A professional baseball player bides his time in Chattanooga
For a professional athlete playing for the Chattanooga Lookouts, preparations for a game starts hours before. For Niko Goodrum that process started when he walked into the Lookouts’ clubhouse at AT&T Field a few minutes past 2 p.m. on a recent Saturday afternoon, five hours before the opening pitch against the Mobile Bay Bears.
Many who have dug their cleats into that red infield dirt during their time in school dreamed of going pro. Twenty-five-year-old Goodrum, number 21, is living the dream. But the Lookouts, a double-A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins, isn’t triple-A level, nor is it the majors.
“Everybody’s goal is to get to the big leagues,” Goodrum said of his teammates.
He usually shows up at the clubhouse at 1 p.m., but family was in town. Compared to the other cities where Goodrum has played, it’s an easy two hour ride from Fayetteville, Georgia, to Chattanooga. It beats the places he played in the past, the nine-hour drive to Fort Myers, Florida, or the flight to Iowa.
It’s a fortunate arrangement, for although the Lookouts is the closest minor league team to his hometown, he had no say in where he was assigned.
“Everyone pretty much has their own routine to go get ready for the game,” the third baseman said, though he has played every position except catcher and pitcher.
Those routines might involve stretching, batting practice, a game of cards or even Frisbee on the short-cropped field. Until the Lookouts head onto the field, they try to relax. These days, Goodrum said, Connect Four is popular with many of his teammates.
“It’s a job, but it’s a game too. We try to keep it fun,” he said.
Goodrum’s routine started in the trainer’s office when he eased himself into a tub of water. After two minutes, Niko lowered himself into a cold water bath. These contrasts are designed to get his muscles ready for the game. He alternated tubs, hot then cold and ending on the hot.
After contrasts and a shower, Goodrum headed back to the trainers’ room where he stretched out his hamstrings and other leg muscles. The series of stretches using a board, the floor and a green resistance band puts a grimace and sweat on his face.
He headed into a room in which bats lie in boxes, packs of Dasani water bottles are stacked and a refrigerator sits. He sits and watches a baseball game on ABC channel 7.
It’s been six years since he signed with the Minnesota Twins. He graduated in late May from Fayette County High School. Two weeks later, he was picked in the second round of the draft. According to a 2010 story in the Star Tribune, Goodrum was given a $512,800 signing bonus. “He was drafted as a high-risk, high-reward project with good all-around potential,” the Tribune wrote at the time.
In high school, Goodrum played three sports, basketball, baseball and football because he was good at all three. But the true passion was baseball.
“It’s hard,” he explained. “I like a challenge.” As the fast pitches come in close, you’re trying to barrel something up. But in the next game, you can always come back.”
In the off season, Goodrum practices at Elite Metro Sports, an indoor batting center in his hometown which he owns. His father runs it, but in the off season Goodrum will hold clinics and camps.
“The biggest thing is focus.”
After sitting for a few minutes, Goodrum gets up and heads out to batting practice, picking up his bat leaning up against the wall of the hallway leading to the field.
The birch wood bat is made custom to him. “I like an even bat,” he said. “I don’t want to put too much weight in the barrel of the bat. I like an even handle”
Watching a pro baseball player hit a ball at close range is an explosive event. The body, bent and ready. The white ball arcs through the air as the batter coils, and in a move they’ve done countless times, spent 10,000 hours perfecting, connects hardwood and leather with a CRACK! And in follow-through, the bat swings a slow arc around the player’s back.
While each swing may look the same, each player is working on different things, Goodrum said. Goodrum, who is a switch hitter, is working on sending balls down the center and to the right when he bats right. When he switches sides of the batting cage, he’s focused on letting up on some of his power, of not absolutely destroying the ball, knocking the hat off the pitcher.
In the clubhouse, a memo is posted in English and Spanish on a corkboard in the hall that gives the Minnesota Twins’ objectives for its batters. For example, “Establish early pitch recognition and know the strike zone.” Another, “Be smooth to get into hitting position early.” The idea is to approach 0-0 as if the pitcher already scored two strikes.
“All three coaches are really hands on with players,” he noted. “They know not to overload you. It’s a good mix.” He’s managed by the likes of Doug Mientkiewicz, an Olympic gold medalist who played for the Twins, but then was traded to the Boston Red Sox in 2004. Mientkiewicz was a member of the team that broke the curse of the bambino, the Sox’s 84-year spell without a World Series win after they traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees.
Playing at this level, the butterflies are still there before games. Most of the time, hecklers cannot be heard from the field. Otherwise, Goodrum focuses them out, a strategy that’s useful for more than dealing with the pressure of playing before a crowd. “I want to stay consistent…focus is the biggest thing,” he said. “That’s why you get so tired.”
That’s a sharp focus that concentrates on every single pitch, taking the game moment by moment. But “You’re human,” Goodrum said. “Expect groundball, expect fly ball, stay ready.”
Goodrum doesn’t think much about what the future might hold because then his mind would be in the future and he tries not to compare himself to other players for then, his focus is on them. He takes his game, his career, moment by moment. “I wish I would have known it in my first years, but that’s growth. You learn where to focus your energy towards, learn not to waste it.”
“I pretty much stay to myself,” he said. “I clown around, but I know when to get serious.”
“Every Game Counts. It’s your career.”
