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Lehigh Valley‘s Dean Anna knows what life is like as a career minor-leaguer

Dean Anna got the call to Joe Girardi’s office during the last week of spring training in 2014. The shortstop, after toiling in the minors, independent leagues, and internationally for a half-dozen years, learned he would be donning the Yankee pinstripes on opening day.

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Anna called it  “a big monkey off his back.” Three weeks into the season, the monkey returned.

“When I got sent down from the big leagues to triple A, all the life gets sucked out of you,” Anna said. “And that’s one of the biggest things when you come down, trying to not let that happen. … The hardest part is getting up for the games and getting refocused and still putting your mindset how you’d be in the big leagues.”

Now with the triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs, Anna, 31, is leading off and manning shortstop nearly every day. Since those 25 plate appearances with the Yankees, he has played just one other game in the majors.

Mike Carlson / AP Dean Anna (right), then with the Yankees, getting congratulated by Derek Jeter after scoring against Tampa Bay in April 2014.

That’s life for a career minor-leaguer.

“I consider myself a professional baseball player more than anything,” Anna said. “I’m still hanging around and grinding and doing well.”

The story is all too familiar for Phillies third-base coach Dusty Wathan. In late September 2002, Wathan, then a 29-year-old catcher for the Cleveland Indians, made his big-league debut — and he got to do it in Kansas City’s Kaufmann Stadium, where his father had both played for and managed the Royals for a combined 15 seasons.

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Three games and six plate appearances later, Wathan’s time in the majors was finished. He played for five more teams over four seasons and never saw a big-league field again.

Wathan somehow managed to never give up on the game he loved.

“Originally, I signed with the hope I’d be around long enough to get a job coaching, and next thing you know, it turned into 14 years,” Wathan said before a recent Phillies game. “For a lot of guys, it’s just a job. And it is a job — it barely pays the bills, but it was enjoyable for me, it’s in my blood, and I love coming to the ballpark every day.”

Kathy Willens / AP Dusty Wathan, then catching for the Phillies, tagging out the Braves’ Carlos Mendez during a spring-training game in 2007.

More than two decades after he played his first pro baseball game, Wathan is still passing his experiences on to the next generation of players. Immediately after retiring in 2007, he took over the Phils’ short-season affiliate in Williamsport before moving up the ranks and leading each of the organization’s four full-year minor-league teams.

The last stop on that journey was with the IronPigs. There, Wathan had to handle not just young prospects, but also guys such as Adam Morgan who found themselves shuttling up and down the Northeast Extension between triple A and Citizens Bank Park.

“People who understand baseball can see that it’s tough because you have a family,” Morgan said last week. “You’re picking up and moving, picking up and moving, picking up and moving, shuttling back and forth. You can never really plant your roots.”

Morgan, a third-round selection out of Alabama in 2011, was optioned to Lehigh Valley five times after his June 2015 debut. And if not for a major change during spring training of 2017 when Morgan transitioned from starter to reliever, he might not have molded himself into a key piece for one of the best bullpens in baseball.

“They said, ‘You’re going to be the long guy and you’re going to be in the bullpen,’ ” Morgan recalled. “I knew that I had to switch my mindset.”

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Morgan and his wife never stayed in one place. The pair lived in an extended-stay hotel in Lehigh Valley for the 2016 season, and last year, moved just a bit closer to Philly, living at a similar hotel in Conshohocken.

Although both Wathan and Anna spoke of the many unique personalities they had met along the way, jumping from team to team, neither described the journey as easy. Said Morgan of the constant movement: “When they send you out, it’s like a broken record.”

But Wathan, who played more than 1,000 minor-league games, always found a way to get the most out of every day he stepped onto a field.

“It was my big leagues. Wherever I was, I was going to go out and do everything I could to enjoy the day and help my team win,” he said.

And while Anna doesn’t think about the big leagues much anymore, Morgan, who has stuck in Philadelphia this entire season, keeps the minors in the back of his mind, reminding him that the journey is far from over.

“I still have to prove to myself and prove to everybody each and every day that I’m worthy of being here,” Morgan said. “This is an awesome team. I have bonds with all of these guys and I don’t want to leave.”

Staff writer Ben Pope contributed to this article.

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