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An Inside Look into the Harsh Conditions of Minor League Baseball

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An Inside Look into the Harsh Conditions of Minor League Baseball
Paul Sancya/AP Images

On the walls of every minor league locker room, where rosters and travel schedules are pinned, you will find sign-up sheets for what are known as "player appearances."

They usually include things like speaking engagements at local schools, signings at grocery stores, meet-and-greets with the mascot at a car dealership, etc. The venues vary, but the payment—which can be as little as a gift card at the lowest minor league levels—only changes with a promotion. In High-A ball, you'll earn anywhere from $50 to $100 a pop, depending on whether you have to give a speech.

Appearances are first-come, first-served—there are usually only three spaces for signatures—and often are scheduled during a player's sleeping hours or on one of the eight days off a player will get over the course of a seven-month season.

Still, you can count on the sheet being covered in names within minutes of its posting. Money is so tight in the minors, getting your name on that list is a godsend.

Being a minor league player is a brutal experience—a brutal experience you, dear minor league player, can never speak of. If you ever decide to tell the general public of your disgust with professional baseball, that it's paying you in stale beer and day-old hot dogs for the honor of playing among its chosen immortals, expect your words to echo off into the endless vacuum.

Indeed, you'd be lucky to get ignored. The alternative is a tidal wave of angry, bitter vitriol declaring you an ungrateful whiner with no concept of how hard the real world is—where working stiffs daily have their souls slowly snuffed out in torturous professions established by Satan himself. 

They have mouths to feed, mortgages to pay, bills to weep over. You have baseball, the dream, the game, the joy, the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd. You fly over all in a fantasy land where money has no value. How dare you talk of such trivialities in the face of all you have, you acquisitive minor-league swine. Take your player appearance sign-up sheet and shove it!

But minor league baseball is not a fantasy. It's a profession. A cruel one that justifies its cruelty by offering a golden carrot so valuable and coveted that young men will put their blinders on and drudge after it until they get their teeth on it or get put down trying.

But this carrot does not negate the fact that, at its lowest levels, professional baseball is exploitation. It has been for years—decades. So long, in fact, that it has become a victim of its own belief system: that a player must sacrifice and succumb to unfair treatment as part of "chasing the dream."

It's true: a player must sacrifice to make it to the top of a sport. To reach the highest level of anything requires that you deny yourself. One must spend years in sports, from childhood to adulthood, to have even the slightest chance. Years of caravanning around the country in tournament leagues. Years of juggling jobs and school and schedules and family and debt and more debt and more debt still.

Move back home. Ask the parents for money. Ask friends for money. Defect from a country. Risk deportation. Risk injury, imprisonment or death. Leave your home, family and friends forever, all for the chance to shatter yourself like glass on the steep and jagged rock of pro baseball, hoping that you might be the one who doesn't break.

I get it. Hell, I did it. As a matter of fact, I wrote a book on it. But just because all this sacrificing is an accepted concept—one we've become accustomed to, to the point of romanticizing it—doesn't mean that what minor leaguers go through is fair or needs to persist.

In my first year, I was paid a mere $800 a month. After housing, taxes, clubhouse dues and insurance were taken out, that was down to $300.

My minor league brothers and I were oblivious because we were playing the game and chasing our dreams, all suffering from the delusion that we were only weeks from the bigs and escaping the bills and mortgages and mouth-feeding struggles we still had.

But even then, as naive as we were, it was comical. We'd look at our checks and have sad, satirical chuckles, punctuated with the now tongue-in-cheek phrase, "Living the dream!" Over time, however, it became much less funny.

In Low-A ball, I lived without a refrigerator. I had a Styrofoam cooler in which I put milk and bread with ice I took from hotels. I didn't have any means by which to cook raw food—no range, not even a microwave. I lived entirely off of peanut butter and jelly simply because it wouldn't spoil, and it's what I could afford.

During spring training in minor league camp, I bought a glass bowl with a lid and used it to make pasta in the hotel microwave or reheat the food I snuck from the complex.

In spring training, you were given only $120 per week in meal money, no paycheck. That $120 was gone in three nights at a sit-down restaurant—or you could stretch it by eating fatty fast food all week. Ironic, since there are rules about proper diet and being in shape; they go out the window when you're barely paid enough to eat.

In Single-A, we developed a term for guys on the team that would eat more than their rationed amount before a game. We called them "Spread Killers." They were often the pitchers who came off the field before batting practice officially ended, thus giving them early access to the pregame spread. All it took for them to kill it was an extra peanut butter and jelly sandwich. This made it impossible for one of the later arrivals to get a full sandwich, and forced him to play hungry.

