Austin Bibens-Dirkx is warming up. The ball comes towards him at a leisurely pace, and Bibens-Dirkx returns it, placing it precisely where he aimed. “Don’t waste the good ones,” comes the advice from across the ping-pong table, as Keone Kela smiles. Ping-pong is an integral part of the Rangers clubhouse, and now, after eleven-plus seasons in the minor leagues and independent leagues, Austin Bibens-Dirkx is returning volley and receiving advice from a man nine years his junior. The game begins.
His name is the first thing most people notice. “Bibens-Dirkx. "I’m the only one that has it,” he informs me. “It’s kind of a thrown together, Mom’s maiden name, Step-Dad’s last name, so I am… one of a kind,” he laughs.
He could more easily be mistaken for a security guard than a rookie on the verge of making his Major League debut. His blonde goatee is shaggy, and his hairline has begun to thin in the front. He has aged for over a decade, riding buses and living on the shamefully low wages that minor-leaguers receive. As recently as last season, he was playing independent ball for the Lancaster Barnstormers.
His first game was in 2006, a 16th-round draft pick of the Seattle Mariners. His first game in Round Rock this season was his 400th as a professional.
“Your backhand sucks,” Sam Dyson pipes in laconically. Dyson is the Rangers’ deposed closer, but still the clubhouse leader of the bullpen, and he is, in his own way, including the rookie. If you don’t give him the same grief you would give Tony Barnette or Jeremy Jeffress, it is a form of exclusion. Dyson blinks. “...but your forehand’s good.”
Austin Bibens-Dirkx has been, in order of first appearance, a member of the Everett AquaSox, Tacoma Rainiers, Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, High Desert Mavericks (when they were a Seattle affiliate), Arizona Fall League Mariners, Peoria Chiefs, Victoria Seals, Aguilas del Zulia, Iowa Cubs, Tennessee Smokies (10), Colorado Springs Sky Sox, Harrisburg Senators, Syracuse Chiefs, Dunedin Blue Jays, Buffalo Bisons, Toros del Este, New Hampshire Fisher Cats, Lancaster Barnstormers, Tigres de Aragua, and the Round Rock Express.
That’s twenty teams, in five organizations, two independent teams, plus foreign ball.
“I felt like I could get outs,” he says simply and without pretense. “and until I felt like I couldn’t, or they took the jersey off my back… that would be the end. But as long as I was given a jersey, I knew I had an opportunity and tried to make the most of it, and ...here I am.”
Kela is winning. Bibens-Dirkx stops to tie his shoe, then returns to the table. He bounces the ball twice in succession, quickly, then serves. After a short volley, Bibens-Dirkx fires a ball too hard. It flies past the end of the table and into Joey Gallo’s locker. It is 14-11 Kela.
I asked him what was the lowest point; was there ever a time when it seemed especially grim. He had eleven-and-change seasons to choose from; that’s a lot of ups and downs.
“Getting hurt, when I was with the Mariners, didn’t help any.” he admits. “It was 2007, and I ended up having to get some work done on my elbow, and my velo was way down when I came back. That’s when it first kinda hit me-- I had done pretty well. I was a top prospect there; I think i was in the top 20 really quickly, and then all of a sudden i was dropped back down to earth really quickly (…) get(ting) released for the first time and go(ing) to indy ball, it was like…” He stops and cocks his head sideways as he sucks air through teeth. “This might not work out the way I had hoped and planned.”
That was ten years ago.
“What are you idiots doing,” one member of the training staff asks jokingly. Sam Dyson has moved to the other side of the clubhouse, and he and Nick Martinez have set up a table beside a column. The table is maybe two feet by two feet squared. They are taking turns bouncing a ping-pong ball at the column/table combo. “Raquetball, dude,” says Dyson. Meanwhile, on the main table, Kela lands a precision shot to the side of the table to complete the victory over Bibens-Dirkx. Dyson and Martinez now join, and there a game of doubles: Dyson is on Bibens-Dirkx’s team. Kela and Martinez are on the other side. Austin Bibens-Dirkx is, yet again, a member of a team.
“It is more (special),” Jeff Banister says as he sits in a dark brown leather chair behind his desk in an office that displays a photographic banner of every manager the Rangers have had. Banister, the photo, is on the far right of the piece, the 25th manager, technically, but the 18th photograph. Banister himself had an eight-year minor league career. He made the big leagues just once, getting one at-bat and beating out an infield single for a career batting average of 1.000. He is in a leather chair now, but he is no stranger to a life of bus rides. “I’m sure at some point in his career, he may have thought it was never going to happen. I walked in today, and told him ‘I’m going to get you in a game. I’m going to get you in a game.’ (…) Yeah, I have a special spot for these guys that have poured their life into playing this game, and have persevered, and done things that most guys wouldn’t do.”
Nick Martinez has to leave before the doubles game is over. “He has to go hit because he’s a National League pitcher,” jokes Kela. Bibens-Dirkx feigns rage and slams his paddle down on one of the leather chairs. The game is over, almost before it even started. That is the nature of things at this level.
The lowest point of his career came just a year into his epic journey through the game, and that was a decade ago. I had to know: what kept him going, not just beyond that first disappointment, but through finding himself, ten years after being drafted, playing for the Lancaster Barnstormers.
“I love baseball.”