From Class A to the majors?

Opportunity is huge but odds are long for players in the Northwest League

By Greg Jayne, Columbian opinion editor

Published:

 
photoFrom his Everett Aquasox days

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Tom Lampkin was a fresh-faced 22-year-old when he dove head first into short-season Class A baseball.

“When people say you’re in it for the long haul and it’s a mental game,” the Vancouver resident said, “that was the first time that played out.

“It was different because you played every day. The talent is there with a lot of those guys; consistency is the difference. You get to see the mental grind of playing day to day and to deal with failing.”

Lampkin, like many players at the short-season Class A level, was getting his first taste of professional baseball. He had been selected out of the University of Portland in the 11th round of the 1986 amateur draft by the Cleveland Indians, and two days later he left to begin earning a living with Batavia of the New York-Penn League.

The result was 17 years in professional baseball, including 13 in the major leagues.

Lampkin’s experience is not universal among major-leaguers, but it’s not unique, either. And it helps answer one of the questions surrounding the possible move of the Yakima Bears to Vancouver: What kind of players would local baseball fans get to see?

“I would say it’s definitely a step above Division I college baseball,” said Jack Cain, a Vancouver resident who spent 20 years as an owner of short-season Class A teams, first in Bend, Ore., then in Portland. “Just a few players from each Division I team make it to professional baseball, if that.

“They are learning to be professional ballplayers. In my mind, it’s very entertaining for the fans. You’re going to see some professional plays, you’re going to see some boots.”

On the ladder of professional baseball, short-season Class A ball is the second rung from the bottom. There is the Rookie League level, with teams in places such as Idaho Falls, Idaho, and Bluefield, West Virginia, and the next step up is short-season Class A.

At short-season Class A, players are hoping for a promotion to full-season Class A, then Double-A, then Triple-A — the step that is closest to the major leagues.

Most of the players at the short-season Class A level arrive there immediately after being drafted. But that is where the simple explanations end.

Some are drafted out of high school, while others are drafted out of college — and prospects from Latin America are signed as free agents, rather than being drafted.

A player’s draft position and his age play a role in where he is assigned. A 20th-round draft pick with college experience might start at Class A, while a 20th-round pick out of high school might go to the Rookie League. And each major-league club handles player assignments differently.

“It depends on what they have at the next level up,” Cain said.

Because of those vagaries, not every player who reaches the major leagues goes through the short-season Class A level. Of the 31 who have appeared for the Seattle Mariners this year, 20 of them once stopped at the low Single-A level. That includes Felix Hernandez, who went 7-2 with a 2.29 ERA in 11 appearances for Everett in 2003.

Lampkin ascended quickly, briefly reaching the major leagues in 1988, his third professional season.

“They say most people take 4 to 6 years, but I had some guys ahead of me get hurt, and they needed a catcher,” he said. “You get thrown into the pool, and you have to perform. There were guys who got released after the first week.”

Lampkin, now the baseball coach at Union High School, reached the major leagues for good beginning with the 1995 season.

And it all began at the short-season Class A level.

“It’s good,” he said of the quality of baseball there. “It’s some of the best players in the country with a lot of great tools, but they’re unrefined. There’s a lot of guys who have a lot of great skills.”