In Double-A, our shortstop's wife gave birth to their second daughter back in the Dominican Republic. We all put money in a hat to help him get home to see her because neither he nor his wife could afford to visit the other on the wages we were paid.

In Triple-A, after six years of playing in the minors, I slept on an air mattress on the living room floor of a two-bedroom Portland apartment because I had the least service time of the three players who were living there. One of us slept on a sleeping bag on the floor.

We had one bathroom, used an ironing board for our kitchen table and sat on the carpet, cross-legged, watching Internet videos courtesy of pirated Internet from one of the apartment complex's unsecured WiFi sources. All things considered, it wouldn't have been so bad if the other two players weren't married with kids. Women, children, three grown men—one bathroom.

As the reality of the minor league situation sets in, you learn to become inventive. You problem solve. You steal. You lie. You cheat. You almost have to. How else can you survive? How else can you justify all that you've leveraged to get to where you are?

When the window of big league glory starts to slip shut and you realize you'll never get back the years you gambled on this "dream," you'll do anything.

Stare into the face of the woman who's waited while you chase your once-in-a-lifetime dream, look upon the children who only know you from the three months you're actually home to be their father, consider the reckoning that will come psychologically after you hang up your spikes and, with them, everything you've ever known yourself to be. Then tell me cheating doesn't make sense when the worst thing that can happen to you is a suspension.

Failure is far more horrifying.

I say this as one of the lucky ones. I was able to hang on long enough to get my shot at the bigs. I was a white, American-born male. When my minor league season was over, I worked two, sometimes three, jobs while sleeping on someone's floor. I lived next to a school that let me work out in their gym for free because I couldn't afford a gym membership. I had parents who could mortgage their house to help me, if necessary. It was hard, damn hard, but I did it.

Latin players often aren't so fortunate. Those deaf ears, the ones most outsiders use when mocking any complaints a minor leaguer might have, are almost always thanks in large part to the false belief that athletes are, and should be, perpetually happy because they dominate our news feeds. They are all supposed to be rich. They're all supposed to be "bonus babies."

But we have no concept of what foreign-born players go through to chase their dream—not just of major league success, but of breaking free of a truly crushing cycle of poverty. Nor do we really want it.

When a player like Yasiel Puig hits the scene, all we want to do is criticize him for his flashy play, that he makes millions and carries himself "above the game" while doing it. No one wants to know that, for Puig and many other Latin players, just making it to America was a life-changing accomplishment worth celebrating.

Ironically, organized baseball has more than enough money, if not to completely overhaul the plight of the minor leaguer, to at least alleviate it. It just doesn't have anyone telling it that it must.

In fact, Major League Baseball will tell you that if it did alleviate things, players wouldn't work as hard to make it to the top; they wouldn't want it as badly if the minors were comfortable.

Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

When I first made it to the majors with the San Diego Padres, I was put up in the Gas Lamp Marriott across from the stadium. I got there thanks to a flight on a private jet with all executive-class seating. They served me a steak on a flight that took less than an hour-and-a-half. And that was after I stayed the night in San Francisco, in a downtown hotel, in a suite. I detailed my feelings about it all in my second book, Out Of My League.

Much like the hotel in San Fran, the Marriott Gas Lamp was stunning, and a reservation had already been made for me.

While explaining all the luxuries the hotel offered, and on which floors I could find them, the lady at the front desk said the bar on the roof—known as the Sky Lounge—offered one of the best views of the ballpark anywhere—and, since no guests had to stand in line for access, I should definitely experience it. After dropping off my bags, I did just that.

She was right about the view. From the edge of the rooftop bar, I could see over the Western Metal Supply building that made up the left-field portion of Petco Park. I could see the huge banners of the great Padres icons in all their glory, including a nearly 100-foot poster of Trevor Hoffman.

I marveled at it, wondering what it must feel like for him to drive to work every day and see a building-sized mural of himself on the side of a stadium. I gazed on the field, welling up with pride that I was one of the people who would say they got to play on it.

The following is a conversation I had in Out of My League, between myself and a real fellow Padres relief pitcher at the time who, in the book, went by the code name Bentley:

"Number 57!" came a voice from behind me. I turned to see Bentley standing there with two drinks in hand. He casually made his way over to me with a big-league smile stretched across his face and handed me one.

"Welcome to the Sky Lounge," he said, and clinked my glass with his.

"Thanks for having me," I said.

"Enjoying your seven and seven?" he asked, referring the seven nights in a hotel and seven nights worth of meal money—just over a grand in cash—the Padres had given me to get settled.

"Very much so." I said, turning back to the view.

