WASHINGTON, D.C. – The lower echelons of the minor leagues might as well be an alternate universe where the preposterous passes for normal and the ridiculous for ordinary. The stories sound farcical, exaggerated, beyond anything Bull Durham or other depictions of the minors could dream up in a fictitious realm.
“I’ve seen somebody cook chicken with an iron,” Colorado Rockies prospect Brendan Rodgers said. “Put a piece of chicken on the ironing board, press it down and eat it. In their hotel room. I was laughing. I was in awe. I didn’t really know what to think or say. I didn’t think of videoing it. Going back, I definitely would’ve videotaped it.”
Whereas the stories of the past were passed down from generation to generation like amulets, today’s find themselves transported from cell phone to social media in a moment. And nothing captures the absurdism like Minor League Grinders, an Instagram account known to nearly every player at Sunday’s All-Star Futures Game – and followed by plenty who love the raw, realistic depiction of life before the major leagues.
A photo of six twin beds jammed into one room because teams pay players far less than minimum wage? Check. A paycheck for $85.55 that covers two weeks of work? That, too. A raccoon peering out from a hole in a bathroom wall? Of course. Three guys sharing one tub? Uncomfortably. Letters from the Midwest League fining players $30 for a national-anthem standoff? Oh, yeah.
“It’s been my goal from the start to open up a window to all the minor league players,” said Blake McFarland, who started the account with a teammate last April as a Toronto Blue Jays minor leaguer and continued it following his retirement after the season to focus on his art career. “To show everyone something they see every day that’s funny, that’s interesting, that they can relate to, that they would enjoy. We wanted to start it with players who were grinders. We wanted to have funny stuff that happens only in the minor leagues. Guys sleeping on blow-up rafts. Guys walking through drive-thrus late at night.”
While McFarland’s intentions were to celebrate the shared experience of minor leaguers, he knows the subtext of the posts is obvious: the mistreatment of minor league players – laid bare in a lawsuit seeking fair wages, codified when Congress snuck language into its spending bill limiting the number of hours for which players can be paid – is a feature, not a bug.
Minor leaguers practically brainwash themselves into seeing the conditions as the price they must pay to play, a notion that finds support among those quick to remind that they’re playing a kids’ game. Kids’ game or not, the idea long proffered by Minor League Baseball that the journey is an apprenticeship is insulting to players whose organizations expect year-round dedication – and pay minor leaguers only five months of the year.
“That’s the big debate,” McFarland said. “We’re playing something we love to play. We’d rather be nowhere else. At the same time, changes do have to be made. All my friends who have real jobs, if you were to tell them how you live, it doesn’t relate to any other job. You’re not treated as an employee. With that being said, everyone loves playing. We play for the dream.”
Short of a major league debut, the Futures Game is as fertile as the dream gets for those slogging through the minor leagues. Nate Lowe started at first base for the U.S. team in its home run bonanza of a 10-6 victory over the World, and as he surveyed the clubhouse, he saw million-dollar bonus baby after million-dollar bonus baby. Those are the lucky ones, the exception to those like Lowe, who signed with the Tampa Bay Rays as a 13th-round pick out of Mississippi State for $100,000. Taxes took close to half that, and the $1,300-a-month salary in A ball last year ate into even more.
Now at Double-A, the food has gotten better than the standard low-minors fare of peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches – “the steak of the minor leagues,” McFarland said. The per diem of $25 a day sounds tolerable enough, until clubhouse dues take anywhere from $8 to $12, leaving as little as $13 for Lowe to cover breakfast and lunch.
“We are on a budget,” said Lowe, making slightly more this year than last. “We don’t eat out a ton because we can’t afford to eat out. We’re just more responsible. We don’t miss out on things. It’s just the bonus guys have nicer things. We have cars. We put gas in our cars. But we don’t put premium fuel in an Audi – or my brother put premium fuel in a Range Rover.”
Lowe’s brother, Josh, was the 13th overall pick by Tampa Bay in 2016 and signed for just shy of $2.6 million. Nate, 23, drives a 2004 F-150 with 140,000 miles on it. He embodies the grinder mentality that McFarland, who spent seven years in the minor leagues, strives to honor.
Granted, it’s much more than a $10 billion industry pinching pennies with those who would be better served with lodging, nutrition and transportation that doesn’t run the risk of impeding their growth. Grinders find a way to make those intolerable bus trips tolerable – by inflating a pool float, placing it in the aisle and treating it like a makeshift air mattress. They have their own video-game setups and wireless hotspots that allow them to play Fortnite all night.
They know teammates gnawed up by bed bugs at Podunk hotels and have experienced the wrath of brown water spewing from the faucet. They use paper plates and tape as shower shoes and fill in stripes on their pants with a Sharpie and trim eyebrows and beards with a plastic knife. They stretch and lift weights and do compulsory shoulder exercises using high-tension rubber bands in the shower because there are no other available spaces.
The grind today sounds a lot like it was decades ago. In 1997, Torii Hunter, the future Minnesota Twins star, was at Double-A New Britain. It was his fifth year in the minor leagues, and he couldn’t imagine a career in which he was going to make more than $170 million. He and his friend Armann Brown wanted to save money, so they rented a Geo Spectrum for $9.99 a day and used it for more than driving.
“We slept in the car,” said Hunter, who managed the U.S. team on Sunday. “I’m looking at the stars like, ‘How did I get here?’ We were so broke. We had a homestand for five days, and we were like, ‘Let’s save some money.’ ”
They say the same thing today in clubhouses throughout the minor leagues – and implicitly in the photos and videos they send to Minor League Grinders. The Blue Jays, McFarland is quick to say, treated him well during his career, and he’s appreciative of that. And yet the minor leagues are no apprenticeship, no 40-hour work week, not some place for mistreatment. He’d prefer them to be simply humorous, not gallows humor.
“I’m not trying to get any player in trouble,” McFarland said. “If they want to remain anonymous, 100 percent, you got it, no questions asked. I’m here for the players. This is a sanctuary for the players.”
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