PELLA—The real world beckoned.
A summer job. Medical school applications. Student loans. For Garrett Saunders ’19 last June, it was finally time for baseball and boyhood dreams to fade into the memories of his youth.
He’d allowed the hopes of a pro career to flicker a little longer than most. Some favorable showings in summer wood-bat leagues combined with the promise and leather he flashed as Central College’s all-conference shortstop prompted Atlanta Braves scouts to offer some encouragement, if not a contract.
Yet his name wasn’t called during the amateur draft. Offers for undrafted free agents typically surface immediately afterwards, but a week had now passed and Saunders conceded it was time to move on. He would start applying to medical schools the following day.
Then he got the call. He took a break from his summer job at a local construction site long enoughwhen the Braves offered him a spot with the Class A rookie league Danville (Va.) Braves. There was no need for contract negotiations, only guidance on how to get from his Bonaparte, Iowa home to Virginia.
“It was definitely kind of a shock,” Saunders said. “I wasn’t looking for it at all but at the same time it’s something that you get an instant kind of smile because it’s like, yeah, it’s happening now.”
And that’s how medical school got put on hold—for breakfast-bar bagels from two-star hotels and 11 p.m. postgame chicken breasts on a paper plate in a cramped team clubhouse, for bus rides hugging the tree-lined slopes of the Appalachian Mountains and for a chance to cling to his youth just a bit longer, picking ground balls off bumpy dirt infields and anxiously waiting for that next at-bat.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Saunders said. “It’s almost like a Little League career. All that matters every day is waking up and playing baseball. You don’t really have anything else to care about. It’s like you’re going back in the day, playing after school, but now it’s 12 hours a day. It’s all your waking time, pretty much. Then you go back to go to sleep and do it again.”
Saunders was a two-time all-region pick at Central, hitting .361 with 25 RBIs last spring. A nice stat line, but for Saunders, like his classmates in other fields, Central connections were the key to finding his professional landing spot.
“One of the main reasons I ended up (with the Braves) is connections,” he said. “I played every summer and Coach (Matt) Schirm always did a good job of making sure I had somewhere to play. That ended up leading to me performing better and got me an opportunity in the Northwoods (League). That obviously helped with exposure.”
Saunders played in the Iowa Valley summer league after his freshman season, then in a Chicago suburban league club in Oswego, Illinois the following summer. That led to being picked up by the Thunder Bay (Canada) Border Cats in the challenging Northwoods League prior to his senior year, playing against primarily large school players, where he caught scouts’ eyes.
Yet Major League clubs don’t invest a lot in undrafted free agents from an NCAA Division III college. Those picked near the top of the draft are labeled as the prospects and their names fill the lineup cards. Saunders had to adjust to life as a back-up last summer in Danville, making every playing opportunity a precious one.
“I would go three, four days without playing and then play two out of three or something, so that kind of makes it tough just because you haven’t seen a live pitch in a few days and then you have to get in the box again against 92 or 93 (miles-per-hour pitches) or whatever you’re seeing that day,” he said.
Thus far, he’s defied the odds. In 26 games last summer, he batted .300 with 21 hits and 14 walks with 11 runs scored.
“I feel like I had a pretty good year,” he said. “Obviously there’s plenty I can work on but I enjoyed it.”
Those numbers won’t put him on a fast-track to Atlanta but they did get him an invitation to minor league spring training at the Braves complex in North Port, Florida this month. From there he could get assigned to another Class A minor league club or spend time at extended spring training before a return to the short-season rookie league club in Danville in June. Or he could be suddenly summoned to the manager’s office at any point, released, and packing for a flight to Iowa a couple hours later. Saunders is unfazed.
“I can’t control where I end up or what they decide to do with me so I’m just going to control my effort and attitude, and hope for the best,” he said.
For most minor leaguers, eyes locked firmly on a coveted major league roster spot, it’s all about the destination, not the journey. For Saunders, the journey is the destination. Sure, 50,000-seat stadiums, charter flights and mortgage payment-sized per diem checks would be nice, but he can’t quite get over the fact that he’s getting paid to play baseball.