We stood there looking off the roof and onto the field. Bentley had been here longer than me and his seven and seven must have run out by now, which prompted me to ask him, "Are you staying here the whole time?"

"Yeah, it's cheaper than moving into an apartment since we're only here for a couple days out of the month. Besides, you can't find a lease for just a month and a half. You're committed to the hotel. Which is fine. I have an elite membership card. You should get one too," he nudged me, "the points add up quick."

"How much is it per night?"

"I think the rates here are something like $260 for a normal guest."

I choked on my drink. "$260?"

"Something like that." He looked to my gaping mouth and raised an eyebrow. "You're in 'The Show,' you can afford it."

"Maybe, but that's still a lot of money."

"Not anymore." He took a sip of his drink.

"That blows me away," I said. "I mean, this offseason, I was working at a television store and now I'm sipping a mixed drink from the top of a five-star hotel overlooking the major-league field I play on. I can't believe this is actually happening."

Bentley said nothing.

"Maybe I'm wrong for thinking this, but it makes me wonder why there is such a huge gap between the guys up here and the guys in the minors. I mean, if you just spread out the smallest portion of all this to the guys below it would make their lives so much easier, don't you think?

"That's a terrible idea," said Bentley.

"Why do you say that? There is so much here."

"Because it's meant to be this way. It's a grind for a reason. The guys who can't take it don't deserve to be up here. Besides, the union fights for us to have all this. There have been guys up here who went through hell to make it like it is. It's not just for anybody."

"Maybe. I guess I've just never experienced anything like this. I know I've worked my ass to get up here, but I feel like I don't deserve all this. It's so much so fast."

"I feel like I deserve it," Bentley said, and then gulped his drink.

"Really?"

"Of course. We beat the odds; we deserve all of this. If this is what they want to give us, then take it. Don't ask questions. Besides, this here," he waved his arms as if to claim everything around us, the field, the hotel, the bar, "this is the only level you can make an impact at. It's the only one that matters—the only one people care about. All the rest of that stuff is just practice to get here."

"But—"

"No buts." He stopped me. "This is the only league that matters. Your career in baseball starts here."

And in a major leaguer's mind, it is.

For those who may not know, the MLBPA routinely bargains away the rights of minor leaguers and amateurs, even though minor leaguers and amateurs have no say about, representation on or power over the MLBPA's negotiating table. Is it not egregious that, in this country, rules for how one group of people should be treated can still be made by another group with zero discussion across the party lines?

Odd, isn't it, that MLB will tout its charitable efforts and desire to see change in suffering communities? That it will set up institutions to help kids break out of poverty and punch their tickets to its meat grinder, wherein it will turn them into livestock, expect them to behave as such and toss them right back into the dirt when they fail? 

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But possibly the most odd and disturbing thing about all of this is, at some point in this dilemma, it became vulgar for minor leaguers—who truly do get paid like crap, treated like crap, worked like dogs and obsoleted when injured—to complain about any of it. 

Why? Because it's a matter of perception. We believe these players getting a chance at a chance at a chance to make their dreams come true and have buckets of money dumped on them nightly should be treated like this. "It's part of paying their dues."

Fact is, most of these players will never ever get close to that scenario. The vast majority of the ones that do will get a brief nibble of the golden carrot before falling apart, never to be heard from again. And while you might think that nibble is well worth the effort—a shiny merit badge that tells the whole world you once made it to the top—that badge will not pay your bills, get you a job in the real world, or earn health coverage for your family.

Plus, all too often the response you will get upon proudly brandishing your cup-of-MLB-coffee badge will be, "Yeah, you made it, but you weren't very good." Congratulations, wear it proudly.

It's not baseball's fault minor leaguers are plagued by group-think to the point they won't help themselves. It's not the fans' fault either. It's not society's fault for unwittingly agreeing that poor treatment and low wages are worth it for chances at fame-dipped jobs—America has been duped by that one for ages. It is, however, everyone's fault for acting like things are not allowed to improve, grabbing up our pitchforks and torches when someone we—wrongly— think is more privileged than us speaks up.

We roast the players at the top when they complain about not making as many millions as they thought they were worth, declaring such complaining to be tone deaf and insulting to the millions of us who'll never know that kind of financial comfort.

And yet we're happy to turn around and roast minor leaguers who have it worse than us, saying that we'd trade places in a heartbeat so we could have their chance at being the insufferable, greedy jerks we hate at the top.

 

Dirk Hayhurst is a former pitcher who spent nearly a decade in professional baseball between MiLB and MLB. He is also an accomplished author, and has appeared on Baseball America, ESPN, TBS' MLB postseason broadcasts, Sportsnet Canada and more.

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