As Spring approaches, so too does a new year of baseball. For rookie ballplayers, this season of birth and rebirth is intrinsically linked to their own dreams – an opportunity to touch immortality feels within their grasp. However, behind every clutch at-bat and inning-ending double play is a harsh reality that most never see.
For every Trea Turner and Michael Fulmer, there are countless ballplayers, close to 80% of those drafted, who will never see the bright lights and roaring crowds of a Major League ballpark. For these athletes who often live well below the poverty line, playing professional baseball in the minor leagues is a sacrifice, as opposed to a realization of the fantasies forged on the sandlots of their youth. Players often find themselves sharing small apartments with teammates, sleeping on floors and relying on leftover food from the clubhouse in order to stock their refrigerators. Some players, particularly those who come from impoverished nations, such as Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, live temporarily with families thousands of miles away from their own kin.
It is perseverance in the face of these conditions that often separates those with mere talent for the game from those who are ready for “the show”. According to Tim Kendall, a Toronto baseball scout and instructor, a positive attitude and driven work ethic is something that scouts look for when evaluating talent.
“It’s one thing to be able to throw ninety-plus or run a sub-6.5 sixty,” says Kendall. “But how many guys are willing to sleep on an air mattress and survive on peanut butter and jelly while also being in the gym or cage seven days a week while they wait for their shot?”
“It is the makeup of the player,” says Kendall. “That is often the deciding factor in whether or not a player is drafted. If you’re looking at a kid out of high school, you want to talk to his coaches, his teammates, his parents, teachers – anyone who can give you an insight into their character. How often is he in the gym? What are his grades like? Is he able to balance his social life with baseball and academics? The last thing you want is to waste all this time and energy on someone who’s going to flame out as soon as he realizes that being a pro ballplayer isn’t all chartered flights and endorsement deals.”
Indeed, players often do succumb to the rigors of life on the road.
“For many of these guys, especially those drafted out of high school, this is their first time away from home,” says Toronto’s Tim Kendall. “They just can’t cope. One day they’re having dinner with their parents, the next they’re on a bus with a group of strangers on the way to a town they’ve never heard of. It’s even worse for international signings who usually have a language barrier to deal with as well. When you stop and think about it, it’s another one of the ways this game can break your heart.”
Pursuing one’s dream of making it to the majors doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition. The financial realities are that very few players get a large enough signing bonus that sets them up adequately for the future especially if those players have dependants. That’s why so many are electing to take a college scholarship rather than signing out of high school.
Career counsellor Joseph Terach of Resume Deli says minor league ballplayers should absolutely pursue their dream, but “need to adjust (their) approach to a two-pronged approach.” He advises players to have a parallel career trajectory that allows them to succeed in another field. Terach says it’s about having a ‘backup plan’ so much as having two number-one plans.
As Kendall points out, “one injury could mean the end of your playing career, so you need to have something to fall back on. Whether it’s a degree or a trade or some other other skill that you can transfer into the workplace, you need to keep your expectations in check and realize that the chances of making a living playing baseball are slim.”
Ultimately, talent may only be one key to baseball success. You have to have the desire to succeed.
“It’s just a matter of wanting it more than the guy in the locker next to you,” Kendall said.