Where Tim Lincecum Has Been Hiding

When Tim Lincecum took the mound earlier this month hoping to bring his career back to life, it had been a year-and-a-half since his final game in 2016. It was a cold, gray Thursday afternoon in Kent, Washington, at a warehouse just south of Seattle, and there were questions whether he would once again perform like the man nicknamed The Freak—the 5'11" flamethrower with long brown hair, who for a long time had a face that didn't need a razor, who racked up two consecutive Cy Young Awards and three World Series rings. A year-and-a-half ago, his fastball had slowed to the mid-80s—hardly the 99 mph that he threw as a rookie—and now Tim wanted to see whether he could be, if not his old self, at least something close to it.       

The entire affair was held away from the public eye. This was, apparently, per Tim's wishes. Just some 20 scouts. Tim. Agents. A few clients and employees of the facility. And Chris, Tim's father. Tim dressed in athletic gear—sneakers, leggings, shorts, T-shirt and a hat—and looked strong. His fastball topped out at 93, impressing several scouts. In the coming weeks, Tim would consider multiple offers. On Tuesday, he signed a one-year deal with the Texas Rangers.

Afterward, Tim left in a gray Shelby Ford Raptor, heading north, the direction of Madison Park, a village near Lake Washington. A few years ago, Tim sold his $2 million penthouse on the top floor of Escala, the glitzy downtown skyscraper, and bought a place near the lake. Madison Park feels like its own little town, bordered by the lake and shrouded by the hills and their towering firs and pines and contorta trees.

It's where Tim Lincecum has been hiding from the world.


Down by the lake, on E. Madison Street, near a bathhouse and stretch of grass that becomes a small beach, there's a bar called The Attic. It's situated farther back from the sidewalk than the other buildings on the block. A small evergreen tree stands out front; a rustic red fence ensconces a private outdoor patio.

Inside, the bar is big and feels like a sports pub. A University of Washington banner hangs from the ceiling; a screen located behind the bar displays all the beers on tap. Dark brown leather seats line the walls; the smell of fries and beer wafts through the air.

Tim is a regular here. "He comes in all the time," said Colleen, a bartender with a big smile and light brown hair. "Nice guy. Down-to-earth." The former ace is a good tipper, she went on, and he has a warm demeanor. Tim often stops by with friends and talks baseball with the local patrons. Last fall, he watched the World Series on one of the half-dozen or so TVs that are mounted on the walls. "[Tim's] just laid-back as can be," Elliott Cribby, a friend since high school and teammate from the University of Washington, told me. "He can take a room full of people and make it really, really happy."

The people at The Attic are friendly, but cautious when outsiders try to ask about the star pitcher next door. "We're pretty protective of Tim," Colleen said. "If he was in here, you'd probably never even know it."

That kind of atmosphere couldn't be further from what used to happen to Tim at Seattle bars. One night, not long after the Giants won the World Series in 2010, a frat guy recognized Tim, who was in town hanging with a friend, and within the hour, the bar was packed with people asking for autographs and taking selfies. When Tim went for pizza, the people followed him there and climbed light poles to catch a glimpse.

People love Tim because he wasn't just dominant—he was a joy to watch. He always seemed happy and confident. His pitching motion was unorthodox and violent, and a delight to behold: his leg kicked high toward the sky, arm at full extension, his torso uncoiling with such torque he often had to fix his belt buckle. And he didn't stride from the rubber like most pitchers—he launched off it, leaping toward home.

Cribby said he always knew Tim was going to be big––and used to tell him as much. The thought seemed to make Tim uncomfortable. "He just wants to live life, like a normal human being," Cribby said. One time, during their senior year of high school, Cribby told Tim:

"You're gonna have a huge future." Tim shook his head. "Naw—then that just means ya'll are gonna be big, too," he said, dismissing the thought. "I'm just like you guys."

Cribby told me that Tim frequently went out of his way to prove that he and his friends were "all in the same realm."

"Yeah," Tim would admit to me later. "That's just how I've always been."

In Madison Park, many of the locals are adamant that Tim is one of them. Colleen waved at an older man with extraordinarily curly, gray hair, a thick beard and a scarf down on the other end of the bar.

"Like, this joker's a regular, too, and it'd be weird for people like you to come around here asking about him," she said. The guy raised his bottle of beer. "Same for Tim. In here, he's just another regular," Colleen said. "Because that's all he wants to be."