“I’ve thought about just how cool it has been,” he said. “My whole athletic career has brought me to this point. It’s neat to look back on. And I definitely don’t have any complaints about the pay and everything. There are some guys that take it a little rough but at the end of the day you’re making money, more than you’d be making sitting and going to school somewhere.”
And when Saunders comes to the occupation line on his tax return, he’s part of a minute slice of the population who can list “professional baseball player.” It’s an identity he’s still getting accustomed to.
“You get done every day and there’s little kids and fans that want autographs and want bats and all kinds of stuff,” he said. “It’s nice.”
That doesn’t mean he’s satisfied with his status in the Braves’ system. The fire to excel burns as intensely in Saunders as it does in any player, yet the pressure is not as suffocating. Unlike his minor league teammates, with his Central biology degree, he’s got a Plan B.
“There probably are some guys playing like they’ve got to make it or they don’t know what they’re going to do, it’s hard to say,” Saunders said. “But what makes it fun is I can just go into it and see what happens.”
That may explain why that instant smile the Braves’ initial call prompted has yet to completely leave Saunders’ face. He’s fallen as much in love with the process as he is with baseball. Visions of tapping the end of his bat on the plate at Atlanta’s Truist Park while digging in for his first major league at-bat don’t crowd Saunders’ mind.
“I honestly don’t give a whole lot of thought to that,” he said, the notion of a major league career still as foreign to him as a D on a biology test. “It would be a lot of fun and pretty rewarding but that’s a long way down the road. I don’t want to spend a lot of time thinking about something where I can’t really control that part of the outcome. I can only control what I’m doing and I focus on that.”
Yet regardless of the stadium, league or opponent, Saunders exudes a quiet confidence.
“I’ve always felt like I could compete at any level of baseball,” he said. “I don’t know why, I’ve just always felt like that. I might not stand out but I’m also not going to fall behind, either. I just have to progressively get better. Every level gets better so there’s a lot of work to do. But even if I ever got to a level where I felt behind physically, I feel like there is a way to make up for that mentally, in order to continue to compete.”
It’s the same sort of grounded, Midwestern mindset that Saunders packed with his bags in early March as he prepared for the 1,250-mile trek to his first spring training in North Port, where his improvement takes priority over making impressions.
“I don’t worry about what other people think,” he said. “I’m just trying to be the best player, teammate and guy I can be and go from there.”
Finding ways to get on the field is the immediate objective.
“Last year I struck out more than I would like to so I just want to be more consistent in the box,” Saunders said. “And just continue to be more available at different positions. I feel like I played pretty well at shortstop and second base last year but I want to be able to play anywhere they need me. That’s kind of my goal, to continue to develop as an all-around baseball player and be ready to do anything they need me to do.”
Yet the only thing certain about Saunders’ journey is that someday it will end. He’ll be ready for that, too.
“My long-term goal is to practice medicine where I grew up, basically an underserved area,” he said. “A lot of our doctors are older doctors that have been serving the area for 50 years and there’s just not a lot of people wanting to fill those shoes. And so they’re still working when they probably would prefer to have retired 10-15 years ago, but they continue to sacrifice their retirement for the betterment of the community. I think it’d be cool to have that kind of interaction with the community and help out the same way that I’ve seen them help.”
Central left him as well-prepared for that future as it did for his baseball career.
“I loved it here,” he said. “The professors are awesome. I literally never had a class that I didn’t enjoy.”
That includes the class he attended daily on chilly spring afternoons, positioned on Central’s dirt infield, sunglasses perched atop the bill of his cap.
“It definitely helped,” he said. “The mental side of baseball is so deep and there’s just so much stress you go through that I think it translates well into the classroom.”
The mindset required for the grind of minor league baseball also mirrors that needed to endure the demands placed on rural physicians.
“I’ve never wanted a job that was relaxed,” Saunders said. “They see a bunch of patients every day, not your typical doctor schedule, but it’s what I’ve always been interested in.”
But for now, Saunders savors the feel of a leather glove on his left hand, metal cleats on his feet and sunshine on his face.
“I kind of want to ride the baseball thing until I can’t,” Saunders said. “I’m just going to ride it out, do my best, work hard and see what happens. I’m not worrying too much about the future, which I can do. I’m still young, I figure my brain is going to last longer than my body.”