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Triple-A Is OK for Career Minor Leaguers : Baseball: Although chances of making the majors are dim, these veterans don't dread life in the minors.

July 11, 1993|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Chris Cron was a pup in the Angels' organization, he recalled seeing a 30-year-old triple-A player and thinking, "Why is he sticking around when there's a good chance he'll never make the major leagues?"

Now Cron, a 29-year-old first baseman for the triple-A Nashville Sounds, admits youngsters in the Chicago White Sox farm system are probably saying the same things about him.

When Steve Springer was coming up through the New York Mets' organization in the early 1980s, he marveled at a pitcher named Rick Anderson, who spent nine seasons with the Mets' triple-A team in Norfolk, Va.

"I was thinking, 'How can you spend nine years in triple-A?' " Springer said.

He's about to find out. The 32-year-old Norfolk Tides third baseman, who played at Marina High School and Golden West College, is in the midst of his ninth triple-A season.

Springer and Cron, who played at El Dorado High and Santa Ana College, are among Orange County's oldest minor league players. They're hardly deadbeats--Springer has a .277 career minor league average, and his teams have reached the playoffs in 10 of 11 previous seasons; Cron has a .273 career average and had two 22-home-run seasons.

But they're not major league prospects, either. In 12 professional seasons, Springer has played in only eight major league games, garnering four hits in 17 at-bats; in 10 years, Cron has played in 12 major league games, with two hits in 25 at-bats.

Springer and Cron think they have the talent to play in the big leagues--it's the main reason they're still playing--but it has become obvious their employers don't agree. The evidence:

Springer was named most valuable player of the Tides in 1992 but didn't even get called up when the Mets expanded their roster in September. When Met third baseman Howard Johnson went on the disabled list earlier this season, the team called up second-base prospect Doug Saunders and kept Springer in Norfolk.

Cron thought he'd crack Chicago's lineup as designated hitter in 1992, but one week before the season, the White Sox traded for Chicago Cub outfielder George Bell, who has been the team's DH since.

Springer and Cron seem destined to play out their careers in the minors. They may never make outrageous major league salaries. They may always be small fish in small-pond cities such as Pawtucket, Toledo and Des Moines.

What a miserable life, huh?

Guess again.

"I always say it could be a lot worse," Springer said. "I could be doing something I don't like to do. I've made a zillion friends in the game, I have a beautiful family, I golf in the off-season. There aren't a lot of jobs that pay you to sleep till 11 and get six months off."

When most people think of the minor leagues, long, steamy bus rides, cramped clubhouses in creaky old stadiums, four-to-a-room in cheap motor inns, and $700 a month salaries come to mind.

But the minor league landscape, especially at the triple-A level, has changed considerably the last 10 years, making minor league careers a whole lot more palatable for players such as Springer and Cron.

Triple-A players fly on most trips, and new minor league stadiums, complete with state-of-the-art facilities, are popping up all over the country. The Norfolk Tides, for instance, are playing their first season in a $15-million, 12,000-seat stadium.

Triple-A salaries also have jumped about 50% the past 10-15 years, according to several minor league executives.

Cron said he makes about $50,000 a season, and Springer said he makes about $40,000. Dave Rosenfield, Norfolk Tide General Manager since 1961, said many triple-A players are in the $30,000-40,000-a-year range, compared to $10,000-20,000 a decade ago.

Sure, San Francisco Giant outfielder Barry Bonds makes about as much per game as these guys do in a season, but considering their salaries are for six months and players can make additional money in the off-season, and the cost of living in minor league towns is usually pretty reasonable, the wages aren't bad.

"Heck, we're only working six months out of the year and making that kind of money, so as long as we can keep getting the job done we're going to stay," Cron said. "I've worked the past four off-seasons at Nevada Bob's Golf and Tennis Shop. I play ball half the year and play golf and talk golf the other half. It's a great life."

Years ago, when a player logged seven, eight seasons in the minors with little progression, he usually retired and got a real job.

"My brother, Gary, played six years with Detroit and they kept sending him to double-A," Springer said. "He was making $1,500 a month, had a wife and kids, so he had to get out of the game to make more money."

But if a player can establish himself at the triple-A level, he can take advantage of rules that give minor leaguers more leverage, and of a growing market for such veteran players, to make a decent living in the minor leagues.

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