The world learned of Tim's comeback in December, when Rockies pitcher Adam Ottavino posted a picture of Tim playing catch at Driveline Baseball. Tim's dark brown hair was cut short, he had some scruff on his chin, and he was wearing a green Nike T-shirt with the sleeves cut off, revealing a startlingly defined physique.

He had been training with Kyle Boddy, who founded the facility in 2012. Boddy's techniques are cutting edge; his individual training regimens draw on everything from his kinesiology research to cameras and motion trackers to simple weighted balls and other workout tools—plus, of course, good old-fashioned strength and conditioning.

Boddy, who is in his mid-30s and has two children, is a beefy man with dark hair. He describes himself as a former card-counter with an affinity for hacking. At Driveline, he works with everyone from major leaguers to college players and kids. His client list includes marquee talent, such as Cleveland Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer, who recently threw a ball 116.9 mph.

When I heard that Tim was training there, I reached out to Boddy hoping to catch a glimpse of Tim in action—or at least just see the facility itself. He refused. "All media requests regarding Tim are denied," he wrote in an email. "Tim's agent has made it exceptionally clear, and we'll faithfully carry out the orders." After a few emails back and forth, Boddy then put me in touch with Mike Rathwell, the Driveline CEO. He also notified a lawyer.

In some ways, Driveline is built like a fortress. It is located in a warehouse industrial park and looks like a sprawling workshop. A smaller corporate office is tucked behind a few warehouses rented by various companies, while the larger research lab and training center are nestled into the middle of the lot. A skinny kid works the desk in the training center's lobby and functions as much like a guard as a receptionist.

Driveline is just but an extension of the people in Tim's life, who have helped him keep the outside world away. Tim's father Chris––who is himself somewhat of a recluse—is another one of Tim's human shields. Chris used to happily do interviews, but now he, too, isn't one to be bothered by journalists. "I quit doing media a long time ago," he told me over the phone. "It's hard to know who to trust."

It took me three calls before Chris finally picked up the phone. When he did, we only talked for a few minutes. Tim was surprised that I got his dad on the phone at all: "He actually picked up?" he said, shocked.

Even as he deflected, Chris seemed to hint at his son's rising stock among major league teams. "I wanna let all this s--t settle," he said. "All this dust flying around. With all these scouts—it's just been crazy this week, and now he's lookin' like he's gonna sign with someone, so that'll kick other dust all up. Call me on Tuesday or something. And if I don't pick up, just leave a damn voicemail."


So why would Tim want to come back to the national spotlight, away from the protection of the people of Madison Park? Cribby thinks that it is Tim's intense drive. "This has nothing to do with the money," he told me. "It has everything to do with a personal vendetta against everybody who kinda wrote him off." Cribby told me that the chip on Tim's shoulder has been around since he was in Little League. "‘You're just too small, Tim.' And now, ‘You're not gonna hold up, Tim.' That drives him," Cribby continued. "That fuels his fire. This is all about him wanting to compete."

I thought about this during my three days of getting shot down and ignored by most people I could find who knew Tim. My last night in town, I pulled up at a Tex-Mex restaurant down the block from The Attic. While sitting at the bar eating a quesadilla, I unexpectedly spotted Tim at a table in the middle of the restaurant with two friends. He was wearing shorts, leggings, a navy Team USA jacket and backward black snapback cap, with some hair poking through the gap.

I considered paying their bill or buying them a pitcher of margaritas—possibly earning a few minutes of facetime—before deciding I didn't want to interrupt. When they finished eating, the thought of people wondering about Tim's whereabouts compelled me to follow them outside. I found Tim squatting on a bench like a catcher, scrolling through his phone, waiting for his friend to get the car.

When I introduced myself, Tim became noticeably tense—his shoulders clenched up under his jacket—but he surprisingly chatted with me for a couple of minutes. He was an attentive listener. When I made a joke, he laughed. He said he didn't remember his agent passing along my interview request.

A voice called Tim's name from the street. A blue sedan pulled up. As we parted ways, I asked Tim about his comeback and mentioned the theories his father and Cribby offered—that money didn't matter, that Tim just wanted to compete again, to prove himself again. Tim said that's all true. This is about seeing what he can still do. "That's the only reason I'm doing this," he said. He grinned. "Not for guys like you."

          

Brandon Sneed is a writer-at-large for B/R Mag and the author of Head In The Game: The Mental Engineering of the World's Elite Athletes. His writing has previously appeared in Outside, ESPN The Magazine and more, and has received mention in The Best American Sports Writing. Follow him on Twitter: @brandonsneed.

