MLB Draftee Do's and Don'ts: The Minor League Survival Manual
Congratulations, you’ve just been selected in the 2014 baseball amateur player draft!
The baseball gods have smiled on you, and the world is your oyster. At least for the moment, because as soon as you sign your name on that contract, your life is going to change.
You will become the property of a major league franchise and be shipped off to the minor leagues to begin the crucible that is the road to the show. It will be hard, it will be long, and it will make you wonder why you didn’t stay in school and get your degree.
But fear not, new blood; before you pack up your cleats and kiss your mother goodbye, here are some things that will help ease your transition from MLB draftee to minor leaguer.
1. Cut the Cord
Chances are you are going to the pros by way of college. If so, you’d do well to cut the cord from your alma mater as soon as you can. You don’t have to pretend you didn’t go to college, but you should probably refrain from screaming “Roll tide!” or “War eagle!” whenever possible.
Nothing makes you look fresh-faced more than wearing your college career like a badge of honor around other guys who have their own badges. The who’s who of college stopped being important the minute you signed your contract.
Letting go will help you. Professional baseball, especially at low levels where fresh draftees congregate, can be an ego-measuring, neck-biting, social proving ground. The less you hide behind your past, the more you’ll be respected in the here and now.
Besides, everyone wants to move up the pro ladder, and people will latch onto any reason why they should go over the next guy, including the superiority of their colleges.
But baseball is a what-have-you-done-lately profession, and if you think your college career makes you a priority to the organization, it will sting all the worse when a high school kid gets promoted ahead of you.
Remember that you’re going off to a place where a lot of guys are just as good as you and didn’t go to college. Hell, some of them don’t even speak English, and others may not have even passed an English lit class.
Whether you're from a prestigious institution that just ended its campaign for the College World Series or a lowly junior college that only exists to help prop up draft picks doesn’t matter. It's what you do now that matters most, and the sooner you can focus on that, the better off you’ll be.
Leave college logos at home, and focus on your new pro logo.
2. Don't Buy a New Car
Yes, I know rich athletes drive nice cars. But unless you’re a top-round pick, you’re not a rich athlete.
Even if you made a couple hundred grand in signing, that’s not a lot of money. Think about the pure economics of this venture. You’ll make a large sum upfront—probably more than you’ve ever seen in your life, unless your parents' last name is Gates or Clampett. Then you’ll make virtually nothing until you make it to the bigs, which could be years, if it happens at all.
Draftees get caught up in the moment and forget they still have to pay taxes on that signing bonus, that they won’t get paid in extended spring training or “minicamp” and that minor league wages are so bad you’d be better off panhandling.
Running to the dealership to blow your dough on a slick ride is one of the worst investments you can make at this juncture. The money makes you feel set, but at such a young age and with so little life experience, that money is your worst enemy.
Furthermore, cars depreciate, break and cost money to insure and fuel, and you won’t even need one once the season starts!
In fact, unless you plan on driving it across the country to your new spring training home (assuming the organization even lets you do that), then driving it to the next minor league city you’ll be stationed in and then having it shipped to the next city you get promoted/demoted to, a car is really just expensive luggage.
Trust me: Someone on your team will have already bought an expensive car, and in the name of showing off how awesome it is, he will opt to give you a ride to and from games. My advice: Make friends, bum rides and forget about the Lexus until you’re in the big leagues.
3. Get an Agent
Just having an agent can mean the difference between you buying your own equipment and having an invested third party purchase it on your behalf. Baseball agents are like fairy godparents.
Yes, they’ll take their cut if you sign a big contract, but most of the time they’ll be sending you new spikes, fresh bats, new sports underwear and even a pair of trendy sunglasses if you can make a strong enough argument for why you need them. By the time they get their percent of you (if they get their percent of you), it will be like paying them back, not letting them suck you dry.
That said, the No. 1 complaint I heard from players during my playing days about agents was, “My agent never returns my phone calls.” Every player wants to feel like he’s a priority, and that’s a lot easier to make happen if you have an agent that’s more boutique in style.
Face it: If you’re not a top-rounder, it doesn’t matter if the agent has a huge list of players under his management or a handful. The organization is going to treat you like dirt until you play well enough to make it respect you.
Until then, work with an agent who can at least remember you’re on his client list when you call.
4. Buy Noise-Canceling Headphones
If there is one purchase that is absolutely worth the money, it’s noise-canceling headphones.
