The fine print on a golden ticket to a future MLB career: Minor League dues, minimum wage and six roommates

By LUKE SOROKO

Arizona Sonora News

“Financial struggles are terrible, I barely make enough to break even. At one point I was staying in a two-bedroom apartment with six other teammates. We all slept on air mattresses,” said Cody Hamlin.

Hamlin is a professional baseball player.. So is Clayton Kershaw. This year, while Hamlin will make less than $10,000, Kershaw will be paid around $30 million.

The disparity is one of the curiosities of the complicated worlds of Major League Baseball, where the big league superstars like Kershaw, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ ace, make fabulous money, and where even the less valuable players make millions. In 2015, the Associated Press reported, the average salary for big league players was $4 million.

Hamlin is a right-handed pitcher for the New York Yankees Class-A Advanced affiliate, the Tampa Yankees.

Major League Baseball organizations have long had a reputation of paying their athletes prodigious sums of money — in the major leagues, that is.  But beneath this luxurious lifestyle lies a grueling process in the various levels of the minor leagues, where the pay is low and only 10 percent of ballplayers ever manage to make it to even a glimpse of “The Show,” which is a term professionals call the major leagues .

The process of being called up begins after a young player is selected in a draft. Most draftees are sent to so-called rookie ball or Class-A short season.

Most prospects are called up from Double-A and Triple-A, so these professionals have to begin making their way through the ranks.

Unlike basketball and football, your first game as a professional is not going to be in front of a crowd of over 30,000, but rather in empty stadiums that bear very little resemblance to the grandeurs of a big league stadium.

Jimmy Van Ostrand, the director of player development at the University of Arizona, was familiar with these challenges during his eight-year career in the minors.

Van Ostrand played first base and outfield in both the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals systems during his career, making it as high as Triple-A.

His eight years in the minors are not uncommon, as many players spend their entire careers in the system without getting called up to the big leagues.

“You sign what is called a uniform player contract,” said Van Ostrand, “basically it’s a six-year layout that stipulates how much money you are going to make at each level.”

Teams throughout the league’s contracts vary, but remain relatively consistent when it comes to salary at each level.

In the MLB, the league minimum for a player is $500,000 per year. In the minors, the scenario is quite different.

MiLB Graphic
Graphic by Emily Gauci, Arizona Sonora News 

The minimum  starting salary for a Single-A player is $1,250 a month, Double- A is $1,600, and Triple-A is $2,200. The pay only covers the five-month period in which the season takes place. Upon each year at a level, a small amount of money is added to your paycheck depending on what level you are at.

According to Reuters, federal minimum wage for a month in the United States stands at $1200-$1300.

This low-income lifestyle has athletes searching for other ways to earn money, whether its waiting tables or driving for Uber in the off-season.

Lack of funding for these players has created a lifestyle in which players must do whatever they can to get by.

At home games, players take advantage of post-game meals. They take left overs home to help feed them throughout the week without spending their buck. Most players stuff in apartments only designed for four people, and in Cody Hamlin’s situation, the air mattress he sleeps on does not provide him with the rest his body needs to recover.

On the road, the conditions are not any better. Hamlin recalled finishing a home game at 10 p.m. then immediately hopping on a bus to their next series on the road.

They arrived at their hotel at 6 a.m.

“We got there, ate breakfast, and went straight to bed. We were expected to perform at our game that night,” said Hamlin.

On the road these players are not able to cook healthy meals, so they turn to places like McDonald’s where they can get decent value with the money they have.

Hamlin, not being identified as a top prospect for the Yankees organization, added that he was afraid of ever facing injury from these hardships, as it may severely harm his chances of ever reaching his ultimate goal.

These hardships that thousands of players have encountered throughout the years has not gone unnoticed.

Philip Lewis, a nutritionist who worked with the Cubs’ affiliate in Eugene, said that the organization began to provide trainers and nutritionists with $20 each day to spend on each individual players’ meals.

In February of 2014, 32 current and former minor-leaguers filed a lawsuit against the MLB seeking to change the current wage structure. The plaintiffs argued that players were earning less-than minimum wage and working overtime without pay.

Although a verdict has not been reached, the players union is pleased with the progress in making change.

Perhaps the struggle is best captured by Van Ostrand.

“We all love the game, it comes down to putting in the work and overcoming the struggles.”

 

Download high resolution images here.

Luke Soroko

Luke Soroko is a senior journalism student at the University of Arizona, looking to explore a future career in sports marketing or sports journalism after college.  Luke is from Los Angeles and is a huge movie lover, watching as many movies as he can during his free time.

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