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The Make Baseball Cool Again Commission

The Kid is pushing 50. The only baseball player whose silhouette ever made sense on a sneaker is, believe it or not, already the father of a professional athlete—and Ken Griffey Jr.’s son...is playing football.

It’s been seven seasons since Griffey hung up the backward hat, and more than a year since Nationals slugger Bryce Harper wore a different kind of hat with a new kind of mission on it: MAKE BASEBALL FUN AGAIN.

Which, yeah: But is it cool?

Over the first half of the MLB season, B/R Mag canvassed the game, seeking ideas to rejuvenate America’s pastime for our Instagram afternoons and the Snapchatted summer of 2017. The result: some bold proposals of our own, plus a proper introduction to Hunter Greene, who has already—with apologies to The Kid—been called a combination of LeBron and the Babe, at just 17 years old.

But for a new generation of baseball fans still searching for a successor to Griffey (if they haven’t already given up in favor of LeBron or Steph or one of the NBA’s many GOATs in our midst), we talked directly to some of the coolest, most outspoken role models in Major League Baseball today and asked them a dozen simple questions.

They hit us back with questions of their own: A DJ at every ballpark? A ban on stats? Custom cleats? Two strikes and you’re out? Sounds cool to us.

Which, yeah: But does Mike Trout have swag? Maybe not, but a lot of today’s baseball heroes do, including all seven of these guys—one legit legend and six would-be legends in the making. That’s not including Harper’s potential second career as a host on the Food Network. —The Editors (Interviews by Scott Miller and Brandon Sneed)

    

‘SOME DAYS ARE GOOD, SOME DAYS ARE BAD’

Question No. 1: A segment of people say baseball isn’t cool anymore. Do you think there is anything to that?

DEXTER FOWLER, St. Louis Cardinals outfielder: I think it’s just perspective. But at the end of the day, if the fans don’t think it’s cool, then I guess it’s not cool. But there are ways to make it cooler.

KEN GRIFFEY JR., Hall of Fame outfielder: Baseball’s always cool. I just don’t think kids are learning the game of baseball.

DAVID PRICE, Boston Red Sox pitcher: A lot of baseball players think it’s cool, and the audience that we have think it’s cool. It might not hit every audience, but I don’t think there’s a single sport that’s going to hit every audience.

MAX SCHERZER, Washington Nationals pitcher: If you play football, you’re just going to scramble up your brain. We’ve seen the long-term consequences of that.

ADAM JONES, Baltimore Orioles outfielder: Baseball’s 162 games in 183 days. Some days are good, some days are bad, some days are ugly. In football, the whole world can concentrate on that Sunday. Basketball, they play 82 games, but they get days off. We play a lot more games.

MOOKIE BETTS, Boston Red Sox outfielder: Some people may think that probably because it’s not as fast-paced, there’s not as much action going on as in some other sports. But I think it’s just as cool as all the rest of them. It’s just something different.

BRYCE HARPER, Washington Nationals outfielder: I don’t know if I hear that at the big league level. I think MLB does a pretty good job, and the players do a great job of really trying to do what we can to spread the game.

     

Question No. 2: What makes baseball cool to you?

GRIFFEY: It is fun. My dad has always said, “It’s a game. It’s a game played by grown men. But it’s still a game.” The only thing that changes from Little League to high school to college to minor league ball to big league ball are the people in the stands. The game still stays the same.

BETTS: As a player, it’s that you have to focus for three hours, but it’s short bursts of focus. In other games your mind is constantly going, and it gets you drained a little more.

FOWLER: The flair of the guys. Obviously, it’s not an easy game to play. And when guys go out and make it look fun, that’s cool.

SCHERZER: With the NFL all we do is talk football. Whereas baseball we play it every day, the whole league plays every single day. It’s the only league that does it that way.

PRICE: Our diversity. The different type of people you get to play with, the people you compete against. Every clubhouse is so diverse. It’s got to be one of the most diverse sports out there.

JONES: I’m not looking for a cool factor. Cool? I just think the strategy—the mentality of this game—can’t be matched.

    

Question No. 3: What does it mean to you when you hear “Make Baseball Cool Again”?

GRIFFEY: I’ve had college and pro football players say, “Baseball’s boring. I don’t like going to a game.” But I get them close enough. I get them on the front row. And now they’re looking at the manager. They’re looking at the coaches. They’re looking at all these things that happen. And they go, “This is just like every other sport.” I go, “Absolutely.” I mean, there are so many things that go on from pitch to pitch that people don’t look at, because they don’t get a chance to see it.