The world you’re about to enter into is full of noise—loud, crashing, farting, yelling, arguing, blaring, reggaeton, warbling country, make-you-want-to-kill noise. You’ll want to escape it, and since you can’t very well run away once you’ve signed the contract, you’ll need to feel like you're someplace else from time to time.
The world of minor league baseball is a world of 25 bodies, always packed tightly together, all trying to amuse themselves at the expense of your personal Zen. Every locker room has a stereo system, and (unless you lost that night) it will always be on—loud.
Bus trips with movies you don’t want to watch, a locker next to the loud player who won't stop talking to you, a day game with a hangover...I’m telling you, noise-canceling headphones might just save your life—or your teammates—as the headphones might keep you sane long enough that you refrain from killing anyone.
5. Upgrade Your Mobile Device and Buy a Battery Pack
Noise-canceling headphones are great, but they’re only as good as the content you’re pumping into them. That means your cellphone or tablet will become your Swiss army knife of staving off boredom and frustration.
The noise of the minor league world is bad enough, but the boredom is crushing. Consider that when you’re not on a playing field, you’re on a team bus for hours at a time. Or maybe you’re at home in an apartment with four other guys, and even among the four of you, you can’t afford to get locked into a cable provider, let alone buy a television.
I spent parts of seven years in the minors and, altogether, more than six months of my life riding buses. The right device can make long bus trips feel like short sprints, crappy apartments feel like home and dead hours feel like chances to unwind. In short, you’ll need a distraction, and when you’re enjoying that distraction, the last thing you want is for the battery to die.
Be sure to get something with great battery life, then get an extra battery pack for it. There won't be any plugs on your team bus, and when you do get to a minor league locker room, wars will be fought over who uses open receptacles.
You can win that battle now with a little planning...assuming you haven’t already blown that complimentary $1,000 bonus on an epic night out.
6. Understand the Difference Between Ritual and Routine
You’re a professional baseball player now. You’ve got 142 minor league games ahead of you, by far the most you’ve ever played in a row. That many consecutive games means you’re bound to mistake ritual for routine and vice versa.
Let's break it down.
Rituals are things that do not equate to quantifiable on-field results but make a player feel better or more confident by repeating. They are psychosomatic. Examples include brushing one’s teeth between innings, eating the same meal before a game, wearing ladies underwear, sacrificing a live chicken...
These things don’t immediately connect with on-field events, but since we believe they do, and because this belief is comforting, we repeat the ritual, especially if the result is good. They don't help you. In fact, they lie to you and can, if left unchecked, cripple you.
Tying your hands to fried chicken before every game will backfire if you play in a town where there is no fried chicken. Lose your luggage on a plane, and suddenly you’re without your home run thong.
Pro baseball is full of nostalgia, sayings, unwritten codes and all manner of kooky false corollaries. Enjoy them, laugh at them, but don’t hinge your career on one.
A saying to remember is: “If you can’t blame failure on ritual, you can’t blame success on it either.” However, you can definitely attribute your bad or good play to how well you’ve prepared, and when coaches evaluate you, preparation is one of the first things they’ll look at.
Thus, whatever helps you prepare effectively should become part of your routine, while whatever adds chaos to your game should stay off the field—where it belongs.
7. Learn How to Run a Quarter Toss Game
What is quarter toss? Why, it’s the economy, stupid—well, the economy of baseball, anyway.
You see, every game you’re in from here on out will put you on one side of the fence, while a screaming mass of children patrols the other. All of those children want the same thing: a free baseball.
Despite what parents and fans think, you, the player, cannot give out free baseballs to everyone who asks. Especially not in the minors. You can give out a few, but there will always be more demand than supply, which means for each beaming, joyful face who thinks you’re the best player ever, there will be 10 bitter gremlins who think you stink.
There will not be one day in your professional future in which this doesn’t happen, so you might as well make the best of it. You can do that by playing quarter toss with the kids.
Step 1: You and your fellow teammates should snag a couple of the more beat-up baseballs from batting practice and create some stock.
Step 2: Wait for the stands to start filling up before the game.
Step 3: Take a drinking cup and place a little dirt in the bottom (so it doesn’t tip over) and place it about eight feet from the most child-congested portion of the bleachers.
Step 4: Announce the rules—if a quarter goes into the cup on the fly, the person who tosses the quarter wins a baseball. If the person tossing the quarter misses, the players keep the quarter. One quarter equals one shot.
