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Kyle Phillips - Las Vegas 51s Baseball

This month our reporter Paul Sculpher ventured into the land of grand slams, ‘shagging flies’ and players swinging a doughnut on the end of their equipment*. Paul spoke with Kyle Phillips, a professional baseball player with the local Las Vegas 51s (named after nearby Area 51) on the day of their season opener

Gambling: Hi Kyle, can you tell us a little about how the baseball leagues work, and your career to date?

Kyle: Here in Las Vegas we play Triple A (AAA) ball, which means the second tier of the game. In the USA, all the so-called minor league teams are directly affiliated with one of the major league teams. In our case, Las Vegas is a ‘farm’ team for the Toronto Blue Jays – every player here is hoping to get into the big Canadian club, and we can only move up into that one club unless we’re traded. There are other levels – A and AA and below – which are also part of the same franchise. My position is catcher [similar to wicket keeper in cricket, but a whole lot scarier] and I also play first and third base sometimes. I was drafted back in 2002 but released in 2006, and was just thinking of giving up when I got the call from the Toronto organisation.

Have you had a taste of big league action yet?

Yes I have, I was sent up to Toronto at the end of last season. I made my debut in front of 39,000 screaming fans at Detroit, with Justin Verlander pitching at full speed [think cricket’s Curtly Ambrose in a bad mood – but quicker through the air]. I managed to get a hit in my first big league at bat, the feeling was unbelievable and I’ll never forget it. The coolest part of my debut was Kevin Millar [a legendary veteran of baseball] coming up to me and saying: “So how does it feel to be one of the best 750 baseball players in the world?”

How do you find living in Las Vegas?

There are obviously the temptations, but they’re the same in every town and we’re professional athletes after all, so we have to sensible. I’m not a big gambler, and we tend to stay away from the Strip like most locals – although it is one of the nicer cities we could play in. There are a couple of big advantages to living here, actually. Some of the games can finish very late, and of course there’s always somewhere open to get food or somewhere to relax in Vegas. The other thing is that because we have a lot of road trips, it’s easy to get to most places from Las Vegas by plane. Some of the AAA teams play a little out of the way, so their travels can be a little tougher than most of ours.

Can you give an insight into the lifestyle of a pro baseball player please?

People assume that we just show up for the three hours of the game and that’s our day, but there’s a lot more to it than that. For today’s game, which starts at 7pm, I was here at 1.30pm helping with the preparation – and I’m not even playing! I have a little elbow trouble, and given that there’s nothing at stake in terms of the results in this league, other than the careers of the players, they don’t take risks with what is a significant investment by the franchise.

At AAA level the pay isn’t bad – pretty much a working man’s wage – but back in the days of A and AA baseball, life was pretty tough. We’d have six or seven guys in a two-bedroom condo, and I’ve eaten more grilled cheese sandwiches than I care to remember, just because they were the cheapest thing I could get hold of. I worked 12-hour days through the off-season too, to get some cash together and to give myself options for when my baseball career finishes, hopefully not too soon. The guys put up with it though for the chance to get into the big show, it’s every American kid’s dream.

We play something like 145 games per season – games every day with a day off once a week, usually after a daytime game so the away team can get home. It can be a real grind, but it’s always great to get home to my wife. She sometimes comes with me on away trips.

There’s a huge difference when you get to the big leagues, where the minimum salary is something like $440,000 per year. I picked up a couple of weeks’ worth of that last year, although I got double taxed for USA and Canada, which sucks. If I had the opportunity – before I got involved with the Toronto franchise – I would have considered playing abroad, maybe in Japan, where a lot of players go to play professionally and gain experience. Service in the major leagues also kicks off a pension plan, and they’ll also pay for my college education after baseball’s finished. That’d still be tough though. If, for example, I finished now I’d be finishing college around 30 years old, ten years behind everyone else.

With so much at stake for the big leagues and all the guys in competition for a few roster spots at the big club, do you find yourself openly in competition?

It’s something we never really talk about, although we all know it’s there. In any given position, we’re only one injury away from a call-up and catcher is one of the most often injured spots in the team. Nobody wishes anyone to come to any harm, but many of the stars of the game got their opportunity through an unfortunate injury to someone else.

I’m 26 right now, and you’re always aware that there are more kids coming out of college every year, hoping to take your job. It feels like they’re all faster, stronger, better looking! There’s not much room for sympathy in this game, and if you haven’t made it by 30 years old you’re pretty much not going to get there.

With that it was game time, and we happened to catch a very low-scoring pitchers duel that the 51s took 2-0. The tickets are dirt cheap – around £10 for a spot right down near the action, where you can get a good idea exactly what a 92mph fastball must be like to hit.

Kyle actually made the headlines this season already, nationally, although he may not thank me for mentioning it! In a pre-season game he was just throwing the ball back to the pitcher, as catchers do a hundred or more times per game, when he managed to throw it directly into the ear of the batter from a range of about six inches. All accidental, and I’m sure the batter laughed about it afterwards – once his ears stopped ringing. ESPN took great delight in replaying it across national TV, time and time again. That’s one way to get noticed, I suppose.

Meeting the guy gives you some idea of the sacrifices that these guys make for their one shot at glory, and with Kyle being such a nice guy, I hope he cracks it. Since this interview was done, Kyle has been traded to the San Diego Padres.

*‘Shagging flies’ is baseball-speak for practising catching high balls (fly balls), and when they’re getting ready to bat, players slide a heavy lead ring (doughnut) onto the bat when they’re taking practise swings to make it feel lighter when they go out for real.
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