PRICE: I think players should get to express themselves more with the way that they play. If you’re from Puerto Rico, Venezuela, wherever you’re from, I think it would be really cool if we could express ourselves with our shoes, with our cleats. I’ve said that for probably about three years straight now. Kids are paying $200, $300 for a pair of shoes now, whatever it is, and for us to be able to have cleats that express us, that express where we’re from, that tell a story, I think that’s what we should be able to do.

JONES: To me it just means getting rid of all these stats. Everything they’re throwing at us nowadays: You hit a home run, this was the exit velocity—who gives a crap? The ball was a home run. You can hit a ball 110 mph off the bat and you’re out. I can’t discredit the actual data, but, to most of us in this game, it’s complete eyewash. But somebody from Harvard or Yale or Tufts or one of those schools is going to get a job in baseball that is not even their field, but they love the game. But when you step between these lines, education means absolutely nothing. That’s the part you can’t measure. But they’re trying.

SCHERZER: What needs to be cool? I like the game where it’s at. Pitchers are better than ever, hitters are hitting home runs at a higher rate than ever. You’re getting to see some baseball played at its very, very best. You have young stars. You have everything you want as a fan.

     

‘I CAN WATCH MIKE TROUT PLAY ALL DAY’ 

Question No. 4: Who are some of the coolest guys in baseball right now?

GRIFFEY: Adam Jones. Mike Trout—I know that he’s pretty laid-back, but I think he’s a great ambassador of the game of baseball. He does show excitement, whether it be on the basepath, or hitting a home run, or robbing somebody. He has it in him. He is one of those guys that baseball needs to embrace, along with Bryce Harper. I mean, there are so many things that Major League Baseball could capitalize on.

FOWLER: I would have to start with myself, obviously. No, there’s a lot of cool dudes. You look at the Manny Machados, the Mike Trouts, the Giancarlo Stantons, obviously Aaron Judge. Those are the guys of our game because they’re good, just to start off. But also they go out with some swag. Manny has swag. Myself, I play with swag, with having fun. You always see a smile on our faces.

PRICE: Mike Trout. He’s cool. Obviously everybody knows how great of a player he is and all that, but it’s just the way he carries himself. You wouldn’t be able to tell by the way he plays the game that he’s the best player in baseball. He’s a generational player, and he acts like he’s the 25th person on the roster. That’s the way he treats everybody. To me that’s extremely special.

JONES: Hmmm. Cool guys to me, obviously the best player in baseball—Trout—followed by Harper. What they do between the lines is nothing short of amazing. Obviously I get to see Manny Machado on a daily basis; he’s special. Playing in the WBC, I got a chance to see players I don’t get to see often. Christian Yelich is one of my favorite players—as a 25-year-old he batted third for Team USA with a lot of big-name guys and held it down like no other. [Paul] Goldschmidt, the man works tirelessly at the same thing. That’s why he’s unbelievable. Brandon Crawford is one of my favorite players. I love the flow with the hair—he’s got real big league hair. Nolan Arenado, intense. Daniel Murphy—that whole Team USA opened my eyes.

BETTS: I like watching middle infielders. Like Francisco Lindor—you just see his style and how he goes about the game. Jose Altuve has fun and enjoys it. I’m maybe a little biased because I like middle infielders, their swag and whatnot.

SCHERZER: I can watch Mike Trout play all day. I can watch Miggy [Cabrera] hit baseballs all day. I get front-row seats with Zim, Murphy and Harp every single day [Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy, Bryce Harper]. Trea Turner is pretty exciting. I mean, the arms across the league, guys keep elevating their games higher and higher. Obviously when you watch Clayton Kershaw pitch, it’s unbelievable.

HARPER: I think a lot of the younger generation does a great job. The guy who retired last year, David Ortiz, he had a flair for the dramatic, of course. One of the coolest guys out there with gear and things like that is Manny Machado. He’s got some nice stuff. Kris Bryant has some good stuff. Players who go out and try to get their styles to where they want it to be.

   

Question No. 5: For the haters, people who say baseball is not cool, what do you think makes them say that?

JONES: They can’t play it; that’s probably why. Most people like to talk bad about things they can’t do.

GRIFFEY: I don’t get, “It’s not cool.” I get, “Why’s it take so long?” And I go, “Well, if you look at it, it’s right around the time of a football game.” They go, “What?” I go, “Just go ahead and time a football game and a baseball game.” [Football] is like 12 minutes of actual action.

SCHERZER: I don’t know. I appreciate the NFL, I appreciate the NBA, the skill sets those guys have. Hockey. They’re unbelievable on skates, with the puck. It’s so much fun to watch. I just know the things we can do on a baseball diamond, day in, day out. You watch the league and you’re seeing phenomenal baseball players in front of you.

