The day-to-day grind of a former 33rd-round pick

It’s early in the morning. The sound of an alarm on a phone rings through the main floor of a house. The summer sun shines through the big window in the living room. It’s time to wake up and get at another hot day.

A young man slowly reaches for the phone on the floor beside him and turns off the ringing sound. He rolls off of the air mattress that he’s been sleeping on for the past couple of months. He looks around the living room. His suitcase is in the corner; clothes scattered on the floor; his friend sleeps a couple of feet away from him in a sleeping bag on an old couch. He walks through the barren hallway. There are no pictures hanging on any of the walls. He enters the kitchen, turns on the tap, and helps himself to a glass of water. The sink is full of dirty dishes. He washes a couple of them. He walks back into the living room, quickly changes, grabs his gym bag, some other things, and yells to his roommates scattered throughout the house that he’s heading out to the yard.

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This is not what my life is like, but I think many of us can relate to these living conditions. I know what it’s like to share a house with roommates. I’ve slept on a blow-up mattress. I’ve couch-surfed. I’ve lived out of a suitcase – the fun of my early twenties. I know what it’s like to try to make a little money go as far as it can go – counting every last dime to take the TTC to work. I have been that person who has used a handful of change to get on the streetcar. I have short-changed it, too.

Living through hard times like those is hardly a unique situation. We’ve all had roommates or rented small bachelor apartments because we couldn’t find a well-paying job with the degree we worked for that put us $20-thousand dollars in debt. We’ve taken the jobs that we can get. We’ve figured out how to make it work. But, I guess it’s still the avocado’s fault that many of us aren’t homeowners though. At least our toast tastes good.

I’ve come a long way from those hand-to-mouth days of living off of $1,200 a month, which was many moons ago. Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett were Toronto Blue Jays back then and going to a Jays game cost less money than going to see a movie. I was working a couple of different part-time jobs. I was never good at juggling any of them, but they helped me pay my rent and buy some Tall Cans to drink in Trinity Bellwoods Park with my friends. I still haven’t seen the Albino Squirrel.

The truth is that I don’t want to imagine trying to live off of that kind of money again. I don’t want to count every nickel and dime to get on the streetcar. I don’t want to live in a small basement apartment, or share a house with roommates, or live in my parents’ basement. I don’t want to have only a couple hundred dollars leftover after paying my rent and bills. I don’t want to struggle to make my ends meet. I’m lucky that those days are a pile of yesterdays ago. I’m thankful that I’m not in that place anymore. Unfortunately, that place is the reality for many professional baseball players.

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People like to romanticize minor-league baseball, but there is nothing romantic about being broke. Many of the prospects that MLB fans gush over don’t have parents who are in the baseball Hall of Fame like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Believe it or not, most of these players don’t have a rich baseball bloodline. Most of these players struggle financially. They sacrifice their early-to-mid twenties with the hope that it leads to their name being written on an MLB scorecard, which more often than not, it isn’t. The reality is that only 10 percent will set foot on MLB diamonds.

Their parents sacrifice their time, money, and sometimes their homes to support their child, who has a very rare opportunity that many young baseball players dream about. However, I don’t think that those dreams included stealing food from the clubhouse just to be able to eat, sleeping on the clubhouse floor because it’s cheaper than rent, or living with 6 guys jammed in a slummy apartment.

I’m not exaggerating these conditions or making this stuff up. These are stories that I’ve heard. I have spoken to a couple of players and parents from different organizations – the majority of whom wanted to remain anonymous – afraid that speaking out won’t go over too well.

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One player who did agree to speak with me was Blue Jays prospect and Vancouver native Brayden Bouchey, who was selected 1002nd overall in the 33rd round of the 2016 MLB Draft. He isn’t currently pitching for an affiliate because the Jays are paying him to go to Driveline, which is a data-driven baseball player development program. He’s trying to gain some velocity, but I told him he should just focus on developing his knuckleball. His response to that was, ‘no thanks to the knuckleball.’

This past offseason, the Toronto Blue Jays organization did the right thing by their minor-leaguers and increased their salaries by 50% – something I hope every organization does in the future and something that every prospect deserves.

