STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — There may be no more beautiful setting in all of baseball than Richmond County Bank Ball Park, home of the Staten Island Yankees.
The skyline of the Big Apple glistens as if freshly polished. The buildings and their various sizes and shapes reflect the city’s – and the country’s – upward expansion. On a clear day, you can pick out individual buildings. The Freedom Tower looms large.
Before the city sits the magnificent New York harbor, a symphony of sailboats and barges and, on this pristine, sunny day, a collection of kids on Jet Skis.
A home run takes your eyes up, up, up and wait, stop. Is that the Statue of Liberty in the outfield? Wow. What a view. Baseball and Lady Liberty’s grand torch, in one line of sight.
And speaking of liberty, here’s Cameron Ming, one of the latest Aberdeen IronBirds, sitting in the visiting dugout, back at the ballpark for what seems like the 40th straight day.
It wasn’t the money that caused him to forgo his senior season at Arizona to sign with the Baltimore Orioles after being taken in the 14th round of this spring’s draft. It wasn’t the fame or the glory that comes with being able to lead off the résumé with “Professional Baseball Player.” He certainly wasn’t chased away by Tucson, as he has fond and persistent memories of his three-year stint with the Wildcats, which included an unforgettable run to the College World Series championship series in 2016.
Ming would have been welcomed back with open arms by UA coach Jay Johnson. Who wouldn’t want to retain a 6-foot-1-inch, 177-pound left-hander with a 3.33 career ERA?
But Ming yearned for more, to be free of the restraints of college, with academic advisors and professors and coaches monitoring every last second. He wanted to embark on the perilous path of professional baseball, to study in the baseball laboratory that is a minor-league clubhouse, to spread his wings and to put his career on his back.
“It’s liberating,” Ming said. “I hated school. I was able to skate by. So to be here and be able to focus on baseball, yeah, it’s liberating. You don’t have the distractions. It’s your job now. The only thing keeping you back is yourself.”
decision — and destiny
It took a long phone call with his father for Ming to finally admit that yes, this is what he wanted.
The pitcher had just left a meeting with Johnson, the Wildcats’ dynamic coach, but he couldn’t shake the advice that he’d sought and gotten from former teammates Bobby Dalbec and Nathan Bannister. The draft loomed, and Ming would have a decision to make.
“I remember texting Bannister about it, and he said you put three years of your life into the program, and you deserve to do what you want,” Ming said, just a few hours before the IronBirds were to take on the Baby Bombers. “I felt like I still owed one more year. I really struggled with it, and it ate at me. But talking to Nathan really resonated with me.”
Ming sat in his garage for almost an hour that day, talking to his dad on the phone.
Fathers are at their best when they’re teaching sons which potholes to avoid, and Mike Ming was a compass. Mike was no helicopter parent – he’d relinquished the reins on his son’s baseball development before high school – but served as a much-valued sounding board.
“As great of a guy as Jay Johnson is, I couldn’t turn to him because he was biased, and I couldn’t turn to my agent, he’s biased, too,” Ming said. “Who better to turn to than your dad, who really has your best interests in mind?”
To borrow a baseball term: The ball, Ming’s father said, was in his hands. And Ming was ready to go.
Only the draft threw him a curveball. As the picks went by without Ming hearing his name called, he started to reconsider.
“I didn’t get drafted where I wanted to get drafted, and Jay had given me the opportunity to go back and I was really torn,” he said. “I was really set on going back, and I even told my dad, ‘let’s turn the draft off.’ About 10 seconds after that, my name was called, and I was kind of in shock. I’d kind of flipped the switch about going back to college. Then I heard my name called by the Orioles and I had to flip the switch back.”
Ming told his agent he was prepared to sign if his signing bonus threshold was met. It took all of about three hours for the Orioles and Ming to come to terms.
He was now a professional ballplayer.
It’s a grind
This is the life of a professional ballplayer?
Fun, yeah. Fame, maybe. But glory? This ain’t glory.
Last night, the game went late, and Ming picked up his tired legs and ran across the street from the ballpark to a late-night deli, hopped on the bus for the hotel, got back, slept, hopped on the bus this morning, went to the stadium, ran across to the deli then back to the ballpark, played cards and ate. Soon it would be time to change, stretch, throw, run, watch another game and then head back to the deli and back to the hotel.
