SAN FRANCISCO — Two weeks ago, as the Giants and St. Louis Cardinals started their game at Busch Stadium, Abe Silvestri boarded a flight to Los Angeles and wondered if he might be able to sneak in an hour of rest.
As Giants senior director of team operations, Silvestri is with the rest of the team from the start of the spring through the final out of the year, but because the Giants planned to have nearly 130 players, coaches and family members at Disneyland later that week, Silvestri skipped the trip to St. Louis and instead headed down the coast to prepare for the team’s most ambitious off-day event in years.
Silvestri knew that the game already had started in St. Louis, and most of the behind-the-scenes work for the day was done. He figured it was safe to avoid the flight’s wifi for an hour and then check in on the game when he got to Los Angeles.
“We landed and all I heard was ‘ding … ding … dingdingdingding,'” he said last week, laughing.
As Silvestri tried to sort through the endless stream of texts and notifications that had piled up over the course of the hour, his eyes focused on a one-word text from a member of the team’s analytics staff.
In the span of a couple of minutes, the Giants had lost J.D. Davis and Mitch Haniger to injuries. Davis didn’t go on the IL, but the ankle sprain was severe enough that David Villar was needed back in the big leagues. Haniger ended up having surgery while most of his teammates were at Disneyland, and the Giants knew right away that the fracture would lead to Luis Matos getting called up for the first time.
As Matos and Villar took the field in Sugar Land, Texas, the organization’s support staff sprung into action. A few hours later, Matos became the eighth Giants rookie to make his MLB debut, and like the rest of them, he looked right at home.
This season has become defined by the influx of youth, and while that has been invigorating for the team and the fan base, it also has put a lot of pressure on the small group of team employees tasked with making sure players don’t arrive alone, or wanting for anything at all.
Sometimes the effort is easy to see, like when 50 of Casey Schmitt‘s family members and friends met with him on the field before his debut. Sometimes it’s more subtle, like when Sabol looked up at Yankee Stadium on Opening Day and teared up because both of his parents had made it to New York. Or when Patrick Bailey discovered that the staff was helping his young daughter rush through the passport process last week so the rookie’s whole family could be together in Toronto.
“That’s probably been the coolest thing about being in the big leagues,” Bailey said. “The Giants do an incredible job of taking care of us, but more important for me, taking care of our families.”
Sabol’s brother lives in New York, so his mom was always going to make the first trip of the year regardless of whether her baseball-playing son made the initial roster as a Rule 5 pick. His dad lives in Orange County and planned to see him when he returned to San Francisco, but that’s not how the Giants ever want to handle a debut. Silvestri asked Sabol for his dad’s phone number and passed it along to Jeff Wallace, who handles travel logistics for families. Sabol was told not to worry about organizing anything from that point on.
“They’re always emphasizing that your job is playing baseball,” he said. “Ours is everything else.”
Sabol returned from that trip with the lineup cards from his first game, first hit and first homer, as well as that first ball that cleared the wall. But he also returned with memories he’ll cherish forever, which has become standard for the 2023 Giants.
There are few things in this game as special as a rookie’s debut, and the Giants will go to great lengths to make sure family members aren’t stuck watching on TV.
After a player is told he’s headed for the big leagues, Silvestri reaches out and asks him to choose one family member to be a point person, then hands that number off to Wallace, who gets to work on logistics. It is team policy that no matter the stature of the player, three relatives get round trip tickets and hotel rooms.
Oftentimes it’s many more than that who plan to come, and the Giants offer to handle all the booking if necessary, with Rose Rotherham of a travel agency finding ways to get people from all over the country to Oracle Park, or wherever the rookie is debuting. When they arrive, many family members find a car service waiting for them for the first time.
Team travel manager James Uroz handles all of the tickets, which at times can get pretty complicated. When the huge Schmitt party arrived from San Diego (he edged Ryan Walker‘s 42 tickets for the most by this year’s class) Uroz managed to get them all together on the field before the young infielder took BP.
There’s about 60 family members and friends here for Casey Schmitt tonight, including someone who flew in from North Carolina. Pretty incredible job by the Giants staff to help get them all settled in before first pitch: pic.twitter.com/54r8aFQFuO
— Alex Pavlovic (@PavlovicNBCS) May 10, 2023
Sometimes, there’s only so much you can do. The Giants started working on travel visas for Matos’ parents long before Haniger got hurt, but it’s a complicated and ongoing process given that they live in Venezuela. Matos’ wife was flown to Los Angeles, though, and when some family members unexpectedly decided to drive to St. Louis for his debut, senior clubhouse and equipment manager Brad Grems dug up Giants gear for them and the staff made sure they were brought down to the clubhouse to meet the young outfielder after the game. Grems always travels with extra Giants shirts and hats, just in case.
