the Frontier League.

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The Frontier League is an independent minor league. The teams—unlike the Norfolk Tides, the AAA affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles—are not affiliated with any MLB franchise.

Hedrick was away from the game since spring 2008, when he played his last season at California University of Pennsylvania. He graduated from California in 2009 with a degree in sports management.

Hedrick worked out with the Wild Things this past winter and at a two-week spring training camp. He was the final player cut before the team opened its season in mid-May.

Hedrick was back in Suffolk working at Nansemond River Golf Club when he got a call from Washington in July. The Wild Things needed a pitcher and called him. He was headed north the next day.

One thing, though while in college, Hedrick rarely pitched for Cal U.

In his senior season, he pitched in 10 games as a reliever, his most by far compared to his previous seasons with the Vulcans. Playing as a third baseman or shortstop, Hedrick hit .361 with seven homers, 30 RBI and nine stolen bases.

With the Wild Things’ coaches during the preseason, Hedrick got a chance to pitch and showed off a fastball reaching 93 mph.

Since his first game with Washington, against the Evansville Otters on July 18, Hedrick has pitched in eight games out of the bullpen.

The league ranges from guys like Hedrick just trying to find a start in professional baseball to players who have reached double-A or triple-A. There is a 27-year-old age limit in the league.

“I’m one of the youngest players on the team, so I’m still learning how to be a professional player,” said Hedrick.

“It’s good to be around guys who have been there and done that with minor league organizations.”

The Frontier League has 12 clubs ranging from Washington, Pa. in the east to the River City Rascals in O’Fallon, Mo. in the west.

Long road trips all over Indiana, Illinois and Michigan are the norm, said Hedrick, as well as fast food, which “gets kind of old.”

“It’s hard to eat at fancy places making $600 a month,” said Hedrick.

But before that sounds like complaining, that’s the furthest thing from the truth.

“Pro ball is different from college, because you’re at the field every single day, and you play every night. Sometimes the days can get pretty repetitive, but it’s great to be at the field playing baseball as a job,” said Hedrick.

The road trips and the league’s schedule as a whole are grinding. Monday was the first day off Washington had since Hedrick joined the team. Getting into a new town at 5-6 a.m. and having an afternoon game is the way it goes. Sometimes, that’s even when things go according to plan.

Leaving Florence, Ky., just south of Cincinnati, Oh., the Wild Things were headed through the night to a three-game series in Ypsilanti, Mich.

About 45 minutes into the trip, the bus broke down, leaving the team at a gas station from 11 p.m. until another bus picked the team up at 7 a.m.

“Most of the guys went into the gas station to grab a few beers to get through the night until we were finally picked up,” said Hedrick.

“We even played a pickup baseball game in the parking lot. We had a field lined out and everything.”

Hedrick pitched in an official game later that night against the Midwest Sliders, coming in out of the bullpen in the eighth inning in a game Washington lost 5-2.

“Being crammed in a bus for hours at a time isn’t too exciting, but there’s always a game to look forward to,” said Hedrick.

The towns, mostly small towns, that have Frontier League teams support their clubs well. Crowds have been as large as 6,500 people, said Hedrick.

Of course, for every player in the Frontier League, the goal is to get a shot with a MLB organization.

“My goal for the season is to pitch well enough to make it back next year,” said Hedrick.

The league’s regular season wraps up Sept. 6. In the offseason, Hedrick plans to work in Suffolk or get an assistant coach job at California.

“The goal is to make it to affiliated baseball, but I know I have things I need to work on, and being in this league is helping me tremendously,” said Hedrick.