PRICE: A lot of people don’t know the stars in baseball. Aaron Judge could walk down the street—probably nobody would even take a second glance at him. I think baseball needs to do a better job marketing its stars. It’s something we’ve talked about for quite a while. I’m sure they’re trying to do that, but they can still do a better job. Paul Goldschmidt could walk in right now and half of our team would be like, ‘Who’s that guy?’ He’s one of the best players in baseball and he could walk down the streets of Boston and I don’t know if anybody would recognize him. I really don’t.

HARPER: I think you come to watch baseball, and if you’re a true fan, then you enjoy watching baseball. MLB tries to change this and change that, speed up the games, but baseball’s baseball. You can’t change it. It’s America’s pastime. It’s the greatest game on earth. I don’t really want to change it that much.

     

‘MORE MUSIC’ + MORE KICKS + TWO STRIKES AND YOU’RE OUT 

Question No. 6: What could make the game better or cooler?

GRIFFEY: Baseball in general has to do a better job of showing the fun side of the sport. We don’t show the guys making a mistake and somebody laughing about it. The MLB Network does a good job. But when you talk about entertainment, you’re gonna go to the NFL Network or you got Charles and Shaq and Kenny on TNT saying funny stuff. We just don’t have the personalities now to compete with those. That falls on everybody. It’s our job to promote the sport, whether you’re playing now or you played 40 years ago.

FOWLER: MLB puts all this stress on uniforms and stuff. I’m a big sneakerhead, so I feel like if we could change up the shoe game a little bit, let guys be a little more free, that would help. Because at the end of the day, fans are watching the game. And to see us, the way we play and what we wear, that’s a big part of it.

SCHERZER: We keep harping on pace of play, and there is something to it. I think, really, the simplest thing is, you’ve gotta crack down on the pitchers, and the way you do it is incentivize guys to work quick and not leave the mound. Fine them if they do. For me, I was taught that, and I think it actually helps my teammates because it allows me to work a little quicker and the guys behind me playing defense are on their toes a little more. But too, it just helps dictate the pace of the game when a pitcher gets the ball and is right back on the rubber.

PRICE: More music. That is what is really cool about the NBA. Like they had that game...when the Warriors were playing—they had an announcement on Jumbotron there’s not going to be any replays, no music, we’re just going to enjoy the pure sounds of basketball. I don’t think anybody liked that. Music does a lot for people. Just to have that rhythm. It’s not even the words that are being said. It’s just the beats, the rhythm of it. It just has a really good flow for people trying to do something athletically.

HARPER: I think when you’re looking cool is when you’re hitting homers and playing well. Those are the cool things. When you look across and you see Corey Seager hitting the ball nine miles or having a great at-bat against a lefty and hits the ball in the gap. Those are the cool things to me. Machado hitting one in the upper deck at Camden Yards. Seeing Clayton Kershaw strike out 20 or Max Scherzer doing the same thing. That’s what brings fun to the game. I think a lot of people are drawn to how guys play or what they do.

    

Question No. 7: What do you wish would change about baseball?

GRIFFEY: There are kids, African-American kids, who are playing baseball, who could play in the big leagues, who are in less fortunate situations, so scouts will never see them because they are not playing at these showcases. So I think that’s the conversation that needs to happen. There are tons of kids who can play this game who may not get the chance because of the area that they live in.

HARPER: I’d probably change the pitch clock back to the normal thing. I don’t enjoy coming in from right field and having just two minutes to get my stuff on and get into the box.

PRICE: It would be cool if two strikes were a strikeout, three balls could be a walk—it would speed the game up. Baseball wants to speed the game up, and yet they want more offense. It doesn’t work like that; I’m sorry.

SCHERZER: Get rid of the dropped third strike. If you’re bad enough to swing at a pitch the catcher can’t catch, then why do you get first?

FOWLER: They need to have a DJ at every ballpark. Get some good music. But they probably think it’s a distraction. You know, baseball’s so old-school.

    

Question No. 8: Do you even watch baseball on TV?

GRIFFEY: Yeah. TV does the game such an injustice. They only show the pitcher and catcher. They don’t show the movement of the infielders. They don’t show the movement of the outfielders. It’s either the pitcher, catcher, guy who’s on base. On the little split-screen. They don’t show everybody. They don’t show the manager relaying the signs in. And how strategic this game is. [Watching football on TV], you got guys drawing stuff out on the board. “That’s what he’s doing here because of this”—they don’t do that in baseball.

