Now I’m just more determined to make it because I’ve spent so many years doing it, and I’m not just going to give up because it’s mentally challenging. That’s just not a good reason to shut it down. You just have to grind through it, persevere, and things will all turn out the way they should.
The ability to play the sport of baseball at the highest level—or any sport for that matter—is one of the most exclusive and arduous opportunities an individual can pursue, much less achieve. It does not just take the talent necessary to play a sport at its pinnacle, instead it requires the hard work and dedication of a person who not only has the will to win/compete, but also the will to not quit when it might look bleak, as well.
Enter 27 year-old Dan Black.
Black is a first baseman in the Chicago White Sox organization, and has been ever since he was taken by the team in the 14th round of the 2009 MLB Amateur Player Draft. At 6’5” 245 lbs, Black is a stocky switch hitter from Carmel, Indiana. For a point of reference, he is 2 inches taller and 10 pounds lighter than current White Sox 1B/DH Jose Abreu.
Before playing professional baseball, Black played three seasons for the Purdue Boilermakers in West Lafayette, Indiana. At Purdue, he led the team in home runs for two consecutive seasons in 2008 and 2009 with 18 and 15 homers, respectively. His 2008 total was also good enough for 2nd highest total in the Big Ten Conference, as well. That same season, Black tied a Big Ten Championship record by hitting 3 home runs in 1 game.
Although Black was drafted in the 35th round of the 2008 draft by the San Francisco Giants, he elected to return to school for his Junior year. Then as previously mentioned, in 2009, Black’s second time through the process, the then 21-year old would elect to begin his career as a professional baseball player. As Black recalled, “I was very excited to be drafted.”
“I thought I was going to go a little higher than I had, and by about the 10th round I had turned off the broadcast. I didn’t want to listen to it anymore. My family and I went and had lunch and then I got the phone call.
After I didn’t get taken in the 10th round I figured ‘well I’ll just go back for a senior year at Purdue, get my degree, and go from there’, but instead the White Sox called in the 14th round, which was still decently high.
Obviously the higher you’re drafted the better it is for your career, but I was still confident I would go out and prove myself with my abilities.”
From there, Black spent 2009-2011 bouncing between Rookie ball and Single-A. After that, his career would begin to take a more natural progression. Black went from High-A ball in 2012 to Double-A in 2013, than to Triple-A last season—although his 2014 was split between AAA and AA due to an oblique injury.
Black also went for a second straight offseason to play in the Dominican Republic Winter League for the Aguilas Cibaenas. This season for Aguilas, Black led the winter league in SLG (.552), OBP (.424), while also tying Manny Ramirez and Willy Garcia for the most extra base hits (17). Black also posted the 3rd highest OPS (.975) and walk total (24) across 116 AB’s. Although the sample size of was under 125 AB’s, it could still be said that Black, essentially, had the best statistical winter of any professional player this offseason.
As Black described, playing in the Dominican Republic has been “a really good experience and good for my career. It’s allowed me to be seen by a whole bunch of scouts, and it shows the White Sox that I’m able to compete at a higher level.”
“I got to play with Manny [Ramirez], [Miguel] Tejada, Rafael Furcal and a bunch of other big leaguers. The beautiful thing about playing down there is that they all treat each other the exact same. Everyone is a major leaguer to them, everyone is just a good player. You wouldn’t be on the team if you couldn’t play, and that’s why they’re all great guys—Manny especially.
Manny took me out to dinner a few times, he bought me a few bats. Miguel Tejada was great, he was actually our manager at the end of the Dominican season. It was real neat to play with them, and Furcal was great too. It was really neat to play with three potential hall of famers on one team, and it wasn’t even in the United States.”
As for how the day-to-day routines differed from winter ball to minor league baseball, Black discussed how “there’s more busy work in Minor League Baseball.”
“In Minor League Baseball there’s always early work, there’s always an extra defense. The way you stretch, throw, and play catch in the Dominican is a little more relaxed. You can do anything you want to do. If you don’t want to go stretch, you don’t go stretch. If you don’t want to go take [batting practice], you don’t—you just go hit off the tee in the cage, if you want. In Minor League Baseball, there’s a routine and you stick to that routine and no one’s allowed to deviate from it.”
Also adding that:
“It’s more of a Major League environment, from what I’ve been told. They literally do not care what you do, as long as you’re ready to play the game. Whatever it takes for you to be ready to play, that’s what they want you to do.”