Depending on your park’s architecture, you can have a lot of fun with this. I’ve seen it played with bats and dollar-bill airplanes. When I was playing, my minor league bullpen in High-A made so much money that by the time the All-Star break came, we bought beer and steaks for the entire team.
8. Don’t Play the GM Game
You’re sitting idly in the bullpen with nothing to do. You’re tired of hustling the locals with quarter toss games. Verbal sparring with drunks has lost its fun. Even the thrill of scouring the stands for hot chicks via your handy-dandy bullpen binoculars is gone.
But wait—someone got hurt two levels up. Someone got released. Someone is pitching badly, and it’s just a matter of time before they run out of chances to redeem themselves. Change is coming. Turnover, injuries, waiver claims and moves, moves, moves—they all mean something for you and the rest of your half-brothers of the minor leagues... But what?
That’s the million-dollar question and the reason for the most popular game among all aspiring minor leaguers: the General Manager Game.
The GM Game is the prediction of the moves that will be made around the organization if you were the man in charge. It can look different depending on where you stand and how much information you have, but the above is how it looks if you’re a player.
Don’t play it.
The reason is, if you start trying to figure out why someone else got promoted and you didn’t, you’ll start to get bitter. Professional baseball, for all the joy associated with playing it, can be a very bitter place.
That’s thanks in large part to just how crappy minor league life is and how badly players want to make it to the top. But when you play GM, you start to assign value to your teammates, to yourself and to your career that might not be accurate. You’ll expect to get promoted based on what little you know, and when it doesn’t happen, you’ll get angry at the situation, your employer or even your teammates.
It’s best to focus on what you can control—your play. Remember, there are 29 other teams out there watching for talented players. If your own team doesn’t notice what you’re doing, another team might. Stay positive, and don’t worry about things outside station.
9. Surviving the Woulda/Coulda/Shouldas
On a plane, in a line at a restaurant or at home after the season, someone will ask you what it is you do for a living, and you will—proudly, of course—tell that person you're a professional baseball player.
When Rick Renteria, current Cubs skipper, was my High-A manager, he told me that if you’re going to use your job title to get in good with folks or make yourself seem important, you’d better be prepared to deal with everything that comes along with it.
Sometimes dropping the job title will help you meet girls, get into a club or curry favor. And considering how little you’ll earn in the minors, you’ll need all the special favors you can get. But be warned—every once in a while, name-dropping will backfire, and you’ll find yourself listening to some old washout telling you about how he could have turned pro himself if it weren't for his kids, wife, coach, hip, shoulder, the government, the Apocalypse or taking an arrow to the knee. Something.
And all of them were great. No, amazing. No, the best ever. The best on the team. The best the league ever saw. “Why, scouts used to tell me I had a big league hook at age 16. Of course, I didn’t know if he was a scout, but why else would you wear a collared shirt with the logo of a pro sports team on it? All the guys on the team told me I was throwing in the 90s. We didn’t have a radar gun, but they said I was. Said it hurt their hands to catch me…”
Blah blah blah. It’s so sad it almost brings a tear to your eye.
Just let that person talk. If he's buying, let him talk a lot. I realize that no one told you that once you signed the contract, you’d be moonlighting as a psychologist, but baseball is a game of adjustments, and this is one of them.
Now that you’re a pro, you will attract all manner of washout stories, and you’ll have to endure every one of them because if you tell the person gushing you don’t believe or care, he will curse you as just another arrogant, ungrateful athlete.
The best way to avoid this is to not tell folks what you do whenever possible, and, if you do, do so with another teammate around who can bail you out with a fake phone call.
10. Learn Spanish
There are obvious reasons for learning a foreign language, like all the doors it can open up for you in the business world or being able to communicate with people you couldn’t normally.
But in the baseball world, it’s especially important.
Notice how I said learn Spanish and not Chinese, Japanese or Korean. You could still end up on a team with some players who speak those languages, but if you do, 99 percent of the time they’ll come with a translator. If you find your way to their country to play, they’ll provide you with the translator.
Learning a foreign language is not a prerequisite for baseball. Lots of things aren’t, come to think of it. Math, English, science…all this stuff is what most people get into sports to avoid. But language skills can really help you and the people on your team.
