SALT LAKE CITY — For many Americans, baseball is a brightly lit, glamorous game. It’s a chance to step into a world in which grand-slam successes are met with roaring applause and little league dreams become big-time realities.
What is often forgotten is that the path to Major League Baseball stardom isn’t just a game. It’s also a career. And not all players make it to the top of their field.
In fact, a vast majority of them don’t.
“There are presumptions out there that once players are in the minors they’ll make it to the majors and (make) millions, but that isn’t necessarily true,” said Antonia Baum, president of the International Society for Sport Psychiatry.
Of the 455,300 high school baseball players in America, only 5.6 percent wind up playing on a collegiate team. Of that 5 percent, only 10 percent are drafted by an MLB team. And of all minor leaguers, only 10 percent will ever make it to the show. All of which means the odds of making an MLB roster are long.
The fact is, most professional baseball players start out as seasonal workers on minor league teams, making around $1,000 a month — plus travel stipends of about $25 per day — which comes out to less than minimum wage.
This comparatively low pay has some former players crying foul. Two groups of former minor league players have filed suit against the MLB, stating that being paid a seasonal wage violates the federal minimum wage rate. The case isn't set to go to trial until 2017.
None of the plaintiffs in the case are current minor league players, which is no surprise. Minor league players on active rosters already have quite a bit on their minds.
Between the stresses of playing the best baseball they can to surviving on a very low wage, minor league players have a lot on their minds. Add a wife, girlfriend and/or children to the mix, and playing good enough baseball to make it in the majors becomes that much more complicated. Like any career, minor league baseball players are forced to make daily, work-life balance choices in order to sustain their dreams.
The sun hangs just over the top of the stadium seats of Smith’s Ballpark. The music of Katy Perry and Maroon 5 is punctuated by the crack of wooden bats and the thump of cowhide baseballs hitting leather gloves. Frank Herrmann, a relief pitcher for the Triple-A Salt Lake Bees, sits in the dugout, hours away from a game that will be attended by around 2,000 fans.
Herrmann isn’t the typical professional baseball player in the minor leagues. For one, he has a wife and child, with one more on the way. He also has an economics degree from Harvard. At 30 (Herrmann turns 31 on May 30), what keeps him out on the field pitching is not only the singular dream of returning to the majors (he pitched for the Cleveland Indians from 2010 to 2012), but also the realization that playing baseball is still an option now and that a 9-to-5 job could come at any time.
“All my college roommates, they were making good money banking, and they told me, ‘Trust me, the cubicle will always be there, play as long as you can.’ ”
So he’s done that. This is Herrmann's 10th year playing professional baseball. He was drafted in 2006 by the Indians and got married to Johanna Rangel in November 2010. Having a family has helped Herrmann keep perspective, he said.
When the season starts, Herrmann said he has a number of difficult choices to make. For example, should he stay home a few more minutes with his family, or should he get to the park early so he can warm up his arm? After home games, he gets home late, and it's difficult to get in enough sleep to be ready to play the very next day while living with a crying toddler. But it's all difficult on the road, the guilt of being away from his wife and kids for 10-day stretches.
“It’s as tough for the kids and wives as it is for the players,” Herrmann said.
Over 2,000 miles away in Florida, Jonathan Weber has a slightly different career story. Known as a “journeyman,” Weber has played in the minor leagues since 1999. During that span, he has collected 10 minor league championship rings and an Olympic gold medal, but he hasn’t been called up to play a single game in the major leagues.
Weber attributes that to many factors. For example, Weber explains, he always sat backseat to players who had more money invested in them, he never sucked up to managers and he didn't "know the right people." But one factor Weber sees as a big help in making it to the majors is family.
“The (players) who have good people to back them and a good family and a good supporting cast — that goes so far,” Weber said.
Describing his childhood as “not all peaches and cream,” Weber believes had he grown up in a better situation and made better decisions on his way to the minor leagues, things might turned out better for him professionally.
“People told me to keep grinding — but I had kids and mouths to feed. Once my son was born, (baseball) didn’t come to me as a dream. It was reality. That’s why I’m kicking myself. Had I not partied and drank my way through college, things would be different.”
Today, Weber is divorced, with two kids. He drifts from field to field, season to season, country to country, doing the only thing he knows how. He says a call at 9 o'clock at night that will have him on a plane at 6 the next morning to play ball is not unusual.
“Is that a good way to live? I wish I still had a wife and kids (at home), but not everyone signs up for the same thing,” Weber said.
Players like Weber and Herrmann face many of the same decisions that any mid-career workers face. How long should I stick with the current position I’m in or when do I call it quits? The decisions are more nuanced than one might think.
Joseph Terach, CEO of Resume Deli, says minor league ballplayers should absolutely pursue their dream 100 percent. But they should also think of other things to work on as well.
“If you still have the fire and the support system, then you have some things going for you. You should take the time to see if you can make it work,” Terach said.
But adjusting the career pursuit to a two-sided approach is helpful for any minor league ballplayer. Just in case.
"Minor league players need to adjust (their) approach to a two-pronged approach: I'm not a baseball player who's trying to figure out his backup plan, but rather a player with two first plans," Terach said of how players should be thinking.
Of course, this line of thinking can be tricky, as neither a minor league baseball club nor a mid-level office employer wants to hear that a job applicant's passions lie elsewhere.
To help navigate those waters, Terach suggested one way a baseball player might approach another career opportunity. "I am interested in X — right now I have the good fortune of being very talented in baseball and I'm trying to pursue that, but one of my passions is X," he said.
For many successful athletes, the very thing that makes them great at what they do on the baseball diamond may hurt them in the career transition, according to Baum.
“It often takes a singular focus to succeed at sports, but that focus can also be the thing that prevents (players) from succeeding somewhere else.”
Minor league baseball players are particularly susceptible to unhealthy doses of self-doubt, Baum said. The myriad of games, travel, practice, “vagueries of the league” (lack of control in where or when a player will play) and “pressure from the funnel effect” (the limited number of players who make it to the majors), is a lot for any one player to handle.
“It’s a lot of effort and time,” Baum said, “with no promise of any return.”
But there are some ways minor league players can manage those thoughts. One of those ways, according to Baum, is perspective.
"One of the things sports psychiatrists do for athletes is help them see perspective, that they have other things in their lives going great for them besides baseball," Baum said.
Sometimes getting to that perspective can be a difficult process for an athlete. Things like a baseball family tradition or connecting successes and failures on the field to a player's own self-worth might keep players from even opening up the prospect of ever trying something else, Baum said.
"They need to seperate what they can control and what they can't," Baum said. Learning to not obsess over what is out of a player's control will help players realize how far they've already come and that playing on a minor league team doesn't mean failure, she said.
For Herrmann, playing for the Bees isn't a failure. It's a chance. Winning and losing in the minors isn't as important as staying healthy and ready to be called up at a moment's notice, Herrmann said. Like many American dads, Herrmann looks for balance in career and family. It has not always been easy, but it's been worth it.
"It's a tough balance. It can be difficult because your time is split between family and career,” Herrmann said, “but I draw strength from my family.”
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