Life in the minors isn't easy for most

High amount of work, low pay for aspiring big leaguers

Cedar Rapids' Jason Kanzler (left) and J.D. Williams fix themselves hamburgers after their Midwest League game against B
Cedar Rapids' Jason Kanzler (left) and J.D. Williams fix themselves hamburgers after their Midwest League game against Beloit on Wednesday at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids. The team supplies a meal after for the players after games. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Alex Muren is concerned he might get promoted some day.

That sounds crazy because it's exactly what he and every other member of the Cedar Rapids Kernels need to have happen eventually. You either move up in the minor leagues or you go away.

Muren, a relief pitcher, doesn't want to go away. Yet he wonders how he'll handle Fort Myers, Fla., the next stop in the Minnesota Twins farm system.

Not from a baseball standpoint, but financially.

“Being married now, I have my wife on my health care plan with the Twins,” said Muren, the lone married Kernel. “So I'm bringing home, like, $660 a month. That isn't even a mortgage on a house.”

His salary won't change, no matter where he plays. It's about level and service time, and Muren has been in pro baseball about two years.

He says his wife is “definitely the bread winner of the family.” She's a full-time student in Las Vegas but also works an assortment of part-time jobs six or seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day to help the couple make their financial ends meet.

“We're lucky here because we have host families where we can stay for free,” he said. “But if I go up to high-A, that's probably $400 a month in rent out of the $600-whatever I make. I'll probably end up losing money after paying for food and that type of stuff. So it's like I'm not getting anything at all if I move up. I don't think people realize that.”

The Kernels have a few big-money ballplayers. Pitcher Kohl Stewart got $4.5 million to sign a professional contract with the Twins last year, pitcher Ryan Eades $1.3 million and pitcher Aaron Slegers $380,000. Pitcher Hudson Boyd signed for a million bucks in 2011.

But they're the minority. The overwhelming majority of minor leaguers aren't anywhere close to being millionaires, and they never will be.

“A lot of people who see what goes on in the big leagues don't have a feel for what goes on everywhere else,” said Kernels Manager Jake Mauer.

The minimum salary for a major league baseball player this season is $500,000. In the low minor leagues, most guys signed for the obligatory $1,000, if they were lucky, and barely make enough money during their five-month season to survive.

It's called paying your dues to get to the top of your profession. Everyone's salary at the Class A level is essentially the same, somewhere between $1,100 and $1,500 a month before taxes. Guys are not paid during spring training or extended spring training and receive no money if they are asked by their major league organization to go to postseason instructional league, either.

“I feel like the only people who know that, who realize that, are immediate family members,” Muren said. “Some people don't realize that we don't have any money at all … They think we're making, not major league money, but they think we're making a good amount.”

“They see guys like Miguel Cabrera (of the Detroit Tigers), who's making $250 million in the big leagues,” said Kernels outfielder J.D. Williams. “They think we're making millions, too, and that's definitely not the case. A lot of people who work regular jobs make way more than we do.”

No one is aware of that more than Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins. He was a 38th-round draft pick of the Twins out of Fort Myers High School in 1998, signing for $8,000.

He played 12 years in the minor leagues, getting a cup of coffee (nine games) at the major-league level with Minnesota in 2007.

“You've got two categories here pretty much,” he said. “You've got high-round (draft) guys, and then you've got guys like myself. It was a grind, it was tough from the first year I signed. Just to give you a little bit of my story, I signed for $8,000. I bought a car, a used car, and my bonus was pretty much gone. So now you start making $1,500 a month, through the season only.

“I was lucky enough to have a job (in the off-season) that I could always come back to. I still do, I substitute teach. At that time, all you needed was a high-school diploma to do it, and I got lucky that I've been kind of grandfathered in.”

Watkins' first season was spent in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League in Fort Myers. The Twins wanted him to get adjusted to pro ball, so he lived with teammates at a hotel that summer instead of staying at home for free.