It’s about two hours until the game. Time to eat. There’s cut up watermelon, cantaloupe, chicken and a kind of hamburger patty that appears to be pork sausage. Goodrum sits down with two hamburgers and a bottle of water.
The team was called to hear a talk by Dr. Jon Hallberg and Vice President of Human Resources for the Twins Raenell Dorn. The two travel around the country visiting the Twins teams making themselves available to the players, briefing the players about domestic violence prevention, cautioning them about talking with reporters, reminding them about the policies forbidding them from playing in fantasy leagues for money and warning them about taking substances prohibited by the MLB, like marijuana.
With 6 p.m. minutes away, most of the players turn to their smartphones. The locker room is full of distractions, a car shuffler, a box of plastic bottle caps repurposed as poker chips, Connect Four on another table.
The only thing that’s left is to bide their time until they suit up and walk out onto the field. Afterwards, they may celebrate in the clubhouse. Regardless, Goodrum will do another round of contrasts, soaking in cold and hot water to reset his muscles, perhaps lifting weights, grabbing a bit to eat and heading out to his apartment he shares with Shannon Wilkerson, who plays center field, on the north side of the Tennessee River.
After this, game, there’s another game on Sunday, then Monday and Tuesday. And then it’s on the road for some away games—not bad, Goodrum said, because the company puts them up in nice hotels. Another day, another pitch.
“Every game counts. It’s your career,” he said. There were no taking days off, no letting the mind stray. “Gotta take [my] career seriously.” Plus, the Lookouts were trying to get into the playoffs and these games counted.
Outside, the fans were beginning to walk through the concession stands. The song “Chattanooga Choo Choo” played over the loudspeakers. Out in the bleachers, the rain was coming down. The infield was covered and the stands were empty. The batting lineup was posted, Goodrum was sixth.
Soon, it would be time for the batter to swing.
150 Years of Baseball History in Chattanooga
The history of Baseball in Chattanooga began when the sport was first formed. The first players of the sport slogged through Moccasin Bend and scrambled over Lookout Mountain. Baseball was in its infancy with many regional variations of play, according to Adam “Butter Bean” Alfrey of the Tennessee Association of Vintage Base Ball.
The Civil War created a unified set of rules as individuals around the nation mixed because of the conflict.
After the Civil War, at least two teams played in the Chattanooga area, the Mountain City Club and the Lightfoot City Club. The Mountain City Club was the championship club of the state in 1866, the first time Alfrey, who is the association’s communication’s chair, first knew of the sport being played in an organized manner here.
When, say, a Chattanooga team traveled to play one in Knoxville, it came by train. There were parades and balls. And after the game had been played and the crowds went home, the visiting team would take an ad out in the opposing team’s newspaper thanking them for the game.
As Alfrey described it, it was “Hometown heroes playing the hometown heroes 90 miles down the road.”
By the 1890s, money entered the game, Alfrey said. Businesses payed men to play. Bets were placed. Statistics were kept. The sport had begun to change.
The focus of vintage baseball is different. “The honor was won in how the defense was made,” Alfrey said. Instead of batter staring down pitcher, the pitcher threw the ball underhand, as the teams “wanted to put the ball into play to see what happened.” Furthermore, players didn’t use mitts but caught the ball barehanded.
The vintage rules for baseball—the association plays from rules drafted in 1864—resulted in a faster paced game, according to Alfrey, with each team scoring dozens of runs and nine innings passing in about two hours of play.
When members of the Tennessee Association of Vintage Base Ball walk out onto the field, one of the big focuses is to present “gentlemanly behavior.” If a great play was made, the opposing team stood up to cheer.
Another big difference to the game: wool uniforms. Still, vintage baseball players don the uniforms and play in summer heat, like the two Chattanooga clubs will do at the end of August when they are scheduled to play on the Chickamauga Battlefield.
As the rest of society was segregated, so was the sport in the decades following the Civil War. Negro League Baseball teams sprung up in Chattanooga and helped develop some of the best players of the game.
National Baseball Hall of Famer Satchel Paige, a contemporary of Jackie Robinson, got his start in pro baseball by pitching for the Chattanooga Black Lookouts for a salary of $50 a month in 1926, according to Dionne Jennings, president of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, which will wrap up an exhibit on Negro League Baseball July 30. Fellow Baseball Hall of Famer Willie Mays played for the Chattanooga Choo Choos during a brief time in high school.
The heyday of Negro League baseball was from the 1930s to the 40s, Jennings said, but in the 60s, James Tatum started a team of his own. He played baseball at Morehouse College in Atlanta, but small black colleges were passed over by recruiters back then.
The team, called the Chattanooga Royals and later the Chattanooga A’s, was a “bunch of guys that felt like they could go pro but never got the opportunity,” said Tatum, who was a player/manager.
It played 44 games every summer, half on the road, half at Lincoln Park several blocks from Engel Stadium. It was an opportunity to play the game they loved. Like musicians who play on street corners, the team played for tips, dollar bills for homeruns.
A scout stationed in Chattanooga once said the team played as good as the Lookouts. After a double-header the team played in Cincinnati, a scout wanted to sign Tatum to the big leagues. But it was too late. Tatum, 27, was beyond the cutoff of 22.
By the 80s, the team stopped because it was aging and had more life responsibilities. An outsider, it played only one game at Engel Stadium. There was a debate as to whether it or the Chattanooga Choo Choos was the best black team in town.
“Of course we beat them, bad.”