For the casual fan, baseball's offseason is little more than an overhyped, slogan-riddled rumor fest with big names being thrown around like parade candy and speculation popping up from every media feed like unending weeds in a digital sidewalk.
Think back to the last couple of offseasons. Heck, think back to last offseason, when Robinson Cano left the Yankees by way of Jay Z and all of New York cursed him as a traitor and dubbed him a greedy idiot because, yeah, sure, he’d get paid oodles, but he’d never win with the Mariners—not like he would with the Yankees! Raaaar!
This 2014 season—Yankee wins: 84. Mariner wins: 87. Can I get a what-what?
Roll the clock back another year, to 2013, when Canadian wunderkind Alex Anthopoulos pulled off the trade that was going to win the Jays the World Series months before the regular season even started.
Blue Jays wins in 2014: 74—good enough for dead last in the AL East.
It’s madness, I tell you, and you shouldn’t listen to any of it. The players don’t. If they did spend even a fraction of their time trying to figure out what was going to happen to their career as reported by offseason hype, they’d go nuts.
So what do players do in the offseason? Well, that depends on the type of player you are. Activities range anywhere from endorsement commercials (Hunter Pence), sitcom cameos (Clayton Kershaw), trips back to your home country and trips to other countries, to the role of stay-at-home dad, working construction, demolition, climbing oil rigs and fighting for survival in the jungle.
First, let's talk about the players on teams who had something to play for late into October. Those guys are, if I know baseball players, still sobering up from the experience.
They put their body through the ringer to bring home the hardware, and they deserve to party like it’s 1999. Or, if they didn’t come home with the hardware and are still dealing with the soul-crushing weight of watching their dream collapse, they deserve to drink like it’s 1929. Either way, they’re going to be out of action for a while.
Physical rest is important for these long-season warriors, but so too is the psychological rest. Do you think James Shields is the same person today he was at the start of the 2014 season? Do you think Madison Bumgarner is? How about Michael Morse or Hunter Pence?
Their roles in the baseball ecosystem have shifted dramatically, and it’s going to take a while to really sit down and process what has happened. Unplugging is key. For the players in this stratosphere, they need to get away just to learn who they are again. The massages are a bonus perk.
To this end, lots of players plan cruises, vacations, trips, resort visits, hunting trips and so on. You won't hear baseball players say, “You know, I really need to decompress and process all the personal growth I’ve experienced this year," but that’s what’s happening.
And, conveniently, they can write all that psychological mumbo jumbo off under the guise of resting their bodies. Don’t get me wrong, resting the machine is of the utmost importance for a player, but if you don’t rest the person driving it, it doesn’t matter what shape it’s in next season.
You’ll get burned out, disconnected and disinterested. That’s when baseball slaps a narrative on you like, “a bad teammate," “a cancer" or “ a player who doesn’t hustle."
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending how you look at it), most players won't fall into a situation where they need to run away from the hype machine because the machine isn’t chasing them. They did their job, played their role but didn’t see postseason action or media scrutiny. For the normal big leaguer, the offseason is a recharge, "relax and enjoy the fruits of your labors" experience.
These guys have a little more bandwidth and use it to make up for lost time with the kids, follow up on some personal ventures and ready themselves for the next season at a more relaxed pace—a luxury that some late-October combatants don’t always have (although the chance to make history more than outweighs the cost).
These big leaguers will most likely come home and go into chill mode: video games in the basement, long workouts at a more relaxed “maintenance” pace.
When I was with the Jays, I remember the last month of the season as the time when everyone who wasn’t going to be negotiating a contract or wheeling and dealing endorsements would be talking about the first thing they were going to do when the season ended: play with the dog, golf until they dropped, barbecue in the backyard, dress up in camo and perforate woodland creatures. Or…
“I’m going on a cruise in Europe.”
“Why Europe? I thought you said you didn’t like Europe?"
"I don’t, but the wife wants to see Paris and, well, you know, happy wife, happy life.”
Don’t worry if you can’t relate to guys who make enough money playing a kid’s game to jet off to Europe just because they want their wife to be happy. You're in luck: The vast majority of professional baseball players won't be visiting Paris. They are known as minor leaguers, and for them, the offseason is a much-needed hedge against the harsh realities of minor league life.
When I was in the minors, I averaged $2 a day. Two damn dollars! Thus, after a season of traveling on tour buses and eating peanut butter and jelly for exploitation wages came to an end, I went home, not to rest, but to keeping working lest I go completely bankrupt playing baseball.
I took a job working demolition my first year. Then I sold televisions. Then I bathed dogs. Then I scrubbed food trucks. Then I started an eBay business. Hell, I even made candles. I did anything and everything I could to survive.
I wasn’t alone in this either. Most of my minor league brothers did everything from laying carpet to roofing, concrete and electrical work. A strange truth in life is that context is often more powerful than reason, which may be why I remember being jealous of the guys who lived in Texas during the offseason. They could work in the oil fields for $20 per hour and get paid in cash, even though there was a decent risk they’d get an appendage crushed.
I remember the spring training after my fifth offseason, in which I worked as a television salesman, private instructor and demolition cleanup man all at the same time.
I sat down at the same Padres lunch table for a cup of coffee with Chase Headley, who’d signed for a tidy sum and been to the big leagues. I asked him what he did during the offseason, and he told me, "Train with my trainer."
Just when I thought that was all he did—which was enough to make any career minor leaguer hate him—he said, “Oh, and I found this really great personal chef service that made all my meals. Really healthy. Expensive, sure, but a great investment if you’re serious about your job.”
I thought I was serious about my job. That’s why I worked so damn hard to be able to keep doing it!
This isn’t to say minor leaguers don’t travel. They do—just not to Europe. Many will head south to the Dominican Republic, South America or Mexico to play in winter ball leagues.
Winter ball pays good money, and it is cash in hand for doing what you already know how to do—play baseball. That said, you get zero rest during the offseason, and winter ball is cutthroat competition.
Most winter ball teams don’t scout players when looking for talent to add to their clubs. They look at stat lines and big league experience. This means older players will get first preference. Fortunately, many older players realize they are close to the bigs, or have enough big league time, and pass on the winter ball experience—which, despite the financial upside, can be very risky.
For starters, if you get hurt during winter ball, the winter ball team is not going to pay to fix you. It’ll just send you home and replace you. Also, weapons in the locker rooms are the norm there as many of the leagues aren’t in the safest, most politically stable locations.
Finally, it’s entirely possible to go to winter ball, pitch bad once and then get sent home the next day. I suppose this doesn’t matter as long as the teams pay up front, and most of them do, but some of them don’t. In fact, some teams will lie to you, you’ll know they’re lying to you, they’ll know you know they are lying to you, and they’ll just lie anyway.
All in all, your winter ball experience can range from well-paid offseason training to shot, broke, injured and abandoned in a foreign country. A friend of mine played in a league in Colombia that folded midseason. He was stuck there for a month! But I guess if $20 an hour to work on an oil rig with no training doesn’t sound scary, winter ball doesn’t either.
So while you gather around the water cooler to talk about how your team’s latest rumored acquisition will undoubtedly mean World Series victory in the coming season, remember that the players behind those lofty aspirations are dealing with a completely different set of variables.
Some are at shoe companies, picking out the materials for their new shoe line. Some are cleaning up their kids' vomit so their wives can finally get a break and some are waiting for the livestock to be cleared off a road in a tropical country so the team bus can get by.
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.