The Lost Boys
9 Things That Even Baseball Fans Don’t Know About Professional Baseball.
(One for each inning, plus some free baseball blogging at the end in extra innings)
As with many of my works of art sometimes referred to as blogs, I have to put a disclaimer on this piece. I love professional baseball. I think it’s an indescribable journey and a remarkable opportunity for these young men. Nothing can replace the cities they visit, cultures they experience and the relationships they build over the course of their playing years. Baseball gives them an opportunity to expand their horizons that they wouldn’t have otherwise.
Having said that, there are also some major sacrifices they make along the way. If a player is in the minors long enough, they are at risk of losing personal friendships, becoming outdated professionally and academically and essentially missing the better part of their 20’s leaving them stuck in Never-Never Land as a lost boy. When they are finally released after 7-8 years of meandering around the country, they are forced to scrape together some other career, choose from the ever dwindling pool of single women and recreate a group of friends. Most of their pre-baseball friends have moved on without them, leaving them in their metaphorical dust.
I’d like to delve deep into minor league baseball. Where no man has gone before. There are some wildly inaccurate views of professional baseball floating around out there and I feel compelled to spread the word.
1. What is Professional Baseball: “Bro, when are you going pro?!?”
Okay, I HAVE to clear this up. Every player from the bottom rung of the organization to “The Show” is a professional baseball player. They are all getting paid (some not very much albeit) to play the sport. This means, they are professionals. It is a very extensive system and EVERY player goes through it on their way to the majors (See #2).
2. The Minor League System: “So, how do you like Houston???”
The next person that asks me how I like Houston is going to get a card; And on that card is going to be a map of the United States (and the Caribbean). On that map are going to be stars on every city that is a part of the Houston Astros minor league system. Please understand this: The team that you see on TV is just the tip of a very large iceberg. Every single one of those players that you see playing on the main stage has gone through the minor league system to some degree. (There is not one single exception to this in the past decade including the likes of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper.) Every Major League team has 8-9 minor league teams underneath of it serving as a feeder system. Yes, that’s right, NINE teams. You have probably heard of AAA and AA baseball, but that is really just skimming the surface. As a minor league staff member I may literally never go to Houston. I am based out of Orlando and I will travel back and forth to the Dominican Republic frequently throughout the year. Players also live the same life. They may never visit the parent city until they have their Major League debut. Yes, I know - #mindblown.
The Minor League system is usually set up as follows:
AAA – AA - High A – Low A – Advanced Rookie – Rookie – Rookie – Dominican Summer League (and/or Venezuela)
3. Latin America: Coño.
As with everything else in this country, America’s favorite pastime is imported. Forty to fifty percent of the entire conglomerate that is professional baseball is made up of Latin American players. That’s almost half. (Again, #mindblown). You can probably think of a couple off the top of your head: Puig, Cabrera, Big Papi and Manny; but those are just a few names of thousands that are actively playing professional baseball every year. People are often surprised to know that every single Major League Baseball team has a baseball ‘academy’ in the Dominican Republic (and some in Venezuela as well). The players often hail from impoverished households in the heart of one of 5-6 third world countries. We call them academies because they are run like a boarding school at which they eat, sleep and of course, play baseball. IF they perform well enough in their 1-2 seasons at the academy, they get an opportunity to play in the United States at the lowest level and continue to work their way up. The players typically sign at age 15 or 16 before they have even graduated from high school and spend 1-2 years at the academy before they transition to the states (IF they are good enough to make it there. Some get released before they are able to come to the United States). Simply to make it to the US of A out of the academy is an accomplishment for them. The transition to the States is never easy. They rarely speak English and are not equipped with the educational background to learn a language as complicated as ours on top of learning baseball. I can remember the pressure and anxiety that I had at times on the field as a college athlete. Even for me, a woman who takes pride in helping these athletes and practicing empathy instead of anger with them, it’s still difficult to understand what they are going through. When you see a Latin American player on T.V., understand that their journey could be considered the longest and most arduous of all of the minor leaguers.
4. Host Families, Hostels and Homelessness
I would like to give a shout out to everyone out there who has ever housed minor league players. There is an underground system supporting these guys that almost no one knows about; A lifeline that we like to call, host families. They house, feed and care for the lower level minor league baseball players that are often surviving on wages that put them well below the poverty line (See #5). They provide this service at very little cost and sometimes even for free. These host families often become real family, keeping up with the players long after they leave. Some of them are wildly different than the players, putting them up in farmhouses in the middle of nowhere and exposing the Latin players to what life is like in the good ole Midwest. It’s no doubt that these families and couples have lasting effects on these young men and are never forgotten by the players that they’ve helped. If you live in a minor league city and have a spare bedroom, I highly encourage it. When you have a chance to support someone pursuing an impossible dream, I imagine that it will enrich your journey as well.
