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While America celebrates apple pie and baseball, minor league players grind out their living chasing the dream

Megan Rowen arrived at the ballpark just before first pitch, settling in with her in-laws to watch her husband, Ben Rowen, and his Buffalo Bisons teammates play Game No. 84 of the season. There will be only a few more games she can watch in person as her six-week summer vacation ends soon, returning her to San Diego and her classroom full of seventh-grade science students.

It wasn’t that long ago when her salary as a teacher kept her and Ben afloat. The sidearm relief pitcher was making minor league minimums through the first four years of his professional baseball career, barely enough to house and feed him, let alone Megan who stayed mostly in San Diego to teach.

But it was in service of the baseball dream and passion for the game. And while the financial struggle has lessened now that Rowen is in Triple A and on the Toronto Blue Jays 40-man roster, the money is still carefully managed.

“Financially there’s a little more wiggle room,” Megan said. “We also bought a house instead of renting so that money is going toward something. But still you’ve got to be smart. It’s not guaranteed. Tomorrow it could be done so you have to take it day by day and enjoy every day.”

Nothing, the colloquialism goes, is more American that baseball, apple pie and the Fourth of July.

But as the nation celebrates the iconic notion of Americana that lives on the baseball diamond, the legions of players in the minor leagues continue to grind out a living for love of the game and the dedication to a dream.

The price of chasing the baseball dream came back into focus last week when the House of Representatives propose legislation called the “Save America’s Pastime Act.” The bones of the bill would exempt minor league baseball players from the Fair Labor Standards Act, meaning they would not be subject to rules such as minimum wage.

Major League Baseball, which pays the salaries of all players in affiliated baseball, issued a statement of support saying: “for the overwhelming majority of individuals, being a Minor League Baseball player is not a career but a short-term seasonal apprenticeship in which the player either advances to the Major Leagues or pursues another career.”

That phrase “short-term season apprenticeship” got under a lot of people’s skins.

While that’s a pretty good description of how Major League Baseball treats its players in the minor league system, if a player wants to be a big leaguer, he best not approach his craft as a short-term seasonal apprenticeship. No, if he wants an MLB pay day, he best be all in.

“It’s funny, my brother has come out this weekend and he’s like, ‘It’s a real job. I haven’t really seen you much this weekend.’ It’s kinda tough,” said Bisons’ reliever Ben Rowen.

It was 2:20 Sunday afternoon and Rowen had just emerged bathed in sweat from a session at the Coca-Cola Field weight room. He arrived about 1 p.m. with game time not until 6 p.m. While he was lifting, other players were in the basement tunnel of the facility, getting extra swings in the cage to work on their hitting. Early work, it’s called. And it’s an imperative part of the day.

“And there’s a whole other piece to it in the offseason where there’s a lot of training hours that go in that people don’t realize and they’ll never understand until you go through it,” said second baseman Andy Burns. “But this is a job where you’re doing something for 10 hours a day and it adds up and it’s such a long season. It’s tough and you learn quick in your career how to stay healthy and stay on the field and what you do need to do and what you don’t need to do.”

You learn how to handle your money, too, or else you won’t survive the early years of professional baseball.

Most players get a modest signing bonus. Some use it up all at once. Rowen said his was used to buy a plane ticket so his wife could join him in Spokane, Washington.

Andy Burns

Andy Burns

Other players use their bonus to live on while playing Class-A ball, where monthly salaries are around $1,300 a month.

“My first four years my wife and I were kinda living off her salary as a teacher and getting by,” Rowen said. “It’s kinda tough that way. Just finding places to rent, living on air mattresses year after year. I have one in my car just in case if I need it still. Just piecing it together, eating a lot of PB&Js.”

Burns, too, got by on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before games in his early Class-A days. He makes more in Triple-A and has a more steady paycheck on the Toronto Blue Jays roster. But as you go up the minor league system, players not only make a little more money but have to spend more, too, as the cost of living rises from small Class A towns to bigger Triple-A cities.

“It’s extremely difficult. It’s in a lot of ways unrealistic,” Burns said of making ends meet in the early years. “If you don’t sign for a good bonus it’s nearly impossible. But even at the higher levels, even last year here being on the minor league minimum which I think was $2,400 bucks,” a month “for me, to find a place in Buffalo, the cost of living just goes up, the dues go up all that stuff.

“So one of the years I actually made the most money was in Lansing in low-A when I was making $1,300 because my apartment was $300 bucks and there was $50 dues for the whole year. Here, it’s $50 in four days. It’s tough but at the same time it pushes people to keep going and get to that top level.”

While the financial aspect is challenging, it’s something many players see as part of the journey.

“I think at the end of the day it builds character,” Burns said. “The strongest survive and one of my buddies, his dad who played minor league baseball said baseball is a war of attrition. Just whoever can outlast the other people, they’re going to be the ones to make it to the top. After living it, I think it’s pretty accurate.”

 

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