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May 10 - Life in the Minors

WANTED:  Hard workers who love to be rewarded with merit-based promotions.  Must love to travel and
see the country.  Need to be comfortable honing your craft in small towns.  Uniform provided.  
Competitive salary.

I'm guessing you didn't see that when flipping through the want ads this past Sunday.

Still, thousands answer that call every year, with the promise of chartered planes, ritzy hotels and large
checks being the pot of gold at the end of the proverbial rainbow.  While some do realize that dream, far
too many others spend years riding buses and spending their summers in cities like Billings, Montana
and Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  

39,887,755 people came through the turnstiles of minor league ballparks in 2004 – an all-time record.  
This number may not look tremendously impressive when placed against the 73,022,969 that saw MLB
games last year, but it shows the following the minor league game is gathering. Many minor league
cities only have the chance of seeing big-league baseball if the parent club swings in for an annual
exhibition.  

Sitting in those seats shows people one side of the game.  No one sees how the players get to the
games, they never know what one gets paid to play, and there are no contract disputes in minor league
baseball.  All the average fan sees is a group of guys wearing their hometown duds every year, while
behind the scenes, an interesting convergence takes place – the convergence of guys on the way up,
guys on the way down, and guys who simply have no idea what the next day may bring to their career.

When the game ends, those 39,887,755 fans get in their cars and head home.  Minor league players
are not afforded that luxury.  While players at the highest level board a charter to jet off to the next
destination, getaway day in the minors involves a bus ride through the night to destinations like Kinston,
North Carolina.  Major leaguers check into the Ritz-Carlton, while their counterparts unpack their bags in
Econo Lodges and Comfort Inns.

Along for this ride are broadcasters hoping to make the same rise through the minor league system.  
One of these broadcasters is Lynchburg Hillcats Director of Broadcasting Jon Schaeffer, who is in his
third season with the Pirates' single-A affiliate.  He lives much the same daily life as the players.

“Typically, a travel day consists of leaving Lynchburg around 9:00 am and getting to another town by a
little after lunchtime,” says Schaeffer.  “We usually check in, and everyone individually gets some food
and relaxes, then the buses take the team over to the park around 3:00 and 4:00 pm.  Travel days are
long days, as the team usually takes batting practice around 5:00 pm on the road, and then plays at 7:00
pm.  A normal travel day is about 14-15 hours long.”

The players get to briefly catch their breath after this trip, but Schaeffer continues his work.  “For me,
personally, after I get to the hotel, I spend about 2-3 hours a day on my game notes, which consist of 7
pages of info on all of our players.  I do not have a researcher, but I do have an assistant that travels with
me about half the time, and does all the home games with me as well.”  Schaeffer takes his pre-game
hacks on a computer keyboard, and it is every bit as exhausting as swinging the bat.

For every Coastal Federal Field in Myrtle Beach, SC, regarded by Schaeffer as the crown jewel of the
Carolina League, there is a Pfitzner Stadium in Woodbridge, VA – a park that is 20-plus years old and in
dire need of repair.  There are as many antiques are there are cathedrals in the minors, and they all
have a story behind them.  Lynchburg's City Stadium, the park in which Schaeffer does his duty 70 dates
a year, was built in 1940, but recently completed renovation, and is now furnished with 14 skyboxes,
chair back seating, a new message center and scoreboard, and numerous additional upgrades.
With all the time invested in travel and pre-game work, one would draw the conclusion that players
receive handsome compensation for what they do.  While that may be true for Alex Rodriguez, Roger
Clemens and the like, these players receive a pittance in comparison to the salaries of those who pay
regular ticket prices to see them play.  According to Minor League Baseball's official website, players at
Schaeffer's level make $1050 per month in their first year at this classification.  They are guaranteed at
least that much if they return for a second year.  Advancing through the minors does not necessarily
guarantee one a windfall, either, as players at the double-A level earn $1500 per month, while triple-A
players earn $2150 per month.  Everyone gets $20 per day in meal money, regardless of classification.  