The second and less heart warming part of this inning is about what happens after there are no more host families. After Low A, the 4th highest level (Refer to #2), the players no longer have host families. This leads them to resorting to desperate measures to find cheap living spaces that will actually accept month to month leases. While this isn’t always the case, it often leads to a 2-bedroom apartment that is housing 5 players which looks more like a run down hostel than a livable space. One guy in the dining room on an air mattress, one in the living room on an air mattress, 2 sharing the master bedroom and 1 who is lucky enough to have his own ‘private’ space in the single bedroom. You might be saying, come on, it’s not THAT hard to find a cheap place to live, especially in some of these middle America minor league cities. Before you jump to conclusions, it’s important to remember that these players are moving up and down all season long. For a player to stay in one city for the whole season is a rarity. That means, they could move into an apartment for 1 month and have to move again at a moment’s notice. (They sometimes receive the call in the middle of the night and are forced to pack their bags and be on a flight by 6AM.) This makes finding living extremely difficult which is when these minor league hostels pop up all over the country.
5. Salaries: Started From the Bottom, Now I’m Here... Below Poverty Level.
When I tell people about my job, one common question is as follows: ‘So, since they are all rich, do they give you a hard time when you ask them to do something?’ First of all, there are no salaries until a player is on the 25 or 40-man roster. So, if by ‘rich,’ you mean ‘broke as hell,’ yes – they are rich. The minor league players are paid a monthly stipend when they are playing which is only from after spring training until the end of the season. They do not get paid during spring training beyond a stipend to live and housing that is provided. During the off season which usually lasts from September until March, they become like hungry college students looking for odd jobs. Many of them coach youth teams or give lessons. However, there are also more colorful jobs like Uber drivers, valet parkers, bouncers, dog-walkers, construction workers and used car salesmen (to name a few). So, the next time you get an Uber, you could be in the midst of a professional athlete! Yes, some get large bonuses, but those are hard to come by and when they are planning on being out of the workforce for 6-8 years, that bonus is best kept in a savings account. Most of them get $1000 ($600 after taxes) and a handshake. So, no, they aren’t all rich and no, they aren’t all primadonnas and no, they don’t give me a hard time when I ask them to do something. They realize the long journey they have ahead of them and most of them are willing to do whatever it takes to get there.
6. School: MLB Gives them a scholarship, isn’t that nice?
You may or may not be aware that when a player is drafted out of high school or before they finish college, it is commonplace for the team to provide an equivalent scholarship for the player so that he can complete school after he is done playing. Isn’t that great??? Major League Baseball really cares that these players are getting an education! Don’t get me wrong, it is a great opportunity. However, many of the players never take advantage of the scholarship that is provided. School while playing professional baseball is not an easy task. It has been done by some, but semesters never line up with the baseball season and off season baseball activities often make it impossible to do (See #8). If players want to continue their education, it almost invariably has to be done online. At times, professors will take mercy on their souls and let them miss the first 1-2 weeks of the fall semester while they finish up their minor league season. IF they get the opportunity to be invited to an off season camp, or league, it’s a catch 22. The pressure to attend the off season camps and leagues is high because it gives them more exposure and they are considered prestigious invites by the club. If a player chooses to attend school instead, he could be messing with his career. The chances of a player attending school after he is released or retires are slim to none. Mostly because of what I cover in #9.
7. Cleat Chasers/Jersey Chasers/Exhaust Pipe Suckers (Got that last one from a host mom.)
Tell any unsuspecting, normal citizen that you are a professional baseball player and you are at risk of them thinking 2 things for sure: #1: You have a lot of money and #2 You are famous. Even at the lower levels, grown men wait outside of the ballparks at the end of the night with the players’ minor league cards just hoping to catch a signature from a future all-star. Tell any unsuspecting, normal girl that you are a professional baseball player and you are at the risk of her pretending to like you for no other reason than the sheer pleasure of posting proud photos on her Insta with ‘her man’ at the ball field. Jersey chasers are real. If you’re thinking, “Wow, that must be awesome!!!,” think again. Yes, there are some perks for these young, testosterone filled boys, of course. However, for any guy who is looking for a long term relationship or an educated, driven woman, it’s a tough situation. Finding a woman that is in it for the right reasons can be tricky to navigate. Again, I know it’s hard to feel sorry for them with this one. “Oh no! Must be terrible to have women throw themselves at you!” However, in some cases, it’s quantity at the cost of quality. (Disclaimer: Not all women who are dating or married to baseball players fall in this category. This is not a generalization and there are some truly badass wives and girlfriends out there.)