The goal is to make every rookie feel comfortable every step of the way, and for Grems, that includes plenty of preparation before a player even realizes he’s on the verge of a call-up. Rookies around the league often debut with high numbers, but this season, Grems changed things up.
Sabol (2), Schmitt (6), Patrick Bailey (14) and Matos (29) fit right in with the rest of the roster, and the hope is that those numbers stick for years to come. As the debuts approached, Grems researched which numbers the players wore in high school, college and the minors. He thought about what the fan reaction to certain choices might be and he tried to find the right fits.
It helped that this year’s roster didn’t have as many veterans taking up coveted low numbers. And no, it’s not a coincidence that Bailey’s 14 is somewhat similar to Buster Posey’s 28.
“It gave me an opportunity to get these guys numbers that make them comfortable and allow them to feel like they belong here,” Grems said.
Most of the rookies look like they’re here to stay, and by hitting the ground running, they’ve kept another behind-the-scenes employee busy. Van Jackson is a former LAPD police officer who now handles team security. When a player hits his first homer — as Schmitt, Bailey, Sabol, Matos and Brett Wisely have done this year — it’s Jackson who goes into the stands and starts the process of getting the ball back to him.
Jackson usually gets the ball and sets things up so a security guard can take the fan and some family members and friends down to the clubhouse area in the top of the eighth. From there, Grems handles negotiations. While excited fans have asked for everything from Barry Bonds’ autograph to $20,000, the first home run ball is almost always traded for some combination of signed bats and balls from the rookie, along with a chance to meet and take a photo.
The process has been seamless this year, with some lucky breaks mixed in. Sabol’s first homer came on the road but landed in a bush, while Keaton Winn’s first pitch in the big leagues was fouled off and landed a few rows in front of his family, who happened to be chatting with Wallace. It’s now in Winn’s locker at Oracle Park.
The memento game does sometimes include nerves, though. Matos’ first full series as a big leaguer came at Dodger Stadium, and Jackson laughed before the first game of that series as he recalled a conversation he had with others about how the Giants could get a home run ball back from the rowdy bleachers.
“I’m hoping that Dodgers fans throw the ball back on the field if he does it here,” he said last weekend. “That’s my strategy.”
For the most part, though, the staff tries to be proactive, not reactive. As Sabol made noise in March, Grems asked him which equipment company he was with. Sabol didn’t have a deal with anyone and had been getting extra Nike catcher’s gear from former teammate and No. 1 overall pick Henry Davis.
“I took a shot in the dark and was like, ‘Well I always wear Nike …” Sabol said. “Brad was like, ‘Let me make some calls.'”
Sabol, of course, showed up in April with orange-and-black Nike shin guards and chest protectors.
On some level, the extra steps seem like they should be the norm, but that’s not the case for most rookies around MLB. Asked about his own memories of being a rookie elsewhere, one veteran said simply: “Nothing got done, especially for your family.” Manager Gabe Kapler said he felt like “he couldn’t ask for anything” when he was a young player.
“I certainly couldn’t ask for anything for my family,” he added. “If I felt more comfortable and got that kind of support, I think I would have been better between the lines. I 100 percent think it makes a difference.”
Kapler said the Giants view it as yet another way to build a good culture, and he noted that Joc Pederson usually leads the charge for the player himself while others are making sure his family is taken care of.
“Joc is really big on making young players feel like they belong and they’re a part of things, and not like they have to look over their shoulder,” Kapler said.
Pederson will have more players to onboard if all goes according to plan. This is just the start of the wave of young talent arriving, and Silvestri already has started to think about what’s next, including whether it makes sense to have Triple-A players sign up for TSA PreCheck or Clear to expedite the process at airports. Given how late in the day some moves happen, players often make their flight to the big leagues with just minutes to spare.
When Matos and Villar were pulled from that Triple-A game, they were told to skip showering, leave all their clothes at the team hotel, and hop in a clubhouse employee’s car to get to the Houston airport. Villar, having lost his luggage once already this season, got another Sugar Land employee to go to the team hotel and grab everything. The players’ belongings arrived at the airport just as they did.
The next morning, Matos walked into Busch Stadium, well-rested and ready to go after a hectic 12 hours. Matos had a hit his first night, and he since has joined a rookie class that has been worth more than two Wins Above Replacement already and leads the majors in RBI.
“Ultimately, I think it equates to winning,” Silvestri said. “The reason it equates to winning is we’re removing distractions. It’s a distraction if your family can’t be here to watch you like they’ve been doing your whole life. It’s a distraction if your wife is stuck at the airport. It’s a distraction if a guy forgets to put tickets in for you. All of that takes away from what it is that they’re actually trying to do.
“That’s the catalyst behind it. When in doubt, remind yourself that you’re doing this because it’s one less text message the guy is going to get, and if that gets more swings in the cage or helps a guy do his routine, it’s worth every ounce of sweat.”
Source: Yahoo Sports