Aaron Slegers asked if he could move the time of his scheduled phone call with The Hoosier Network to another day. Less than a week earlier, he had boarded a plane in Phoenix bound for south Florida, Slegers himself entirely uncertain of where he and likely roommate Josh Fleming would be living together — or for how long — while they compete for a 2020 Opening Day roster spot with the Tampa Bay Rays. Just days before, they had both received an invite to the Rays’ abbreviated spring training — “summer camp,” as it has been called — in preparation for the weirdest baseball season ever.
So during that originally scheduled time to chat, he was on the hunt for an apartment in the middle of a pandemic. Rather understandable.
Like all minor leaguers, Slegers, one of the best to ever pitch at Indiana and a member of the 2013 College World Series team, isn’t exactly surprised when a general manager comes calling at 3 a.m., or when he boards a last-minute flight only to play in a professional baseball game later that night, or be told he’ll be living out of a Holiday Inn for days on end (no disrespect intended toward one of the most prestigious hotel chains in the U.S.). It’s the hectic nature of his profession, predicated on attempting to prepare for the unexpected.
But as we’ve heard a million times or more over the past four months, this too is different, unlike anything that professional athletes — or anybody for that matter — have ever had to face. A vast majority of America’s minor leaguers went to bed one night and then woke up to the news that they wouldn’t have the opportunity to compete this summer, while once again trying to climb the ladder in their respective organizations’ farm systems — as if it wasn’t already difficult enough to make it to the show.
And as for the guys like Slegers, who were named to their respective teams’ 60-man player pools, they aren’t sure how long they’ll be kept around, because within the battle to get baseball back on the field this summer, smaller battles have taken place inside each of MLB’s 30 franchises. Battles between teammates. Battles of mental toughness. Battles for roster spots, and therefore also battles for an opportunity to take part in what could be a historic MLB season in uncharted territory for everybody involved.
“I just feel like I’m one of the lucky ones without any guarantees,” Slegers says. “The fact that I can continue this summer with a regimented goal system, I couldn’t imagine not having that for an entire year. Guys who just stay home…they don’t even know if they should keep playing catch or not. I don’t know what I would do with myself.”
Whether it be competing for a slot in a Division I program’s rotation or learning how brutally unfair the minor league grind can feel at times, baseball is a game that often forces you to expect nothing.
Not coincidentally, Slegers has built a career around similar principles, with the first bricks laid nearly a decade ago in Bloomington. Missing essentially his entire senior season of high school ball due to a growth issue in his forearm forced Slegers into walk-on status at IU. An injury suffered after logging just one inning at the collegiate level caused him to use a medical redshirt and sit in 2011. But two years later, Slegers filled a void and seized an opportunity, going 9-2 with a 2.04 ERA, considered the team’s ace in the biggest season ever at Indiana, en route to being named 2013 Big Ten Pitcher of the Year at the season’s close.
“Before that season…I never truly believed that I belonged in the professional ranks, let alone the major league ranks,” he said. “The stars aligned…that was the biggest season of my life, really.”
Fast-forward to the summer of 2020 and that mantra still serves its purpose: nothing given, everything earned, and most importantly, remaining grateful for the opportunity. Not unlike the experience that Indiana’s spring athletes were dealt when their respective seasons were canceled, Slegers operates under not knowing what tomorrow may or may not bring. It’s the ultimate test of “living for now” and staying focused on preparing for when his name is called.
“In baseball and in life, really, there’s going to be plenty of things that you can point at…things that didn’t go your way but should have,” he said. “If there’s anything I’ve learned in this game…when you’re complacent enough to start expecting things is when you should worry.”
Slegers is a part of the player group benefitting from the expanded roster system being instituted in Major League Baseball this summer. One of seven former Hoosiers named to a 60-man MLB pool, Slegers has worked the past month primarily out of the Rays’ spring training facility in Port Charlotte, about an hour’s drive south of Tropicana Field.
Should he step onto the turf at The Trop this summer, it’ll be in the interest of adding depth to the bullpen, appearing more than likely due to injuries and/or positive COVID-19 test results within the organization. So consider those chances pretty high.
On top of all the external factors at play while trying to complete a MLB season in 2020, it’s a separate challenge altogether to lock in and still perform at the highest level. For fringe players who have spent much of their careers in the minors, the past month has been an audition in front of major league coaching staffs, guys hoping to leave a lasting impression so they are considered as a reliable option if needed. And reliability has been Aaron Slegers’ calling card for his entire career. Known to provide longevity whether it be in a starting role or not, he knows he’ll serve some sort of role with Tampa Bay; it’s just a matter of when and how that happens.
He calls pitching “the true litmus test” for a team, and for a team that has received its fair share of offseason hype, it’s an exciting time belonging to one of the deepest organizations in baseball. The Rays are one of the teams thought to be potentially dangerous in the shortened season format, firmly in a position to “win now.”
“This organization is as stacked as I’ve ever seen,” Slegers said. “My firsthand knowledge of seeing all the guys in the bullpen, they have some of the nastiest pitches I’ve ever seen. We’re going to be in really good shape.”
To compete in MLB’s 2020 season is to be a part of history, and Aaron Slegers is close. He knows that he just as likely could be on the couch, watching it all happen with so many others just like him, but he’s not. So until that time comes, he’ll be in Port Charlotte, doing what he’s done so well his entire career — locking in and working, like nothing else has changed.
“If there’s one opportunity you have, like my current one, getting to compete to be a part of a big league roster this year,” he said, “then I’m going to do my absolute best to do that, to the best of my ability, and be grateful for the opportunity.”
An opportunity. Maybe that’s all Aaron Slegers needs. A reminder that regardless of time, place or circumstance, he’s still one of the lucky ones with the chance to again compete this summer, as different as it may look and feel. And that’s more than most can say.
There are certainly no guarantees. But then again, when are there ever?