8. Off Season
The off season is a prized time. Unfortunately, if you’re good at baseball and you excel in the professional ranks at the minor league level, you don’t get one. If you have a good season, you are typically rewarded with: You guessed it, MORE BASEBALL!!! YAY!!! After spring training and a 6-month season, there is instructional league that runs for 6 weeks in September and October. If you are older and have had consecutive good seasons, you have a chance to go to the Arizona Fall League for 6 weeks in October and November. And – if you’re really ‘lucky’ and you have performed well enough to play at the AA and AAA level, you could have a chance to play internationally in winter ball for 2-3 months. Only winter ball pays well enough to really make it worth their time. The other two could be considered internships in which they are only getting paid their room and board. While you might be saying to yourself, “These players get to play a game for a living! They should be happy to keep playing throughout the off season!” You would be correct. It’s a game. But, keep in mind, they are losing precious time to recover their bodies from a long season and also precious time that they could be spending with their families, girlfriends, wives and sometimes children. Which brings me to my last and (almost) final point.
9. Never-Never Land: The Lost Boys
Baseball isn’t the real world. I often compare it to the military lifestyle. Don’t get me wrong, the two are very different in a lot of ways. It’s not often that the players are risking their lives, although there have been many sketchy bus ride tales that could be considered life threatening. (And then there is one special case, Mitch Harris, the only Major League baseball player in close to a century to have done both. Click on the link at the bottom of the blog to read his story, it’s much better than what you’re reading right now. Seriously, I don’t know how his awesome wife Mandi does it!!!) The players leave their homes year after year from March to October. Don’t forget the instructional leagues, winter camps, the Arizona Fall League and Winter Ball (See #8). While they are gone, their friends at home are going about their lives, finishing school, getting jobs and having families. Often times, this leaves baseball players behind and disconnected from the ‘normal people.’ If you’re not in the business, you just don’t get it. After several years of playing, sometimes it’s hard for them to carry on a great conversation with people who aren’t around the game. In some cases, if the player is good enough and hangs around long enough, they may have spent 7-8 years of participating in this cycle. When the player is released or retires, they are completely disconnected from every day life that has been going on back home. Their friends have gradually faded away, their degree (if they have one – See #6) is no longer applicable and is often times not even what they want to do any more. After moving to 8-10 different cities (or more) they lack a sense of home beyond their old bedroom at their parents’ place with their high school letterman’s jacket hanging on the wall. They’ve never had an apartment or owned house (or anything for that matter) and they have to start from square one with just about everything in life. They are stuck in Never-Never Land where they never ‘grew up’ in the traditional sense like the other 20-something’s. After baseball, there is sometimes a loss of identity that is saddening. One day, you’re playing a sport for your job, the next, you’re fired from that job with little to no hope of ever returning. You don’t go to another company in the same business, you go ‘home.’ Whatever that means. A forced career change is never easy, especially when you still love it and will never be able to do it again, even if you wanted to.
10. The Show
Even I didn’t realize this when I got into baseball. Once the players ‘make it,’ they are still fighting for their lives. They can’t relax even for a minute. Until a player get to his ‘contract’ year, there is a constant fear present of going back down to the minors. The pressure is immense and they don’t have a say in what they want to do. One of the most common misconceptions that I mentioned in number five is that the Major League players walk around all day just calling the shots. They are telling staff what to do, drinking their protein shakes with their pinkies out and complaining at the first sign of discomfort. In my experience, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Ninety percent of them are trying to fall in line, grind as hard as they can and not rock the boat until they sign a contract. Even then, not much changes. If you think they have it easy once they get that call, think again. It’s just another step that further confirms their long term reservations for a stay in the Never-Never Land Hotel.
If you consider yourself a fan, consider following Minor League Baseball a little bit closer. It’s an interesting business and a hell of a journey. I guarantee that you will have a greater appreciation for the game and the players.
Find more information on professional baseball and the bus leagues here:
Read Mitch Harris’ Story Here (Mentioned in #9):