Most of the people who come to the United States to play professional baseball don’t speak English well, if they speak it at all. A lot of American players are bitter about this. If you get drafted, you should expect to be around players who speak Spanish. Get used to it. Even if you’re just upset with a teammate’s behavior, if you don’t have a way to communicate it to him, he's bound to assume you dislike him.
Spanish will also help you outside the playing field. Face it—playing baseball for a living doesn’t qualify you to do much after your career ends beyond coaching. But if you learn Spanish as a side project, complete with the help of Spanish speakers, you have a fantastic marketing tool for the next stop in your career.
You can also elect to not tell anyone that you speak Spanish. Save it for an opportune time, and then whip it out like a superpower. Watch the jaws drop when people realize you understood everything they said about you!
11. Pack Your Shower Shoes
You can forget a lot of things when you travel, but there is only one for which habitual borrowing gains you the reputation of mooch and team plague-bearer.
Shower shoes are a must in the minor league world. Some of the showers your feet will venture into are so nasty, the diseases you could catch while inside them could result in amputation. You wear a cup to protect the loss of certain other things while living this competitive lifestyle, don’t you? And you wouldn’t dream of forgetting your cup (though that happens too, somehow), would you? Then don’t forget the stuff that protects your feet.
Now that I’ve told you not to forget them, let me give some advice on what to do when you inevitably do.
First, if you borrow from someone, don’t go back to that person multiple times in a row. If it’s a long road series, you might need shoes eight to 12 times, and what is an easy favor the first time can became a serious annoyance by the fourth and an outright hate by the 10th. Ask too many times, and you’ll get run up in kangaroo court for the same amount a cheap replacement pair would cost you.
Which brings me to my next point…
Shower shoes are easy to pick up someplace. You play during the summer, which means Walmart has about a billion cheap plastic shoes in just about every variety imaginable.
Go cheap if you have to, but remember, a pair of Super Mario sandals or Care Bears or something else odd could make your teammates laugh and earn you some locker room cred. Hell, support the economy and buy a bunch of 'em. Your girlfriend probably has 17 pairs of her own—you can have two. It's not going to break the bank.
Finally, if you decide to go caveman style and shower without shoes, do a flesh-eating virus counterstrike after you’re done. Greg Maddux didn’t wear shower shoes most of his career, and when he was asked about neglecting them, he’d always say that everyone else was wearing shoes, so what did he have to worry about? Unfortunately, fungus comes from more than just other people’s feet.
Luckily, your trainer has a cornucopia of creams, sprays and powders that can help you treat the symptoms once you get them or stop the itch before it shows up.
If only the same could be said for some of the other rashes you can get in the minor league world—but that’s an entirely different topic.
12. Know What to Eat at a Gas Station
When you’re burning down the interstate en route to the next town, hoping to grab some zzz’s before that doubleheader against the Iron Pigs, Stone Crabs or Lugnuts, you can’t afford to waste two hours grazing the farmhands at a sit-down restaurant.
Time is always of the essence in pro ball, and managers don’t want to dilly-dally. Get something to eat, and then get back on the bus.
So when your minor league prison bus pulls into a gas station, you’ve got about 20 minutes to get something to eat, take a wee-wee and get back on board. Most of the time the bus is going to pull into a major travel stop. This kind of place has more options than your run-of-the-mill gas station, but we’re certainly not talking five-star cuisine by any stretch. In fact, most of the edible options you’ll find at a place selling food alongside diesel fuel will have the same half-life as weapons-grade plutonium.
Here are some tips on what you should and shouldn’t eat.
First, establish a few ground rules. Will it make you crap your pants? If so, don’t eat it. Will it make you fart a lot? If so, consider how much you like your teammates before eating. Will it make you hyper? Nauseous? Suicidal? Zombified? These are the things you have to take into consideration before getting back on that bus.
Remember that fat kids don’t make it very far in this game. The ratio of David Wellses to Roy Halladays is skewed toward the thin side of the bell curve. That said, yes, health is important, but if you’re eating at a gas station, forget the sanctimonious organic lifestyle. It’s not going to happen.
You might find a few Naked Juices or a banana or a V8, but the pickings are slim. Besides, if you do find something organic, it’s probably marked up compared to the non-organic equivalent. Your minor league meal money only goes so far, and you’ll probably have several hours before you’ll eat again. Choose wisely.
A smart player forages in the middle-class health food choices—like low-fat this, low-sugar that—then adds in a goody for desert. Goody foods could be any rationed item of pleasure eating. Some may scoff at the addition of a yum-yum, but believe me, in a game as psychologically draining as minor league baseball, a man needs a treat now and again.
