Baseball careers often start with winter grunt work

Published 5:00 pm Thursday, March 26, 2015

FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — Long before any of that major league money starts landing in their bank accounts, most players are in a similar predicament as everyone else in the regular workforce.

Between baseball seasons there are no paychecks and bills don’t stop for the winter. So they need to find some other income.

“Especially the guys who got picked in the 10th round and above,” Minnesota Twins reliever Casey Fien said. “I signed for $500 and a plane ticket. So I had to go out and earn my money.”

He went to Costco.

The right arm that would eventually fetch Fien a $1.38 million salary from the Twins for 2015 was once used for stacking crates, pallets and boxes at the bulk retail giant’s location in San Luis Obispo, California. Drafted in the 20th round in 2006 by Detroit, Fien showed up for five-hour night shifts at the store during his offseasons until making his major league debut in 2009 with the Tigers.

First-round draft picks receive multi-million-dollar signing bonuses, but by the 10th round, players get around $140,000 in guarantees. The bonuses drop sharply further down the board.

Minor league living is hardly large. Meal money, for one, is tough to stretch beyond Pizza Hut and pales in comparison to the majors. The minimum salary for a player in Class A is $1,100 per month over a five-month season. In Triple-A, it’s $2,150 per month. Prospects on the 40-man roster make at least $41,400 annually while they’re still in the minors, but that’s a category that covers only up to 15 of the 150-plus minor leaguers in most organizations.

Unglamorous jobs outside the game can be important, humbling reminders for aspiring major leaguers to appreciate their athletic talent and opportunity. After all, this placeholder work can be a career for others.

Twins bullpen coach Eddie Guardado gained that perspective at a bait shop in his Stockton, California, hometown during the 1994-95 strike, when his major league career was just beginning.

“Spring training drags, absolutely, but guess what? It beats coming to the bait shop and shelling clams,” Guardado said.

Being hired can be another matter, though. Players are typically only available from October through February, if they’re not invited to instructional league or Latin American winter ball. They need time to train, too, so hours can be tricky.

“I interviewed about 15 places and heard back from one,” said Twins prospect Taylor Rogers, recalling his 2013-14 offseason with a Denver-area substance abuse counseling service for offenders on probation.

An internship was offered, but he couldn’t make himself available enough. So he was assigned to supervise urinalysis testing instead.

“To make sure they weren’t doing any drugs. So I would watch them do that. I didn’t have to handle the samples. I just made sure they weren’t tampering with it,” Rogers said. “It just kind of happened where I couldn’t find anything else. It’s tough to get a seasonal part-time job.”

Rogers, an 11th-round pick in 2012 out of Kentucky who pitched last year for Minnesota’s Double-A affiliate, considered joining relatives who are firefighters and carpenters, but the occupations aren’t ideal for a guy trying to stay healthy and fit for baseball.

“That kind of takes down the percentage of jobs you can find where you’re not going to wear yourself out or risk putting a nail into your finger,” Rogers said.

There’s less risk at the grocery store, but makes for amusing encounters. Working one winter at the Rainbow Foods in his hometown of Shoreview, Minnesota, Twins pitching prospect Mark Hamburger noticed the team’s minor league director in the next line.

“I was wearing my apron and everything,” Hamburger said, smiling. “He was like, ‘Mark Hamburger! What are you doing here?’ Then I said, ‘Well, you know I didn’t really get too big of a signing bonus, so I’ve got to do stuff,’ and he was like, ‘Oh, nice to see you.'”

Former pitcher Garrett Broshuis, who spent six seasons in the San Francisco Giants system, dabbled in personal training while making minor league money, and spent a couple winters with a cognitive psychologist on memory research. His ballplayer friends varied widely on work. One sold women’s shoes at Macy’s over the holidays. Another worked for a dog-walking service. Then there was the Jimmy John’s sandwich delivery guy.

“On a bike he bought off of Craigslist,” Broshuis said. “Apparently the brakes didn’t work too well, so it didn’t seem too safe.”

Sometimes, staying in the sport is best. Fien dabbled in pitching lessons to supplement the warehouse work, for example. Others try to plant the seeds of a sustainable second career.

Miami Marlins pitching prospect Pat Urckfitz started his own hunting calls business three years ago. Yep, just like the bearded Robertson family on the reality show “Duck Dynasty.”

Beaver Creek Game Calls sells handmade (by Urckfitz himself), hand-tuned callers for duck, goose, deer and turkey hunters. The shop is open four months a year between baseball seasons. His partners take the calls to trade shows around the country.

“At first I started making them for my friends. Then the word got out about them, so then I started selling them to people,” Urckfitz said. “If I was doing it year round I would be all right.”

Baseball won’t last forever, after all.

Twins prospect Alex Meyer was a former first-round pick by the Washington Nationals who didn’t need the winter money so much, but two years ago took substitute teaching assignments for $63 a day to connect with his Greensburg, Indiana, hometown.

“It shows you hard it is to earn $100, when there’s people out there who work paycheck to paycheck,” Meyer said. “That’s a real thing, so it definitely makes you understanding of the opportunity we have in this game to take care of your family.”