Hustling

The pandemic wiped out the 2020 minor league baseball season as well as dozens of franchises, leaving two local athletes scrambling for income while pursuing their dreams

Like many people in this ongoing pandemic, Tyler Hill has found that he needs a side hustle.

Make that hustles.

A 2014 graduate of Delaware Military Academy, where he was a three-sport star, Hill was selected by the Boston Red Sox in the 19th round of that year’s baseball draft. Since then, he has bounced around the minors, reaching the High Class A level, including a stint in 2019 with his hometown Blue Rocks.

Then the coronavirus pandemic struck. Major League Baseball responded by calling off the 2020 minor league season and eliminating 43 franchises- — nearly one quarter of the entire system. Invitations were extended to a fortunate group of 120 teams — four for each of the 30 big league clubs.

Hill was in spring training in Arizona when he got word his summer plans had been unceremoniously cancelled. He came home to live with his parents in Pike Creek sans a club affiliation, since his contract with the Blue Rocks had run out.

Salesianum and UD graduate Kyle Hinton is instructing locally while hoping for his next opportunity in minor league baseball. Photo courtesy Kyle Hinton

“It was a tough spot to be in for a lot of guys like me,” says Hill, who turns 25 in March.

It was a particularly disappointing development for the speedy outfielder because he had put together a stellar 2019 season, ending with a .403 batting average in 21 games in a Blue Rocks uniform and helping them win the Carolina League championship.

The inequity of salaries at various levels of professional baseball has long been a subject of discussion. While Major League teams pay the least skilled player on their rosters a minimum of $563,500, minor league compensation falls well short of a livable wage. In 2019, Rookie Leaguers were getting $3,480 for a three-month season, while Triple A players earned $10,000 for five months. They are not paid for the offseason and they are not eligible for unemployment. Fortunately for these aspiring stars, an increase ranging from 30 percent to more than 70 percent was scheduled to kick in this year.

Like many minor leaguers, Hill had already developed a side hustle to supplement his princely paycheck. For the past four off-seasons, he has been a batting instructor at Delaware Elite Baseball in Newark. It’s a gig he takes seriously, and one that may define his professional future.

“When it comes to hitting, I could talk all day,” he says. “I take pride in my work [at Elite].”

He says he has instructed as many as 17 students per week. “It involves a lot of video study and note-taking,” Hill says.

He says he doesn’t teach any single philosophy of hitting, such as the Ted Williams uppercut theory or the line-drive-up-the-middle approach. He tailors his instruction to each student.

“The keys are understanding what happens in the swing and using your body properly and swinging the bat the right way,” he says. “And I don’t like to move on until I know they get it.”

He even took off nearly a year to study under Dan Hennigan, a noted instructor who owns Brain & Barrel Hitting in Philadelphia. “I see myself as a hitting instructor [in pro ball] eventually,” Hill says.

Getting Creative

Despite the minor league shutdown, Hill considers himself lucky in one sense: as part of the Kansas City Royals farm system, members of the Blue Rocks continued to be paid throughout the summer — a munificence not all Major League organizations granted. But it was quickly apparent that those checks, even when combined with his fees from hitting instruction, weren’t enough for a comfortable lifestyle. After a stint as bartender at Famous John’s Tavern in Pike Creek, Hill got creative and began a search for what he calls “different streams of income.”

One of his first moves was to reconnect with Alex Brittingham, a local entrepreneur and former Delaware Military teammate. “He has helped me a lot,” says Hill.

With Brittingham’s guidance, Hill last September established Major League Marketing, a real estate-related business.

“I generate leads and set up meetings for real estate agents and run ads for them,” he says. On LinkedIn, he describes himself as “a professional baseball player that helps Realtors in the U.S. close 2-4 new deals monthly.”

“I put my nose down and tried to work on that all winter,” he says.

Hill’s creativity didn’t stop there. “Another friend set me up as an Amazon drop-shipping store. I hope to get this going before the start of next season.”

(Drop shipping is a retail fulfillment method in which a store doesn’t keep the products it sells in stock. Using the drop-shipping model, it purchases the item from a third party and has it shipped directly to the customer. As a result, the seller doesn’t have to handle the product directly.)

In the meantime, Hill definitely hasn’t given up on his baseball dreams. In early January, he was waiting on COVID-19 test results in anticipation of flying to Florida. There, he says, “I’ll train with some buddies, take some fly balls, get my routes correct, try to get a game feel” — all while living with his host family in Margo.

At a solid 6 feet, 200 pounds, Hill boasts both power and speed. “I can play anywhere in the outfield and you can put me anywhere in the lineup,” he says. He and his agent are hoping for a minor league contract by early February.

The son of two hard-working parents (his father, Phil, was a 20-year veteran of the New Castle County Police and is the basketball coach at Delaware Military Academy), Hill is leaving nothing to chance. He has enrolled at Wilmington University, where he’ll take courses online while working toward a degree in Sports Management.

Closer Without A Team

Meanwhile, Hill’s friend Kyle Hinton is also looking for a ball club. Hinton graduated from Salesianum a year after Hill exited DMA, but unlike Hill he went on to college and a successful career as a right-handed closer at the University of Delaware. Hinton was drafted in the 16th round in 2018 by the Royals and received a $125,000 signing bonus. He stayed in the Royals system, including a stint with the Blue Rocks. He pitched for the Low A Lexington Legends in 2019, appearing in 36 games and going 3-5 with a 3.26 ERA. Hinton was released in October, the Royals ended their affiliation with the Legends in December, and Lexington is currently hoping to be picked up by another big league club.

As Hill heads to The Sunshine State, Hinton is staying near home and training at Elite and at Tiger Sports in the 76ers Fieldhouse in Wilmington. While waiting for a minor league contract, he continues to be a pitching instructor at Elite, where aspiring hurlers pay $45 per half-hour lesson. In the past, he’s held less glamorous jobs — bus boy and barback at Big Fish Grill on the Riverfront.

Independent leagues may be in the 24-year-old Hinton’s future. Four Canadian teams have contacted him, but he’s leaning toward the Southern Illinois Miners, in Marion, Ill. — members of the Midwestern Division of the independent Frontier League. He says they have shown strong interest.

If he signs, he’ll not only get a paycheck — modest though it may be — he’ll also receive the road-trip meal money of $25 a day, which is no small consideration when you’re making around $1,000 a month.

As Hinton says, “After your signing bonus is gone, you don’t make enough to do anything.”

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