Remember, anything that isn’t good for you but makes you feel better about yourself is soul food. Now interpret that information with the fat-kid paragraph above, and you have an equation that looks like this:
A single frozen soul food: Good
A 24-pack of fermented soul foods: Bad
Some sure winners are things like nuts, jerkies, health bars and drinks. Some misleading items are things like milk and fruit and anything on a rotisserie. While also a good protein source, milk coats your mouth and makes your breath taste like death. You’re almost always committed to buying another drink if you get milk or at least some gum. Fruits should be eaten before you get on the bus, because then you don’t have to figure out where to put the peels and cores.
And finally, I shouldn’t have to tell you that meat bought on a rotisserie at a gas station has probably been there as long as you’ve been playing.
13. How and When to Call Your Parents
At some point during your career, you’re going to have to call your folks and let them know how things are going. Whether it’s good news or bad news, this can be a tricky proposition if you have anything less than a perfect relationship with your ma and pa.
You have to remember that they don’t live the life of a ballplayer. They don’t understand that, in the minors, you’re still developing your skills, so failure is part of the process and success doesn’t mean you’re going straight to the big leagues.
They also don’t know that bad write-ups by the media aren’t the end of the world.
It would be one thing if you just weren’t calling your parents very often. They’d be hungry for details on how you were doing, but when they finally got them at least they’d be your details.
Instead, they get this secondhand information from media sources that do their best to predict what the organization is up to and how it feels about its players. Thus, when they see your name plastered across a Web page for blowing a game, they’ll think it’s only a matter of time before you’re dragging your suitcase up the driveway, released.
If you want to make talking with your folks while playing a lot easier, take the time to explain to them that they really shouldn’t go looking for details about you but trust you to tell them what they need to know.
This will, of course, be very difficult for them since they are your parents, but they must. Tell them that (and tell yourself while you’re at it) you’re no longer an athlete but a sports entertainer, and most of the things written about entertainers are only a few degrees above tabloid quality.
Next, do your best not to call home and complain about players and coaches or other various adversities you may run into during your time as a player.
For starters, it will worry your mother. She’ll want to know what you’re doing about it. You’ll say that you can’t do anything about it. She’ll tell you what you should be doing about it. You’ll tell her that you didn’t ask for her opinion and that she should stop worrying. She’ll tell you she can’t because she's your mother and if you don’t want her opinions, then why did you tell her anything in the first place?
It’s a vicious cycle that you can avoid if you just tell your mom that things are fine, you’re doing your best, and you’re hopeful of a promotion soon.
Hey, I get the need to complain about life in the minors—it’s grueling. But there are some folks whom you just can’t talk to about it. Others players don’t care that you’re having trouble coping; they just want you out of their way. Fans all want to be you, so they have no sympathy. Your mom will just freak out if you’re doing badly, and your dad may very well tell you that you need to suck it up.
Best advice: Get your dog a cell phone.
14. Where to Sign a Baseball
It’s exciting signing baseballs for fans the first time. It makes you feel like a thoroughbred all-star, the kind you always envisioned yourself being back before you inked your contract. A few scribbles can make the long bus trips and the crap-food blues disappear because, after all, it’s not just anyone’s special mark going on those overpriced gift-shop purchases—it’s yours.
You can, and will, sign everything in creation if your career lasts long enough. However, there is only one thing you should really concern yourself with signing while in the minors, and that is a baseball.
When asked to sign a baseball, there is one space you should never put your mark unless specifically asked to do so: “the sweet spot.”
The sweet spot is that little blank groove between the two seams you would grip to throw that nasty two-seam fastball that you tell all your friends got you drafted. There are two such locations on a ball, and if you haven’t figured it out, the sweet spot is the one without writing informing you which level of bush league ball you currently reside in.
Signing there will get you murdered by the manager. Most likely your manager is a nice fellow and will inform you of your error in a gentle way, but some are miserable bastards who didn’t make it to The Show and got into coaching because it was either coach or face a world where he had to rely on his brain for something other than the understanding of when to bunt, steal and sacrifice.
This little honor means a lot to him. Don’t screw it up, or he’ll search you down and exact his revenge.
If you play well enough, you’ll get to sign all the sweet spots you’ve ever wanted. Until then, settle for wedging your name in anywhere you can fit it.
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.