By VINNIE PORTELL
Though the Atlanta Braves won’t officially come back to North Port until next spring, there’s still professional baseball to watch in town.
On the baseball fields behind CoolToday Park is where the Gulf Coast League Braves play. While it’s professional baseball, it’s not exactly glamorous.
Players have an early wake-up call to make 6:15 breakfast, must weather the hot mornings and afternoons of Florida, and play their games in front of meager crowds filled with family members and talent evaluators.
However, while it’s a daily grind for these minor league Braves, they’re still chasing the dream.
“It’s a lot of early mornings and a lot of stuff back-to-back-to-back, but it’s what I want to do, you know? It’s work,” said GCL Braves catcher Javier Valdes, who was drafted in the 21st round of the 2019 MLB Draft out of FIU.
“I like the difference how you’re kind of on your own now and aren’t babied to get your stuff done. If there’s stuff on the board, you read it and do what you have to do. It’s all on you.”
The Gulf Coast League is the lowest level of minor league baseball — made up mostly of players who were either recently drafted or signed to contracts. It’s a short season that began June 24 and runs through August 31.
Teams play about five to six games a week, like minor league and major league baseball — except almost all games are played at noon on the back fields of CoolToday Park.
Admission and parking are free for all GCL Braves home games, but be prepared to bring some cover from the sun. There is some bleacher seating along with standing room along the backstop.
While it doesn’t have the grand scale of a field such as CoolToday Park, the close proximity to the field and small crowd sizes make for a unique and intimate baseball experience.
Attendees can hear conversations between players, explanations from umpires, and even disputes.
After the GCL Rays pitcher walked Valdes in the second inning of Friday’s game, he wasn’t sure about the pitch count.
“I thought it was 2-1,” he said.
“No, it was 2-1, and then you bounced one in the dirt before that last pitch,” the umpire called back.
The Braves beat the Rays, 3-2, in Friday’s game, but it’s not the scores that truly matter in the Gulf Coast League.
While winning is always nice, the primary objective for the GCL Braves coaching staff is to see what they’ve got on their hands.
“We just want to let them play,” said GCL Braves manager Nestor Perez, who has coached Atlanta Braves regulars Ozzie Albies and Johan Camargo. “We don’t want to make too many changes. We just let them play. After the season, then we evaluate. Then in the fall we have instructional leagues where we work on individual mechanics.”
For players like Valdes, there can be some pressure to stand out among the crowd.
Valdes was drafted less than a month ago, and he said he wants to make a good impression in his first taste of professional baseball.
There’s some lifestyle changes he’s had to make like going to bed by 10:30 p.m., getting ample food at the right times and taking it easy on his body during his free time.
But for all the workouts, early wake-up calls and grueling summer afternoons, Valdes has all the motivation he needs.
“I think about the sacrifices that my parents made to let me play in all those tournaments,” he said. “It’s a lot of money to spend. Especially my mom, she had to take a lot of time off work to take me there. She wasn’t a mom who would say, ‘Oh just go with someone else’s parents.’ She wanted to make sure she was there for every game.
“So when I play, I always try to make sure I play for her. It’s very special to me.”