PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- There are three milestones in a player's career when he knows he has made it to the majors: the phone call telling you you've been called up; that first hit or strikeout; and when you finally appear in the MLB The Show video game. I suppose there's a case for that first big league paycheck, but that doesn't compare to your pixelated likeness smashing home runs or striking out Mike Trout.
Two weeks ago was MLB The Show photo day at Tampa Bay Rays camp. Ten new Rays needed to be added to the game for the 2019 release, so a crew from the game company set up 46 cameras to take 46 simultaneous high-definition photos from 360 degrees. Using proprietary software, the images were sent off to Sony, where animators will produce the digital version of each player.
Rays lefty Ryan Yarbrough not only grew up playing MLB The Show, but still plays it. He grew up a Rays fan in Florida, so Scott Kazmir was a big favorite for him, and he always liked Mark Buehrle, who was "a big hero" of his as a fellow southpaw who relied more on craftsmanship than velocity.
Yarbrough was going to get the game regardless but will get a kick out of seeing himself in it for the first time.
"It's kind of scary how close some guys look to their real selves," he said. "Last year, I remember a couple guys joking that it was like looking in a mirror. And other guys were like, 'Do they not like me or something? What happened?' So it's fun to see how it comes out."
Teammate Ryne Stanek also grew up playing the game and will be in it for the first time.
"I'm still a video game guy," he laughed, admitting he brings his Xbox with him on the road (which means he can't play MLB The Show, which is available only for PlayStation). "I play everything. It's pretty much, if they make it, I play it, which is a problem. It was pretty cool to see what goes into what makes a player actually look like a player in the game."
He had to make what he called a "scrunchy face." The photo shoot for each player lasts about five minutes and they're asked to make different facial expressions for whatever might happen on the field. After all, you never know when you might get mad at an umpire.
Stanek was a Cardinals fan growing up, and throughout high school and college at Arkansas, he'd always play with the Cardinals.
"I'd throw with Adam Wainwright, and he's still here," Stanek said. "And Chris Carpenter. Those were the guys that were always starting whenever I played."
The Rays are known for their analytics, but one thing they don't have data on: a pitcher's ERA on days he plays video games and days he doesn't play video games. "We should probably track that," Stanek laughed. "That would be interesting. I mean, I would say my ERA based on the days I play and don't play would be pretty much identical since I pretty much play every day before I go to the field."
Aaron Sokol, a licensing manager for the MLB Players Association, was on site to help monitor the shoot. There were two crews in Florida and two in Arizona, hitting a team a day. His team was heading up to Sarasota next to shoot the Pirates.
"When you do the younger guys now, the 22-to-25-year-olds, they play the game, so they're really into this, making sure they look good, but the older guys are like, 'What is this? I don't care.'"
Indeed, Rays rookie second baseman Brandon Lowe, who performed well in a 43-game stint in the majors in 2018, said he and his spring training roommate, minor league outfielder Ryan Boldt, drafted teams this spring and already played a World Series. Lowe won in six games. His first pick: Mookie Betts.
Compare that to 30-year-old veteran Tommy Pham. He doesn't quite get the whole video game thing, although he admitted to playing some Mortal Kombat as a kid.
"I'd rather spend my time a little more productive[ly]," he smiled. "We do have some down time. Last year when I was on the Cardinals, they had a Fortnite crew. They used to bring their consoles into the hotel rooms and just set up shop and play. Hey, whatever gets them prepared for the game, I guess."
Padres outfielder Wil Myers got in trouble last season, however, when teammate Carlos Asuaje was streaming online while playing Fortnite. Myers could be heard in the background criticizing manager Andy Green for calling a practice session the next day to work on cutoffs and relays -- in September.
"Oh my god. It's so miserable, man. It's insane," Myers said. "Andy could not be any worse than he is right now."
At which time Asuaje informed him, "Dude, I'm streaming this."
Stanek said he doesn't stream and only plays teammates or former teammates or friends from back home. He also said the Fortnite craze might already be subsiding.
"Apex Legends just came out and a lot of people like that," he said. "I'm not really sold. Maybe just because I spent so much time on Fortnite and it makes me mad I have to change everything now."
The MLBPA operates a group license for MLB The Show. Royalties from the game are pooled with other royalties -- like jersey sales -- and distributed equally among all active major leaguers. So Aaron Judge, even though he had the highest-selling jersey, doesn't receive a bigger check than any other player. It's also based on service time for the current season. A player called up in August won't receive as much as a player on the Opening Day roster.
A player also can't appear in MLB The Show until he appears in the majors. Sokol said they will do photo shoots of some of the hot rookies expected to get called up, like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. The game will cycle through veteran players every four or five years, or maybe if they change their facial hair. James Paxton, for example, had to shave his beard after getting traded to the Yankees, so he'll get a new image for the game.
In 2003, Barry Bonds opted out of the union in order to pursue his own licensing agreements. That meant his name and likeness didn't appear in video games (Michael Jordan also did this). Bonds was replaced by a player named Reggie Stocker, who just happened to hit and perform like Bonds.
Compare that to Yarbrough's attitude: He said the players even look forward to seeing their ratings -- in his case, even if his fastball is more Mark Buehrle than Scott Kazmir.