HARPER: I don’t. I play and watch the Food Network. I’m good.

PRICE: No. If I do, I watch it on mute. Absolutely. Half the time they don’t even talk about what’s going on in the game. I don’t know. Broadcasters either forgot how hard the game is or they didn’t play and they don’t know how hard it is.

FOWLER: I think sometimes you gotta put the TV on mute because you don’t want to hear some of the guys, just because some of what they’re saying is wrong. But I think telecasts need to be more upbeat and there needs to be more swag in the booth as well.

JONES: Yeah. Big Padres fan. Get all of them stats off the TV, man. A guy gets a base hit, I’m like, OK, man, talk about the base hit. Talk about his approach. They don’t talk about his approach because they don’t have the right guys to talk about it. They just know about a stat.

BETTS: No. I’m a big basketball guy. I’ll watch a basketball game. I play baseball for eight months every year, so I try to shut my mind off from baseball sometimes just so when I get back to the field I’m refreshed and ready to go.


GET MORE FROM B/R MAG’S “MAKE BASEBALL COOL AGAIN” SPECIAL:
Inside the Fabulous Life of MLB Prodigy Hunter Greene >


‘LEAVE IT UP TO THE NERDS’ 

Question No. 9: How many casual fans are being driven away by sabermetrics and stats?

PRICE: Baseball players don’t even understand that stuff, so there’s no way the casual fan can understand what is being talked about if we don’t get it.

GRIFFEY: No matter what you do, you still have the eye test: “Can this kid play baseball?” Because the two things you can’t measure are human heart and human error. Every day, your body changes. We’re not machines. So every day, something hurts, something twinges, something’s tight. We’re not loose every day. That’s why we play the game.

FOWLER: That stuff is wrong sometimes. And people stop watching the game and start going to the stats. You leave it up to the nerds, I guess. They do the whole fielding-range thing. Like do they realize that there’s wind, that’s there this and that? There’s a lot of variables I don’t think they take into account.

    

Question No. 10: What’s causing all the home runs this season—and how far they’re being hit?

PRICE: Statcast is completely wrong. The ball Aaron Judge hit on top of the batter’s eye in Yankee Stadium, Statcast has it 435 or 445 feet. That ball’s every bit of 500 feet. Could be something going on with the baseballs. The ball they tracked Chad Pinder against us in Oakland, I’ve never seen a ball go that far in Oakland, not in BP watching Miguel Cabrera or J.D. Martinez or Yoenis Cespedes. I don’t even know what it was, but it was 500 feet. If it said 499, I’m telling you it’s false.

There’s something going on with the baseball—that’s for sure. The difference between a Triple-A baseball and a big league baseball is ridiculous. Ridiculous. We were doing the test when I was making my rehab starts: sitting there with both balls—you can just feel the difference, the way some of them sound and the way some of them come off the bat.


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‘SOCIAL MEDIA IS ALMOST EVERYTHING’ 

Question No. 11: How much can social make baseball cool?

BETTS: You get to see players in their personal life—and it makes it a little more cool, seeing them during the game, knowing what they wore to the field that day or what his spikes really look like or what his glove actually is. It is just a different way for guys to interact with fans and let them get to know us and realize that we’re normal people.

JONES: I get people saying all kinds of things to me in all kinds of nasty ways on social media, and all I say, I’m just trying to do my job. I just try to tell people, Trust me, we’re frustrated for you, we’re frustrated that we didn’t get the job done, we’re frustrated that we struck out, the pitcher is frustrated that he made a bad pitch, the defense is frustrated it made an error—trust me, we’re frustrated, too. Probably a little more frustrated than you because it actually is helping or hindering us in terms of this is our livelihood, this is our job.

HARPER: I try to do the best I can to put things out there. You control those situations. Those are the fun parts of it. You’re able to really control what you want out there and how you want to go about it. I want to try to do the best I can to connect and try to get that younger generation, because they do enjoy the social media aspect of it. That’s huge for me, that social aspect.

FOWLER: The time we’re in, social media is almost everything. The young kids and everybody else, that’s what they are looking at. And if we’re not present on there, they don’t really know who we are.

     

Question No. 12: Should players engage more on social?

SCHERZER: Social media is dangerous for baseball players. Things can get taken out of context so fast. You can say something you don’t want to say. It’s dangerous.

JONES: Recently I’ve tried to disconnect myself when it comes to social media and sports talking because, at the end of the day, people are going to agree with you or disagree with you. I try to put up things that are uplifting, but people don’t want to talk about that. Put up something with baseball and people want to talk about that.

