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Triple-A All Stars 'on the cusp' of big leagues, but waiting the hardest part

By Andrew Carter
acarter@newsobserver.com

DURHAM For a long while, Allan Dykstra imagined himself to be a Major League Baseball general manager, and particularly the one in charge of his future. He thought about personnel decisions and minor league call-ups and what might need to happen to secure a place in the big leagues.

Those thoughts, at times, consumed Dykstra, who in 2008 left Wake Forest after becoming a first-round draft pick. Dykstra was impatient then, he said, and spent time “trying to say this guy shouldn’t be there, I should be there, or predicting moves.”

Now Dykstra has found himself in Durham, where on Wednesday night he’ll play in the Triple-A All-Star game at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. His journey is not unlike those shared by many players who toil for years in the minor leagues, hoping and waiting for their chance.

The difference now, though, is that Dykstra and other Triple-A All Stars are so close to breaking through. Wednesday night will provide a stage for the best of the best at the highest level of minor league baseball.

In some ways, though, it will also provide reminders of just how close – and how far – players are to realizing a dream. Some of these International League and the Pacific Coast League All-Stars have already spent time in the majors.

There is Wilson Betemit, the Durham Bulls’ infielder who has spent parts of 11 seasons in the majors. There’s Mike Jacobs, the Reno Aces’ first baseman who has played in the majors for parts of seven seasons. They both understand the journey, and the patience that’s sometimes required.

“There are a lot of guys here, they’re ready to be in the big leagues right now,” said Betemit, who is playing in his first Triple-A All-Star game. “And sometimes you have to wait. You have to wait for your opportunity.”

Before storms cut short batting practice Tuesday, Betemit took some swings in the batting cage and then shagged fly balls in the outfield. He stood alongside others who long for a chance to walk in his footsteps – for the chance just to reach the majors.

For every Betemint and Jacobs in the Triple-A All Star game, there are guys like Dykstra, who plays for the Las Vegas 51s, and Mikie Mahtook, an outfielder with the Durham Bulls. Neither has reached the majors. And so they wait.

“We are close,” said Mahtook, 24. “Triple-A is about as close as you can get without being there and we’re all here. We’ve all had great seasons so far and I think most of us can kind of smell it. Guys have already been there.

“But at the same time, you can’t really control when you move up.”

The Triple-A All-Star Game, in some ways, is among the most bittersweet consolation prizes in baseball. They all would rather be someplace else.

Dykstra, though, realizes he could have been – and not necessarily in a good way. After the San Diego Padres selected him with the 23rd overall pick in the 2008 draft, he languished in the minors for three seasons before being traded into the New York Mets’ organization.

A wrist injury slowed his development and in 2012, at 25, he was back in Class A, starting over at the same minor league level where he began his professional career. It was hardly the path he envisioned when he left Wake Forest.

“I wasn’t playing that much, and I was coming off the injury,” said Dykstra, who is not related to former Mets and Philadelphia Phillies center fielder Lenny Dykstra. “And I kind of had to step back and almost reevaluate my situation and see what was really important to me.

“It was at the point where I was almost not having fun playing the game.”

It has become more fun since. During the past two seasons Dykstra has ascended through the minors, and he said he has overcome the mental challenges that haunted him before. On Monday he won the Triple-A home run derby, and he’ll bat in the middle of the order on Wednesday night for the Pacific Coast League All Stars.

It’s not the majors – not yet, anyway. But it’s another opportunity. That’s what Bob Mariano, the PCL manager, talked with his players about Tuesday.

“We had a meeting upstairs and I told them, obviously they want to get to the big leagues with their parent club,” Mariano said. “But you know what, there’s 29 other clubs out there. The trading deadline’s coming up, and they’re really selling themselves. They’re like independent contractors.”

There is no financial bonus for those who make the Triple-A All Star game. A player’s contract doesn’t become richer for being here. Instead, it’s more work – the continuation of the long grind of a season.

But there’s peace in being here, too, Dykstra said, and proof that he’s doing something right. He said he’s stopped trying to play general manager, and stopped trying to predict when – or if – he’ll receive his call up to the majors.

All he knows is he’s close. At least, closer than he was.

“I think it’s just kind of the self satisfaction of, you know, you put in the hard work,” Dykstra said of the intangible value of playing in the Triple-A All Star game. “For me, now it’s been over six years in the minor league baseball. And you’re right at the peak, the cusp of moving on to the big leagues.”

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter
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