I asked Brayden if he could give me a kind of money diary to show me what it was like to live off his salary last year while he was pitching for the Lansing Lugnuts – the Blue Jays’ Low-A affiliate. I wanted to know what it was like to live off of the minimum salary.

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He told me that he made roughly $1,300 a month before taxes and expenses. After taxes, he said that he had around $1,100. His rent and utilities were somewhere around $600 a month for a 4-bedroom place with 4 people. He told me that most of the players slept on air mattresses with limited furniture in the house, and some people would live in the living room to save money.

Brayden added that last year their lease ended in mid-August because the company was trying to get the house ready for college students, which meant that in the last month of the season, he had to stay in the team hotel, which wasn’t as expensive.

In addition to rent and utilities that he had to pay, the team took $5 – $10 a day for food at the field, which is where players get a pregame and postgame meal. He was thankful that the Blue Jays stress high performance and eating right, so their home game meals were always ‘decent’. He did go on to say that some of the ‘road spreads’ weren’t good, so he had to grab some food when he got back to the hotel.

The per diem was roughly $25 a day last year. However, Brayden and his teammates also had to pay clubhouse dues, which usually came to about $40-50 every two weeks in the lower levels. After some quick math, Brayden had about $200 leftover for the month to cover his cellphone bill and miscellaneous things. Again, it’s important to note that Toronto’s organization did what’s right by increasing their minor-league salaries, but it’s fair to say that this is how many MLB prospects live.

I spend many hours watching the Jays’ affiliates. I surf from Buffalo to New Hampshire to Dunedin to Lansing, soaking in as much minor-league baseball as possible. I could get carried away and really dive into the prospect weeds and go on for pages about different players in the Jays’ system – players who the average fan wouldn’t know.

I could go on about Kirby Snead’s spin rate and how I really want a Kirby Snead tee shirt. I could go on about a prospect like Kevin Smith and his rise through the Jays’ system. I could go on about Alejandro Kirk’s power, or Jordan Groshans lightning quick hands at the plate in Lansing, too. I could go on about the disappointment that Logan Warmoth has been so far. I could go on about big Nate Pearson in Dunedin and how you should all be excited for the day that he toes the slab in Toronto because he can hit 100 on the radar gun and has been compared to Noah Syndergaard by one of his pitching coaches in Vancouver.

However, the sobering thing is that while many hardcore Jays fans like myself gush over minor-leaguers like Alejandro Kirk or Kevin Smith or Jordan Groshans, most prospects in the MiLB and their families are struggling to make ends meet. The players only get paid during the season. They sleep on the floor in some house in the slums because that’s all that they can afford. Their parents worry if they’re getting proper meals, or if they have enough money to live. And the harsh reality is that most of them won’t end up setting foot on MLB grass. A lot of them won’t make it higher than Double-A.

According to Forbes, the average Major League baseball team is worth $1.78 billion. The MLB as an industry generates $10 billion in revenues annually. And the farm isn’t eating any of that pie – it barely gets a crumb.

The fact is that Major League Baseball organizations aren’t serving any kind of breakfast for their future champions; they’re hardly serving anything at all. The only thing that MLB organizations are doing is taking advantage of these prospects, and the sacrifices that they are willing to make for the 10% chance of making their dreams come true.

I understand that life isn’t a fucking Disney Ice Rink, but I expect billionaire corporations like the MLB to, at the very least, pay their employees minimum wage. I expect the MLB to invest in its future. I expect minor-league players to have enough money to sleep in proper beds not on air mattresses, and to save a little money while they are on their road to a dream – a dream that only a few will get to live. The majority of minor-leaguers are not handed big first-round contracts. The majority are living off of a salary similar to what Brayden lived off of last year. And that’s just not right.

  • Oz Rob

    Great article Ryan. When this sort of stuff came out around the time the Jays increased their MILB pay I was appalled by the stories. The counter argument is that it’s the players ‘choice’, but it seems all wrong to me. It wouldn’t take much financial investment to make these players lives significantly better. Sorting out or providing them with accommodation would seem an obvious thing to do in the first instance. Good for the Jays for raising the bar, but it’s still a very low bar. I wonder what the average MILB career length is of a player who never makes the majors?