GRIFFEY: I think social media has allowed the players to be able to say things that maybe didn’t come out right the first time and say what they really meant. I think that it keeps people fair and honest.

BETTS: I always say you have to give something to get something. And for people to get to know me I may have to post pictures and whatnot, but then you’re going to get the people who say ‘You suck’ and those type of things, too. It’s just a part of it.

PRICE: If I was a kid and my favorite player has a good game, and if I tweet him after the game and he replies back or favorites my tweet, it’s essentially like you just had a conversation with him. I couldn’t imagine what that would do for me. To me it’s the way it should go. It’s not always the case, and I understand that. There are over a million-and-a-half pitching coaches and whatnot all over social media. It’s easy. This is an easy game. Yeah. You come do it.


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MLB Prospect Casey Thomas’ Gym Rat Heart, Cool West Coast Vibe Lost at Just 24

Jaycob Brugman lined a ball into the gap sometime last Monday afternoon at the Oakland A's spring training facility during the A's extended spring training game against the Cubs. He rounded first base hard, but the outfielder cut the ball off and he thought better of going for second and made his way back.

He started taking off his batting gloves to hand them to the first-base coach, a short guy about 5'9" and maybe 160 pounds. The coach had shaggy brown hair and a goatee that didn't quite connect, which made him look a little like a pirate. Captain Morgan, the guys called him, or The Count of Monte Cristo.

"So," Casey Thomas said, giving Brugman a stern look but taking on an exaggerated laid-back surfer drawl, "you really did get slower since high school, huh?"

Then Thomas, a rookie shortstop playing the role of first-base coach with full commitment, grinned, and Brugman threw his batting gloves at him. Thomas called Brugman a jive turkey, and they both laughed.

A few hours later, when everyone was going home, Casey was tired; they all were tired. It had been a long day: They'd gotten to the park at close to 6 a.m. and now it was creeping on 4 p.m., and much of that time was spent outside in the Phoenix heat. But Casey was still making people laugh, smiling and happy to be a baseball player and looking healthy as ever.

Later that night, Brugman got a phone call.

Casey was dead.


CASEY THOMAS WAS 24 years old and just starting his pro baseball career, a shortstop in his first full year in the Oakland A's farm system.

What happened, exactly, nobody will know until the autopsy results come in a few weeks. From what people who know the family have heard, it doesn't sound like drugs or foul play or anything of the sort—almost worse, it seems like a random stroke of horrific chance.

Thomas lived in Phoenix with his parents. He'd grown up there. When he left the facility, he went to his mom, Kristy's, house to go swimming. They spoke on the phone that afternoon; she was on her way home from California with his stepdad.

When she arrived home early that evening, Casey was on the floor of their bathroom. It looked like he'd just passed out. He was still wet from swimming.

Best guess anyone has so far is an unknown medical condition, or maybe something to do with the searing temperature.

"Just a weird natural thing," says Mitch Sokol, a veteran scout and a close Thomas family friend, echoing what several folks told B/R Mag. "Maybe an aneurysm, maybe a heart thing, maybe it's heat related. Some of these young kids have to sit there and work in this heat and play all summer long, and it gets really tough. But to be honest, I don't know. Nobody knows."

Teammates say he seemed fine all day at the field and even when he left. Brugman says, "I don't remember what it was exactly now, but he had us going—I was laughing really hard."

The A's declined to comment beyond a brief statement in which Oakland executive vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane said all the appropriate and expected things, that they were "devastated" and calling Thomas "a wonderful young man and teammate" who "will be missed by all in the A's organization."

This sucks for all the obvious reasons—because he was so young; because there's no clear reason yet; because if it truly was a random act of death, then what does that mean for everyone else?—but for those who knew Thomas, there's a clear level or two of extra heartache.

Casey was the kid you weren't sure could make it but were thrilled when he did. The underdog who gives everyone else hope.

And by all accounts, Casey Thomas was the kind of ballplayer who, from his first days playing baseball to his last day on Earth, reminded people what baseball is all about—what sports are all about, and maybe even what life is all about.


ONE OF CASEY'S FAVORITE mottos was "own your flow," inspired by the long hair his coaches were always trying to make him cut—and a good way to sum up his general approach to life.

Thomas' back-and-forth with Brugman while coaching first base on the last day of his life was how he spent most of his days, or at least his favorite ones: on a baseball field, doing baseball things, making teammates laugh. "Everyone in the Oakland A's organization loved him," Brugman says. "He created laughter every day, and brought nothing but smiles to everyone's faces. He kept it loose on the field, and made everyone around him better."

