Austin Wright grabs a floatation device and jumps into the pool at Lifetime Fitness in Schaumburg.
At 23, Wright is about 60 years younger than most of his water aerobics classmates. He follows along with the group -- running in place, stretching and performing the agility exercises that are meant to help his classmates stay fit and active.
But Wright isn't taking the winter water aerobics class to maintain basic fitness. Wright has been a professional baseball player in the Philadelphia Phillies' minor league organization since 2011 after being drafted in the eighth round of the Major League Draft. He's one of the few athletes who make it to the professional ranks. Only five-hundredths of one percent of high school athletes will eventually be signed by a major league team, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
"I knew since I was 10 that I wanted to play professional baseball, and that's all I worked toward every day," said Wright.
His goal is to play in the majors and he dreams of playing for his beloved Cubs. Until then, Wright is preparing to start in AA with the Reading Fightin Phils in April. According to MLB.com, the left-hander is ranked the 10th-best prospect in the Phillies organization. His first start of the season resulted in a no-decision in 5 innings of 1-hit baseball, including 4 strikeouts. Wright is expected to make his major league debut in 2014, according to the Phillies.
His dream may come sooner than expected. Wright said it's not uncommon for minor league players to be pulled to play in the higher ranking AAA level or major league games if other players are injured.
But those calls come at a moment's notice, and Wright said it's not uncommon for players to finish a game and receive a phone call that a bus is waiting to take them to report to a different level.
Making it to the minors isn't all that Wright envisioned when he was playing at Conant High School in Hoffman Estates and the University of Mississippi.
"My first impression was not at all what I expected the minor leagues to be," said Wright.
He knew the training would be intense,which is why he takes the water aerobics class three times a week during the off-season in addition to lifting weights, running, playing basketball, and pitching.
What he didn't expect is that minor league players deal with some shoddy facilities and chaotic schedules in hopes of advancing to the majors.
Wright's expectations were dashed the moment he began his professional career in Williamsport, Penn. He says he knew the minors weren't glamorous but walking into the locker room for the first time was shocking.
"The locker room looked like it hadn't been updated since 1960. We had small metal lockers and one box TV," Wright said.
The dinner provided for the players also seemed unreal. "There was a small table with six loaves of bread, one family size jar of peanut butter and another jar of jelly. That was for 30 players," he says.
The measly meal and barren locker room was a change from the comfort of the Ole Miss program, with some of the best facilities in the country.Wright said he was set back by what he saw both on and off the field.
"Apartment they put us up in had no AC, and tons of flies," he said.
Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were often the staple after home games. Away games meant players finished late -- around 10 p.m. -- and ate fast food or pizza for dinner. Wright said it's a challenge because players are expected to be elite athletes,but the days are long and their menu options are often limited to junk food.
The days are routinely long and late. Players typically spend 12 hours a day at games and practices. Wright said he arrives to the practice field between 11 a.m. and noon to begin stretching and individual work. But games don't start until 7 p.m. and often last three or more hours.
Quality of life improves modestly as players move up in the ranks. Wright has quickly moved up through the organization -- three levels in two years. The next stop for most is AAA, but many top prospects move from AA straight to the majors.
Wright, who finished a successful season with the Clearwater Threshers in High A last year, posted a record of 11-5 with a 3.47 ERA, said two people have made a big difference in his success.
"I've had a lot of great pitching coaches in my career," Wright said. "My father, Tony, has definitely helped me the most. We work out together every day during the off-season (he basically has two full-time jobs), and I call him a lot for advice during the season. This year I will have Dave Lundquist as my pitching coach in AA. He was also my coach last year and helped me a lot in High A, as well as being a big help in spring training. I'm looking forward to working with him again."
Wright is content where he is right now in the organization but knows he needs to continue working hard and improving.
"Right now I think I belong in AA. I need to get a little more consistency in my pitches and focus on better control," said Wright, whose fastball sits anywhere between 89-93 mph and uses his changeup, curveball and slider as secondary pitches.
"Once I accomplish those things I think I'll be ready to move up. Then it just becomes a matter of whether or not there is a need for a lefty starter in AAA. I know the opportunity will come, it's just a matter of timing."
Waiting for that phone call pushes Wright to do all he can to prepare -- even if that means taking water aerobics classes with senior citizens so he can strengthen his core and legs, increase endurance and flexibility.
"My goal now is simply to always keep improving and never be satisfied, be permanently focused and keep learning as I'm going," he said.
• Follow Austin and his pursuit of a big-league career on twitter@A_Wright_