“I texted Dalbec that I was going to Aberdeen, and he texted back, ‘Get ready for the grind of your life,’” Ming said.
Ming reported to the Orioles’ short-season Single-A affiliate in early July after a less-than-two-week stint in Florida with the Orioles’ Gulf Coast League rookie squad. The plan was simple: Get Ming a few innings and get him out.
How’s this for liberty: Ming’s first appearance for the IronBirds – who, by the way, are owned by Baltimore legend Cal Ripken Jr. – was Independence Day.
Since that day, a 1ª-inning, one-run performance against the Lowell Spinners, Ming has trended upward. Aside from one shaky start in which he surrounded six runs, four earned, and eight hits to the Vermont Lake Monsters, he’s been solid. His last start on Aug. 5, was his best in the minors: A 3ª-inning showing at the Tri-City ValleyRats with one hit allowed and one walk, no runs and four strikeouts. In seven games spread over two affiliates, Ming is 0-2 with a 4.05 ERA. He’s struck out 18 batters and walked just two.
But these material statistics mean little in the grand scheme of minor league baseball, where the second-most important thing is how you look, not how the numbers look, and the most important thing is what you learn.
When Ming describes the minor league clubhouse, he makes it sound like a Silicon Valley tech guy describing an incubator.
“I’m always talking to other pitchers about their grips; I like to pick Zac Lowther’s brain,” Ming said. “If you’re really paying attention, you can pick little things up. You can learn a lot – how Zac throws his fastball, how Cameron Bishop throws his slider. You can soak up a lot of information.”
Ming and Lowther bonded quickly in Aberdeen, forming a partnership in Pluck, a card game similar to Spades or Hearts that has become a staple of the IronBirds clubhouse. Both pitchers are mere months removed from the rigors of college, they’ve found a kinship.
“We were both on the same page in Pluck, and we’ve both been through three years of college, though with different developments, different bodies,” Lowther said. “And things that I do might not work for him. But the conversation? Being able to develop while the other guy is developing, working together as a unit – that’s fun.”
Ming, Aberdeen pitching coach Mark Hendrickson said, is off to a good start.
“The work ethic is there,” said the 6-foot-9-inch Hendrickson, one of just a dozen people to play in both Major League Baseball and the NBA. “My job as a coach is to help him be his best coach. That will stay true. Everything I say or show him, he has to be the one who feels it. Hopefully, it translates. We’re still early, but I like what I see.”
But a month into their partnership, Hendrickson isn’t about to start reworking Ming’s delivery or messing with his makeup. He likens this time period to the “newlywed part of your marriage.” He knows the grind will start to affect them at some point, even if most of the young IronBirds are champing at the bit to get to the ballpark every day.
With less than a month remaining in the short season, Ming is making the most of it.
He is comfortable staying with his host family, where he dutifully makes his bed every morning and takes off his shoes in the house. It’s a bit different than the enviable set-up he had in Tucson. Ming and three Arizona teammates — Jared Oliva, Michael Hoard and Luke Soroko — shared what they call the GOAT house, as in Greatest of All Time. The house, near Speedway and Country Club, has a pool and a basketball court. Ming had the guesthouse, with its own kitchen, to himself.
“The hardest thing is just missing that,” he said. “The other night, I was just like, ‘it’d be great to have another night at my house in Tucson, with some of my best friends, just kicking it. Not doing anything big, just watching TV.’”
He’ll live that life once more in the offseason. Ming plans to return to Tucson to finish his classes and work out with the baseball team, as Dalbec did last year in his first offseason back from the minors. The two lived together then, and Ming got an idea of what was to come.
Ming got a chance to hear about the grind, about real life in the minors, which may not always be what it’s cracked up to be.
He’s wanted to be a pro ballplayer since he was 7, but who knew the dream came with a catch? Only the lucky ones can, as Ming said, “learn from the guys who’ve been there.”
“And maybe Bull Durham,” Ming adds, “and then you realize you’d do anything for a rain delay.”