In contrast, the umpires earn between $1950 and $2200 per month in single-A baseball.  They advance
to $2200 to $2400 monthly in double-A, and $2500 to $3400 in triple-A.  While it may be argued that
umpires live on the road, a difference of up to double a player's pay cannot be ignored.

Life as a minor leaguer is made all the more difficult by the possibility – or lack thereof – of being called
to the next level. There are a number of factors that go into a player’s summer destination.

One such factor is a player’s draft position.  If a player is selected higher in the draft, the road to the
majors is slightly expedited, in order to justify the investment into the player.  Many high-level draft
selections have abbreviated stays at the lower levels of the minor leagues, and others skip levels
altogether.

Another factor is unique talent.  For instance, if a player is a hard-throwing lefthander, he will likely draw
more attention than other players with similar numbers, just because players of his skill set are that
much more unusual in the minor leagues.  The same can be said for a player that can play multiple
positions on the field and swing the bat well.  Detroit Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge is an example
of this; he was a shortstop and pitcher at Virginia Commonwealth University, and was converted into a
catcher during his brief stay in the Tigers’ farm system.  Inge proved his versatility at the big-league level
in 2004, playing several infield and outfield positions and occasionally catching, while still maintaining a
solid bat.

Different organizations have different philosophies on calling up players.  For instance, in the early 80s,
the Mets liked to let players come through the system as teammates as much as possible.  That farm
system yielded players such as Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry and Len Dykstra.  Those players
helped win a World Series for the Mets in 1986.

The Pittsburgh organization, says Schaeffer, takes a similar approach to those Mets teams in
emphasizing development and team building, with the same goal in mind.  “Pittsburgh rarely moves up
players, regardless of how well they are playing, until at least halfway through the season – even
extremely good seasons sometimes go without a call up. They (the Pirates) want the players to get a
certain amount of at-bats, or innings, before moving on up to the next level.”

One of the players Schaeffer specifically mentioned as being a standout on the Hillcats team, second
baseman Craig Stansberry, was promoted to Altoona when slugging first baseman Brad Eldred was
promoted to triple-A Indianapolis on May 4.  Stansberry’s name is not the first to roll off the tongues of
scouts, but he does have a collegiate national championship under his belt (he was on the 2003 Rice
national championship team), and was off to a .351 start with Lynchburg, belting three home runs and
driving in 19 in just over a month.

The final piece of the minor league experience is what the fan sees at the ballpark.  The local team is
the only game in town in many minor league cities, and going to the yard involves so much more than
just the on-field action.  Minor league games often feature innovative between-innings entertainment
such as the tricycle race (Clearwater, FL), the mascot race – in which a child from the stands races
around the bases against the team mascot (Nashville, TN), and the dizzy bat race (pretty much every
minor league park around the country).  There is also a sense of connection between fan and player at
the minor league level that could never be sensed in the big leagues.  The players sign autographs for
fans before games and never seem upset to do so, and virtually every seat in a minor league park is
right on top of the action.  

Front-row seats are available in minor league parks for what one would pay for a third-deck seat in a
major league park.  It almost never costs anything to park your car, and if you do have to pay, you can
scrape the fee out of your car’s change container.  Buying food for the family is even a relatively painless
experience in the minors, as food costs are usually one-third of what you would pay if you took the family
to a major league game.  The atmosphere is virtually never the same at different ballparks, and it is this
experience that draws many – myself included – to the minor league game.

With all of the apparent unpleasant aspects to life in the minors – the travel, the pay, the not-so-glorious
accommodations, the uncertainty of what the next day may bring – what keeps these players going?  
What, other than the obvious dream of the glitz and glamour of the big leagues, draws them onto the
bus, into a cramped hotel room, and onto a field in Nowhere, America that has likely seen its better
days?  Jon Schaeffer knows.

“I think what I enjoy most about working in minor league baseball is spending 6 months of my year on a
baseball field.  It is something that I dreamed of growing up, and I could not imagine any better way to
spend my days,” says Schaeffer.  “I think the players feel the same way, and while many of them will not
reach the major leagues, the idea of being paid to do something you love is quite appealing.  If
someone was willing to pay me to play, I would be doing it as well, for as long as they would continue to
write me checks.”