Young players get head start at 2015 Rookie Career Development Program

Even though Micah Johnson has no Major League service time, he had a little more perspective about life in the big leagues than most of his fellow prospects attending the 2015 Rookie Career Development Program.

Johnson, a top infield prospect in the White Sox organization, also attended the Players Association's executive board meeting in Orlando, Fla., in early December, diving headfirst into the issues on and off the field that will affect his career and those of many of the other young players who also attended the orientation program last week at a conference center in Landsdowne, Va.

Johnson believes both experiences help provide a solid foundation as he navigates his path to a big league career.

"The board-meeting experience was different," said Johnson, a 24-year-old who is 13 credits away from graduating Indiana University with degrees in General Studies and Spanish and a minor in Labor Studies. "Those are the guys who have experience. They've been there and they really get it. You're discussing current issues that we face as players in depth. Here at Rookie Development it's mostly about teaching the rookies how to handle certain things, like the media."

At the Rookie Development Program, Johnson and 100-plus other young players took part in informative sessions about working with the media, financial planning, umpires and taking care of their health. They also attended breakout sessions covering more sensitive issues, and some even took part in role-playing during a series of issue-focused yet entertaining skits performed by a Second City improvisational troupe.

A new session this year provided Johnson and the rest of the prospects an opportunity to hear directly from MLBPA executive director Tony Clark. They also heard from a group of the union's special assistants including Jose Cruz Jr., Jeffrey Hammonds and Rick Helling, during another session.

"When Tony (Clark) got to speak here, you could see everyone's eyes really open wide, like wow, like mine were when I attended the board meeting in the fall," Johnson said. "There's so much information to be gained from him and the other former players. That's why I'd really encourage these young guys to attend the board meeting when they have the opportunity."

Brandon Finnegan, who rose rapidly in the Royals system in 2014 to pitch in the World Series, learned from his dad's experience that there are no guarantees to success, no matter how talented or accomplished a player might be.

"I really liked the point that Jose Cruz and Jeffrey Hammonds made that our post-careers will be much longer than our playing careers," Finnegan said. "It motivates you to do what you can to make sure you don't have the game taken away from you. 

"The game was taken away from my dad, and we were on the same career path. We both pitched at TCU and he had a promising professional career taken away from him because of an injury. That serves as motivation to do all I can to make sure the same thing doesn't happen to me."

Delino DeShields Jr., a 22-year-old prospect in the Rangers' organization, was another young player who entered the Rookie Development Program with a bit of a head start, having learned from his dad, a former second baseman who has provided his son with insight gained from a 13-year career in the majors. Still, the junior DeShields learned new things and came away knowing the experience was worthwhile.

"Coming here, having had a dad who played professional baseball, you kind of think you know a lot about what's going on, but actually I learned a lot here," he said. "My dad prepared me pretty well about what's right and what's wrong, what I'm supposed to do and not supposed to do, what's accepted and what's not accepted, so I have a pretty good teacher back home. But I'm learning from some new points of view."

Each of the players came away from the four-day program confident they had gained new insights they would put to good use in trying to forge a career as a Major League player, particularly from the former players who took the time to share their experience with the next generation.

"The former players here have a lot of experience they can share to help me go through some of the things I'll be experiencing in the near future," DeShields said. "I want to absorb as much information as I can from these guys and use it to help my career, my family and my organization."

Having attended both the MLBPA executive board meeting and the Rookie Career Development Program, Johnson was also optimistic about this group of players and their ability to become player leaders themselves in the not too distant future.

"We have future Rookies of the Year in this room, maybe future MVPs," Johnson said. "I'm excited about our group. It's a very cohesive group. We have a chance to build a strong future for Major League Baseball and the MLBPA."