Playing For Peanuts offers entertaining look at the daily lives of minor league baseball players
Former South Georgia Peanut and current Joliet Jackhammer pitcher Mike Colacchio has is among those impressed with John Fitzgerald's depiction of his team's 2007 season in Playing for Peanuts.
By Chuck King
Apprehension quickly replaced Steve Butler’s initial excitement.
Those were the first emotions to flow through Butler when the South Georgia Peanuts’ infielder learned his minor league baseball season would be the subject of a documentary.
The more Butler thought about it, the more concerned the pitcher grew that he had unwitting signed up for something akin to MTV’s The Real World.
After seeing the first few episodes of Playing for Peanuts, however, Butler says the excitement has returned.
“I think it is great,” said Butler, who’s been receiving complimentary text messages from friends who’ve seen the show. “It is way more than I expected it to look like.”
John Fitzgerald decided to create a documentary about life in the minor leagues shortly after he completed The Emerald Diamond, an internationally recognized film about the Irish National Baseball Team.
The independent South Coast League jumped at the opportunity to have one of its teams profiled, allowing Fitzgerald to follow the Albany, Ga.-based Peanuts.
The television show Fitzgerald created, which captured on video a parachutist crashing into the outside of the outfield wall while trying to deliver the game ball, a bus driver refusing to turn on the air conditioner during a 12-hour trip and the general unintended comedy of an inept front office that ultimately buried the league, offers a unique look at the lives of low-level minor leaguers.
“It was grueling,” Fitzgerald said. “It really has been tough. It’s pushed me to the point where I thought about giving up on the show several times.”
Fitzgerald attempted to sell the show to various networks before the start of production but none would buy the documentary angle. Not enough spice. Network executives were looking for scripted action they thought would ensure viewers’ interest.
“Let’s go to the local strip clubs and get people to be groupies,” Fitzgerald said one exec told him, “Then get a player’s girlfriend to come in and see all the skanky people.”
Fitzgerald resisted that and other plot ideas, reasoning minor league life was both tough and bizarre enough in real life. In many ways the inaugural, and what turned out to be the only, SCL season offered the perfect place to do that.
Along with the crashing parachutist (who was OK), the first episodes also featured an opening-night blackout and a clubhouse devoid of towels for post-game showers. Episodes that follow show the players gathering in the group’s only air-conditioned apartment, the foibles of hiring high school umpires and a grounds crew ignorant of tarp pulling procedure.
The expected highlight of the show comes during the middle of the season when SCL officials suspend and then retract the suspension of Peanuts manager Wally Backman in part for incidents captured on camera.
“I wanted to make a feel good story – and there are feel good stories within the show - but I didn’t want to be doing a failed league,” said Fitzgerald, who now simply hopes to break even on the estimated $250,000 spent on production. “My hope is that this motivated people to go see minor league baseball - how hard the players work and how nice they are. I hope it doesn’t turn them off to the whole idea of minor league baseball.”
Butler entered the season familiar with the minor league grind after spending the two prior seasons with the American Association’s St. Paul Saints.
While players complemented the SCL’s talent level on the field, many say it was easy to see the chaos in the league front office. While that imposed hardship on the players, it made for good television.
“Coming from St. Paul you expected things that, when they weren’t there, you were just scratching your head,” said Butler. “The rookie guys didn’t know any better so they were just happy to be playing. But guys who’ve played before, it was like going back to high school - not having locker rooms, fields not being ready, no towels after the games, stuff that is routine in other leagues.”
Like Butler, former Peanuts teammates seem to be more than pleased with the results. And anecdotal evidence suggests that Fitzgerald accomplished his goal with Playing for Peanuts.
“He put it together really well, everyone enjoyed it,” said pitcher Mike Colacchio, who watched a few episodes with several former Peanuts who followed Backman to the Northern League’s Joliet Jackhammers this season. “It’s fun watching it with the guys who we filmed it with last year. (Fitzgerald’s) not blowing smoke up people’s asses.”
Fitzgerald started with a crew of five, but that number dwindled as expenses grew and backers couldn’t be found. As the season progressed Fitzgerald often became the lone camera following the Peanuts. At times he gave cameras to players to record bus trips, nights out and clubhouse shenanigans.
Four episodes have already aired and Fitzgerald is putting the final edits on the remaining six shows in his home suite in suburban New York. Aside from the day-to-day life of the Peanuts, future shows also contain baseball lessons from Backman and practical joke tips from players.
“I want people to see what you have to go through, what you have to do just to play something you love,” former Peanuts pitcher Chris Webb said. “I think if the show could get promoted a little more, I think a lot of people would love to see it.”
Playing for Peanuts currently airs on Comcast/Charter Sports Network and several regional Sportsnets, which are also available on satellite services. More information about broadcast channels and times is available on PlayingForPeanuts.com, as well as Fitzgerald’s blog.
Fitzgerald is even contemplating an 11th episode, bringing several players back together to discuss last season.
Check out my blog for more on wild minor league promotions and minor league baseball.