By Allison Duffy-Davis
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The sun has barely been up for 45 minutes when the contingent of White Sox Minor Leaguers rolls into the clubhouse at Camelback Ranch. Unlike their Major League counterparts, they can't show up at the ballpark at their (relative) leisure each morning. Their 7:15 a.m. arrival is prompt and consistent; after all, many of them can't, or don't, bring cars to Spring Training, and thus they rely on team buses to shuttle them from the door of the 2-star hotel where they spend the month of March to the sprawling facility five minutes down the road.
There isn't much to this stretch of desert along the Agua Fria River and in the shadow of University of Phoenix Stadium, save for numerous hotels and an outlet mall catering mostly to fans who flock here each spring to watch the White Sox and Dodgers -- they share a home at Camelback -- or each fall to catch an Arizona Cardinals game. Despite the uninspiring surroundings, for the developing ballplayers who showcase their skills here early each season while battling for a spot on one of the seven or so Minor League affiliates that pave the way to big league glory, perspective is key.
Take John Ziznewski, for example. The 24-year-old played two seasons each at Rockland Community College and Long Island University before the White Sox took him in the eighth round in 2014. An infielder, he started his career with the Great Falls (Mont.) Voyagers of the Pioneer League and last year played Single-A ball with the Kannapolis (N.C.) Intimidators.
"This is my second Spring Training," Ziznewski said. "I know what to expect. It's easier for me to get into a routine now. I feel more comfortable.
"There's a ton of downtime, though. That's the only thing that's a little rough. It does get a little bit boring. You sit in the hotel all day. We eat a good amount. [Go to the] movies. Shop. A lot of pitchers golf. [But] there's only so much shopping and eating that you can do."
The trickle-down effect
Beginning in early March, about a week after Major League Spring Training games begin, the players in a given organization not fighting for a spot on the 40-man roster arrive at their respective preseason homes. As with Major Leaguers, they can come earlier if they choose, and while that certainly means extra prep time, it also means voluntarily signing up for extra nights bunking up with a teammate (or several) in a small hotel room or a shared apartment.
"Last year, I was in an apartment with four other guys," said Ziznewski, who flew to Arizona from his Staten Island home a week early this year. "It wasn't bad. You all bunk up and make it work."
Once all of the players have reported, the daily routine takes hold and, with the exception of game days, stays virtually the same. Breakfast follows the 7:15 a.m. arrival, and the cage is open to position players for individual work 7:50-8:30 a.m. By 9 a.m., the players have divided into one of four groups on the field to discuss the day's workout.
The groups correspond to different levels within the organization -- Triple-A, Double-A, High-A and Low-A -- and the entire coaching staff from each of those teams leads its respective group.
"You have a month to get to know these guys and work with them, which is a pretty good experience," said Ziznewski, who began the spring with the High-A Winston-Salem (N.C.) squad.
Generally, players are put with the group just above their highest level of play from the previous season, with the expectation that they'll either rise to the occasion or slip down a rung on the ladder.
"As soon as the guys [who are in big league camp] start to trickle down, everyone will move down. That's just how it works," Ziznewski added. "As the next week goes on, you'll see more and more guys trickling down. One day they're in the big league locker room, and the next day they'll be in ours. You'll start to see more and more lockers fill up in ours."
The daily grind
By noon, the White Sox Minor Leaguers are already wrapping up for the day. That changes come mid-March, when their 15-or-so-game schedule begins. They'll play four or five times per week until early April, with no off days, until judgment day arrives.
According to Ziznewski, "They don't let us know [where we're going for the season] until the last few days that we're here. Last year, I think we found out on March 29. The final rosters are just posted on the board. You try not to worry about where you're going, because it could distract you. But it's in the back of my mind, for sure.
"The good thing with the White Sox is that their Minor League teams are in really good places. I feel like we're lucky to be in this organization because of the places we play. You'll be in one place and you just keep itching to get to the next one because it keeps getting better."
And when camp finally breaks in early April, right around Opening Day, the itch to get the season underway at one of those sites takes over. But if extended Spring Training is your assignment, more waiting ensues. It's something Ziznewski experienced firsthand last year, when he remained in Glendale into May, a stint that was further prolonged when he got injured.
"When everyone was breaking for camp and I got stuck in Arizona for a month and a half, the guys I made relationships with were all gone," he said.
By the time he arrived in Kannapolis, Ziznewski was more than ready to take the field alongside his South Atlantic League counterparts, even if that meant a crazier schedule than the one players encounter during the spring.
We've all seen "Bull Durham," and the Hollywood depiction of hours upon hours of bus rides and banter isn't that far from the reality.
"Say we play a home game on a Friday, and we open up Saturday in Lakewood, N.J., for a 7 p.m. game," Ziznewski recalled of his schedule last season. "We'll leave the ballpark in North Carolina at 10:30 p.m. and drive through the night, sleep on the bus, get to the hotel about 7 a.m., sleep more in the hotel and then go to the ballpark."
The travel isn't for the faint of heart, but for those with a singular focus on establishing a career in the big leagues, it comes with the territory.
"It sounds corny," Ziznewski said, "but it really is a grind. And the people who stick around are the guys who grind."
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Allison Duffy-Davis is an associate editor for MLB.com who has covered Major League Baseball since 2009.