This season, Black will get to attend Major League Spring Training for the first time in his career as a non-roster invitee. Although he is the “only player from the 2009 draft left that’s never been a 40-man [roster]”, it looks as if Black is getting closer to breaking into the big leagues. However, this might be a tougher task than it appears.
Two seasons ago, the 1B and DH spot had been occupied by the now-retired duo of Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko. Earlier this offseason, the White Sox signed left-handed first baseman Adam LaRoche. Of course, this marks the second straight offseason that the White Sox have scooped up a top-tier first baseman, meaning that the 1B and DH spot will likely be occupied by LaRoche and Abreu. For Black, this might represent the creation of the same logjam he has faced all throughout his career.
So, how might Black fit into the White Sox plans and their current positional logjam? One possibility might be to change positions. Black was open to this idea, saying that he would be “more than willing” to try a new position should the club ask him to. Another possibility? What about a trade. To this, Black was also open to the idea. Saying to any potential of a trade, “at least I [would] know that they’re not just keeping me locked up and not letting me have a chance at my own career.”
The craziest thing about Black’s dilemma is that his situation is not a result of any poor play. In 2013, Black posted a .290/.411/.470 line across 449 at-bats as he led all of Double-A in walks (91), and was 2nd highest OBP (.411), OPS (.881) and RBI’s (83) while also posting a career minor league high 157 wRC+ and .401 wOBA. In the process, Black also led the Birmingham Baron’s to their 3rd Southern League Championship since 1993.
However, one of Black’s best qualities is his approach at the plate. Black is able to earn a good amount of walks as a result of his approach, as well as become more of an all-around hitter as opposed to a strictly power hitter. As Black chronicled how he came to have such a good approach, he described how “It really started when I was in low-A.”
“I realized that just trying to hit home runs isn’t going to be very good for me because I can actually handle the bat a little bit. So I started wanting to hit more line drives, instead of just trying to lift the ball. I also started hitting the ball the other way to the opposite field, and that was really paramount for my success.
And when I started doing that I realized how small the strike-zone actually is, and how little you have to chase. So now I just try to limit the pitches that I swing at, and then just hit the ball where it’s thrown. That’s really all there is to it. It’s easier said than done, but I’ve been pretty decent at it.”
Outside of just walks, Black has also been able to maintain a staggering level of consistency throughout his travels in the minors. Since 2010, Black has posted a wRC+ higher than 110 at every level he played at, as well as a wOBA higher than .340 across that same span. A true testament to Black’s overall ability as a hitter.
Black considers this consistency, which he calls his “adaptability”, to be his best abilities. He described how “whether it be 9th in the order or 4th, or being at Double-A or Triple-A or moved all over. It doesn’t really seem to matter, my numbers have all been the same.”
It should also be noted that Black has done well against top pitching talent too. Over 149 AB’s against Top 20 MLB prospects, Black has hit .315 and slugged and impressive .557 since 2013.
Although Black has enjoyed a decent amount of success throughout his career, spending so many years in the minor leagues would likely take a mental toll on anyone. He described how “sometimes it’s very difficult to stay positive when you’ve had good years and you’re not getting invited to the [Arizona] Fall League, or to be a September call-up, or make the 40-man roster.”
“But you know the odds going into the game, you know the odds when you get drafted that very few guys make it to the Major Leagues. And that’s why it’s such an enticing thing to pursue. So few guys ever get to actually grasp their dreams, and obviously that’s what it started as for me—as my dream.
Finally, Black—whose favorite all-time field to play on is Lambert Field, his now-demolished old college field at Purdue—also spoke to his plan for life after baseball, saying that he would like to one day be a college coach.
Continuing on to say, “I think that’d be neat, to help out the younger kids who are still in pursuit of their dreams and they’re still young enough to believe that every single one of them is gonna make it to the big leagues.”
When asked if he meant the young and naïve, Black elaborated by saying, “It’s not so much that they’re naïve, it’s that they haven’t been informed.”
As for Dan Black, the road to his first Major League Spring Training has been one lined with hard work and dedication that few might not have been willing to offer. And it’s not at all as if Black will be lost in the depths of the White Sox for forever, banished to a life of minor league servitude. Recent players like Josh Willingham and Evan Gattis stand as proof that solid careers can be started by people around the age of 27. Willingham did not play a full MLB season until age 27, while Gattis did not make his MLB debut until he was 26 years old.
While Black may “have no real clear vision as to what [his] path to the Major Leagues is with the White Sox”, it certainly is not unfathomable to think that he has the ability to excel when he gets there.
— I’d like to thank Dan Black for allowing me to interview him, you can follow him on Twitter at @THE_DANBLACK.