For baseball players on the roster bubble, it’s like they live in a revolving door
Adam Engel was in Charlotte, getting ready for bed May 27, when his phone rang.
The White Sox outfielder didn’t answer, though, because the call was from a California number — and it was 1:30 a.m.
Then Engel, playing for the Knights in Triple A, received a voice mail alert.
"I normally go to bed earlier but I was checking in on what was going on (in Chicago)," Engel said.
Turned out the Sox were checking on him, too. The message, from Knights manager Mark Grudzielanek, was to inform Engel he was being called up to the major leagues for the first time.
He was to report in time for the team’s doubleheader that day against the Tigers.
What seems routine, players shuttling between the minors and majors, is anything but for some who go through it.
Families are uprooted. Leases may be left in limbo. Belongings must be moved.
Seven hours, some hasty packing and several conversations later — including one with his wife, Jaime, who was in Cincinnati 38 weeks pregnant with the couple’s first child — Engel had landed in Chicago.
His arrival was so unexpected that he didn’t have a nameplate above his locker in the clubhouse at Guaranteed Rate Field when he arrived.
In less than a month, Engel, who had become a first-time major-leaguer and a first-time father, was sent back to the minors and recalled to the Sox, who have brought up players from the minors 18 times through Thursday.
Engel, 25, made a pit stop in Cincinnati on his way to Charlotte after he was sent down June 11, just in time for Jaime to go into labor the next day, when their daughter, Clarke Isabella, was born three minutes shy of midnight.
"It definitely has been a lot of moving parts, but that’s kind of what we signed up for," Engel said. "Kind of take it and go for it. It probably has been harder on my family than it is on me. … I’m used to it and my wife and little girl are the ones taking the hit."
Photos of Cubs outfielder Albert Almora Jr.
Engel’s experience isn’t necessarily the exception.
Last season, Cubs outfielder Albert Almora Jr. went from the altar one day to feeling like he was left there the next.
Almora, then 22, was called up from Triple-A Iowa on June 7, 2016, to take the place of injured outfielder Jorge Soler. He was with the Cubs for a little more than a month when he married his pregnant fiancee, Krystal, in a Chicago courthouse on July 21, an off day.
Almora was optioned back to Iowa the next day — from "I did it" to "I do" to "I’m back down" in a span of six weeks.
He had kept his apartment in Iowa, which he said had a nine-month lease. Per the collective bargaining agreement, the Cubs paid for him to stay in a hotel in Chicago for the first seven days after he was called up.
"The saying, ‘We live out of a suitcase,’ isn’t completely a lie," said Almora, who eventually settled into an apartment in Chicago after he was recalled later last year.
"It’s all about making adjustments, having a nice, strong core to say, ‘Hey, I have to go this way.’ It’s not that hard as long as you have a good support group."
That group grew Aug. 16, when Krystal gave birth to their son, Ayden John. Less than three months later, Almora, who hardly was a shoo-in to make the postseason roster, scored what turned out to be the winning run in Game 7 of the World Series.
All the while, with all the moving parts and life’s changes, Almora said he kept his mind healthy by being realistic.
"There are cases when guys get upset and … they kind of don’t play as hard," Almora said of being sent down. "I came up here because of an injury. I felt like I did my job and played well.
"(Being sent down) was just the business part of it. I could have easily gone down and said, ‘Yeah, I’m a big leaguer now,’ and not work as hard. But that’s not me."
Moving up and down
The business behind the business of moving players to and fro is pretty "cut and dried," Sox travel director Ed Cassin said.
Cassin has been with the Sox full-time for 28 years and is in the 19th season in his current job.
Cassin often works with Knights trainer Scott Johnson to get players where they need to be. His responsibilities range from setting up players with realtors to booking last-minute flights to talking with spouses about moving personal belongings.
In one case last season, Cassin recalled, no flights were available from Birmingham, Ala., where the White Sox’s Double-A affiliate plays. So the player, whom Cassin said he could not recall, was driven from Alabama to Chicago.
"What happens quite a bit is the wife and baby are in Charlotte, they pack up all the stuff, put it in the car and drive," Cassin said.
Many who are called up don’t stay in the major leagues long, but if they are with the team beyond seven days, Cassin will help them find a more permanent place.
And what of the place the player leaves behind?
Teams pay for those, too, per the collective bargaining agreement.
"We certainly don’t want them (paying) out of pocket for two places," Cassin said.
Things aren’t always that simple, though.
Down, and out
Cubs relief pitcher Brian Duensing broke camp with the Twins in 2009.
He hadn’t allowed a run all spring and headed to the big leagues wide-eyed — and naive.
Duensing, then 26, quickly rented an apartment in the Minneapolis area. His stay there lasted nine days before he was optioned to the minor leagues.
The left-hander subleased his apartment to another player.
Problem solved? Not so much.
"I was down," Duensing said.
And, it turned out, out of a place to live when he was recalled to the big leagues.
The player to whom he subleased was no longer with the Twins but opted to keep the apartment.
"He wouldn’t let me back in and wouldn’t move his stuff out," Duensing said. "I had to find another place. I couldn’t believe it."
Most guys are "very accommodating," said Duensing, who called an extended-stay hotel home after he was sent back to the minors.
"I always cringe a bit when young guys come up, get an apartment right away and start spending all this money and don’t really know the situation," said Duensing, who has three children and one on the way. "If you’re a Triple-A guy, you’re making like $1,500-$2,000 a month. It’s not like you’re bringing in all this cash."
Justin Grimm, 28, is familiar with the revolving door to the clubhouse at Wrigley Field.
The team has optioned players to the minors 19 times since the season began. The right-handed reliever’s name has been called twice.
"I used to pack light. All I needed was in a suitcase," said Grimm, who has a house in Nashville and stays in a hotel when he’s sent down to Triple-A Iowa. "Then I got married and it’s not that easy anymore.
"We have a ton of crap, but it’s nice to have a house now you can throw it all in. We’re a lot lighter than we used to be."
Grimm was sharing a place with four guys when the Rangers called him up in 2012. But instead of staying at a hotel, he bunked, free, with then-Rangers pitcher Robbie Ross, an old buddy.
Engel, in his second stint with the Sox, said he, too, packs light.
He learned to do that long before he reached the big leagues.
"You play this sport long enough you get pretty good at having stuff ready to go," he said. "You don’t always get the call from Triple A to the big leagues, but even when you’re in low A you’re kind of always ready to go."
And ready to stay for as long as possible — or at least until the phone rings again.