‘That’s what we live for,’ says one Blue Rocks player, as he and his teammates take Minor League hardships in stride
Minor League ballplayers share homes with strangers, travel by bus, stay at motels, and, in many cases, earn little more than minimum wage.
But even after another late-night bus ride, still nursing the aches and pains from the game he finished just before hitting the road, Nick Heath has his eyes on the future. The Wilmington Blue Rocks outfielder acknowledges the hardships of Minor League ball, but he has no complaints.
“This is what we do,” he says. “This is what we live for. We take it as it comes.”
Heath and every other player on the team are spurred on by visions of the Major Leagues, in this case the Kansas City Royals, parent team of the Single A Blue Rocks.
“It’s an everyday grind,” is the way Manager Darryl Kennedy describes the reality of the minors. “Every player plays to get to the big leagues.”
Kennedy says he doesn’t know what percentage of Blue Rocks have made it to the Majors, but he admits the odds aren’t good. Well-known Blue Rocks who did make it include Olney (Pa.) High School graduate and Delaware resident Jack Crimian, fellow pitchers Robin Roberts and Curt Simmons and outfielder Elmer Valo in the 1940s, and, more recently, Johnny Damon. Zack Greinke, a former Blue Rock and Royals pitcher now playing for the Arizona Diamondbacks, was on this year’s All-Star roster.
The website Bleacher Report confirms Kennedy’s rather pessimistic observation. In 2012, its analysis indicated that a player drafted in rounds 11-20 (of a total of 40) had only an 11 percent chance to reach the majors.
Even if they play well, Blue Rocks players will probably have to work their way through Double A and Triple A ball before getting the call from the Royals.
Meanwhile, they make do with relatively low pay. First-year players who get the standard contract earn $1,100 a month. That’s the same as working 38 hours a week at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
Some players do receive hefty signing bonuses. Blue Rocks Centerfielder Blake Perkins earned $800,000 when he signed with the Washington Nationals in 2015 (he was traded to Kansas City and assigned to Wilmington in June of this year), and Heath received $100,000 when he inked a Royals contract in 2016.
“For the first time in my life, I could be independent,” says Heath, a speedy presence in the outfield, where he plays all three positions. (He may have inherited some of that quickness from his mother, then named Kim Kilpatrick, who was an Olympic sprinter in 1988.)
Winning the Mental Game
Kennedy, who played minor league ball in the ‘90s, is something of a father figure to the players, offering advice about mental and emotional life as well as baseball.
“It’s fun for me to give them the advice, whether mental or physical, that gets them to the next level,” he says. At other times, his players just need a pat on the back to let them know someone cares.
The 49-year-old Kennedy knows about the mental game, the drive it takes to be one of the 40 men on a Major League roster (25 on the active roster). In his playing days, he was all-in on baseball, playing without a net, so to speak. Having a contingency plan, he says, was like giving himself tacit permission to fail.
Getting to know how his players live is important to Kennedy. That’s a big reason why he has agreed in the past to coach winter leagues in Venezuela. It’s helped him understand the life of Latino players, who are beginning to dominate both Minor League and big-league rosters.
“It’s a whole different level of stress,” he says of foreign players, for whom the team holds English classes.
As for personal relationships, Heath says some girlfriends or wives follow their partners through the minor leagues. It’s not easy, but a good partner understands and respects the sacrifices players make, he says.
Some players are more or less married to the game, which can be a problem once their career is over.
“If they’ve been playing for so long it’s like, ‘Hey, what do I do now,’” says Heath, who has a psychology degree from Northwestern State University in Louisiana to fall back on.
Life as a Minor League player has gotten better since his day, Kennedy says. For one thing, he says, “I think the food’s better.”
Back then, post-game grub was peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Today, the team has a nutritionist who can help players plan their meals.
The pay, however, hasn’t improved much.
No Fuss about Low Pay
Kennedy made $850 a month in the early ‘90s, which equals about $1,600 a month in today’s dollars. That’s similar to what players at this level earn today, according to a story earlier this year in Forbes about player salaries. The team doesn’t say how much the players make, but Heath says that figure sounds about right.
“I definitely think people assume that we make more,” he says.
One explanation for low pay in the minors is that these players are being paid not as professionals, but for something of an extended tryout. The league has said it considers them to be apprentices.
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 passed in December includes a passage exempting Minor League players from laws about overtime pay and the federal minimum wage. Though players are not paid hourly, even 40 hours a week at minimum wage would net them slightly more than the first-year league minimum contract of $1,100 a month. Overtime, considering their long hours traveling and training, would be another concern for the league.
Still, even if they’re not thrilled with the pay, players generally don’t complain about it. Heath prefers to note the perks, like food, training and a gym where he can work out.
“Some guys think we get paid just fine, some not enough,” Heath says. “I can’t make a fuss about it either way.”
Fellow outfielder Perkins, who estimates the base salary for the Carolina League is about $1,300 a month, says pay isn’t an issue.
As for lodging, players generally stay with host families arranged by the team. Some, like Perkins, stay with people involved in the organization, while others stay with volunteers.
To show their gratitude, the Blue Rocks host picnics for host families as well as a party in its Diamond Club.
Perkins says some hosts charge players rent, though his does not.
On the road, players pay a lodging fee to the away team for setting up accommodations. When the Blue Rocks host a team, they generally put them up at the Quality Inn & Suites Skyways on Highway 13.
No ‘Off’ Switch
The off-season is not a time to put baseball aside, or even primarily to earn money to supplement their baseball income. For many players, the desire to make it to the big leagues shapes their lives.
Heath and Perkins say they take a bit of time, a matter of weeks, to rest their bodies after the 140-game season. Then it’s back to the weight room, and, later, to “baseball activities,” as they’re called.
Most players take off-season work, Perkins says, but Heath stays with his parents in Punta Gorda, Fla., and focuses on training virtually all year long.
Despite the hardships, the players accept the tradeoff willingly, even gratefully.
“I love what I do,” Heath says. As for the struggle, he says, “I feel like I signed up for it.”
Meanwhile, there are small pleasures, even at a Fourth of July away game in Lynchburg, Va., far from friends or family.
“At the end of the game tonight there’ll be fireworks,” Heath say before that game. “If we win, I’ll watch. If we lose, I’ll probably just enjoy listening to them. It’ll be a fun game, a packed house.”