Because of that, he cleared a whopping $140 a month in salary.

“What can you do for $140 a month?” he said. “You eat. If you wanted to buy a hat or a CD or something else, that was tough.”

It's like that for most of the Kernels, though they've got it a lot better than most players in the Midwest League. The arduous volunteer work of Lanny Peterson over the years has produced a top-notch housing program that is the exception, not the rule in the minor leagues.

Local billet families usually charge little or no rent for players to live with them. That wasn't the case for these guys playing Rookie ball in the GCL or in Elizabethton, Tenn.

“When I was in E-Town, I slept on an air mattress for three months,” said Kernels reliever Todd Van Steensel. “That wasn't ideal. I was in a one-bedroom apartment with two other guys. Here I'm really lucky because I have a room to myself, don't have to pay rent. That's a big plus.”

Van Steensel said he remembered seven players living in a two-bedroom apartment in Elizabethton. He told a story about the first place he lived there in 2011, one so bad the team made he and his two roommates move once they found out about it.

“I remember one of my roommates stayed in the backroom, and one night the window just fell out,” he said with a laugh. “It just fell out and shattered, right in the middle of the night. It was like, seriously, we can't stay here anymore. Staying with a family for free that helps take care of you is huge.”

The Twins pay $150 a day, with the Kernels picking up the rest of the tab, for pregame and postgame meals that are usually cooked on site. Again, that's not the norm in the minor leagues.

On the road, Kernels players receive $25 a day in meal money, which is paid by the Twins. If it's a commuter trip to Davenport, Burlington or Clinton, meal money is cut in half.

Players pay dues of $35 every three weeks to clubhouse manager Sam Holt for washing, drying and hanging their uniforms in their lockers each and every day and for being a general go-fer. That money is Holt's salary.

“I tell you what, they do a great job in Cedar Rapids taking care of the guys,” Watkins said. “There's a chef here, and they feed them before the game and after the game. That's just huge.”

Van Steensel went on Twitter last week to ask his followers if they could guess how much his most recent two-week paycheck was worth. It was $408, after taxes.

He also referred to a story from that was written by former minor and major league pitcher Dirk Hayhurst, detailing how Hayhurst feels minor leaguers are mistreated and underpaid, especially at a time when MLB is recording record profits.

Just before spring training this year, a federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of 20 former minor league players against Major League Baseball, Commissioner Bud Selig and 17 MLB clubs (the organizations the 20 players were a part of) claiming that major league teams have “suppressed minor league player salaries in violation of federal and state labor laws.”

It called for pay increases for all minor leaguers.

“It's interesting. They've brought up good points,” Muren said. “The amount of hours we're here at the park, we're not even making minimum wage.”

“I mean, we'd definitely do this for free, but it'd help to have a bit of money, considering all the hours you put in,” Van Steensel said. “I feel like once it comes out and the public realizes we don't make a million dollars a year … We're not on those big contracts like the major leaguers, they'll see that we're underpaid for what we do here. No, a lot of us may not make it to the majors, but we are assisting future big leaguers on these minor league teams who are going to make big-league teams a lot of money.”

Players spend probably 10 to 12 hours a day at the ballpark, with only a baker's dozen or so days off during the season. They make bus trips that can last as long as 10 hours, though they'll tell you commuter trips of an hour and a half four days in a row are far worse.

You ask them the obvious question. Why continue to play if you get paid virtually nothing?

Their answers also are obvious.

For Latin players from third-world countries like the Dominican Republic, baseball can be the only chance of sparing their families a lifetime of abject poverty. For others, it's an attempt at hitting the lottery.

“It's the giant carrot that's dangled in front of everybody,” Muren said. “Where you go from the bottom of the ladder to staying in five-star hotels on the road and having more money than you need to live. Definitely everyone goes through this just for the very small percentage that you'll make it and make a lot of money to provide an easy life for your family.”

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