He wasn't in the lineup that day, and for most guys that means taking pains to stay in the dugout and the shade—it was 95 degrees, an average Arizona spring day—but Casey coached first, even rolling his pants halfway up his calves to rock the "dirty mids" look for his socks and "taking coaching way too seriously," Brugman says.

"That's the stuff that could turn around a bad day, and that's exactly what Casey would do to people—make a silly joke just for a laugh. He would say things kinda like in a sluggish, kinda stoner voice—he was always joking."

Brugman was thrilled to see him this spring. They'd played together in Little League and high school, and Brugman loved him back then, but they went their own ways and lost touch. Then Brugman strained his calf in spring training, so he was assigned to extended spring for a month—and there Casey was.

They reconnected "like there was no time lost," Brugman says, adding, "My injury was a blessing in disguise."

Beyond that, Brugman was just happy his old friend had made it to pro ball. "I didn't know he was drafted," Brugman says. "I guess I just assumed he stopped playing. He didn't play for a top-tier college, and usually those guys just weed out and stop working hard. When I saw him—it was just a true testament to his work ethic because it's not easy to get drafted and it's not easy to be in pro ball."


CASEY'S FATHER, TOM THOMAS, is a scout for Oakland, but one of Tom's best friends, Washington Nationals scout Mitch Sokol, says that even without that connection, if Oakland hadn't taken Casey in the 34th round last year, then someone else would have. His only weakness was the one thing he couldn't control: He was small.

Sokol says Casey reminded him a bit of Dustin Pedroia. "People tried to replace Dustin," Sokol says. "Nobody thought he was big enough, they didn't think he threw enough, they didn't think he ran enough, but you look at him today. And that's the kind of player Casey was. He's a competitor, you know? And I think that's the best thing you can say. Good day or bad day or somewhere in between, that's the best compliment you can give a player. 'That guy competes.' And he did. He got the very most out of what God gave him."

Casey grew up around the game, going to clubhouses and hanging around big leaguers since he was a kid thanks to his father's profession, but he had to grow into the ballplayer he became.

And that path wasn't easy.

After getting cut from the team at Yavapai Community College (in Prescott, Arizona), Casey transferred to GateWay Community College in Phoenix, where coach Rob Shabansky says he "gave him a chance" because he knew Casey's dad. Casey's grades weren't good—he was nearly ineligible, by Shabansky's recollection. He told Casey, "Look, you want to stay in this program, you better get it done in the classroom. You're smarter than what you're doing, and you're going at it pretty lazy right now."

His grades were good after that. "He liked to be challenged," Shabansky says. "And at the same time, he wanted to prove you wrong."

He also won the starting shortstop job , and in time, became their leader.

"He was like another coach for us," Shabansky says. "Not only on the baseball field but academically. He would get on guys for their grades. That's pretty rare."

He stood up for the team, too, sometimes so much that Shabansky had to tell him to leave the umpires alone because he wasn't the coach, and he was going to get himself ejected.

"I still remember playing in South Mountain…" Shabansky says, telling another story of how, in the bottom of the ninth, South Mountain scored the game-winning run on a fly ball—but the runner at first didn't tag up, so Shabansky told the guys to stay on the field. Casey took the ball and stepped on first and told the umpire they were appealing.

The umpires conferred and said they weren't changing the call. Casey didn't move and told the umpires they didn't know what they were talking about. South Mountain players came and tried to take the ball from Casey and tell him to get off their field. Casey did not oblige. "Almost caused a bit of a skirmish," says Shabansky. "He was awesome to be around."

"He was a leader," former GateWay player Ryan Tomita says. "But he didn't use the position he was in as an excuse not to do work—he viewed his leadership role as an excuse to do more work than expected."


AFTER GATEWAY, CASEY WENT to Texas A&M-Corpus Christie—filling coach Scott Malone's need for a shortstop. As much as his baseball ability, Malone remembers something else, too: "He wasn't the best-looking guy on the team, but he carried himself like he was. I remember him talking to girls way too good-looking for him. He had that quiet confidence. He didn't have a problem going up and talking to the best-looking girl, and that probably made him the baseball player that he is."

After his junior season, Casey's career almost took a downturn again going into his senior year when Malone called Casey into his office. "I told him," Malone says, "I was bringing in a shortstop, bigger, stronger, faster. I told him he could work out at short all fall, but I'm bringing [someone] in to take your job and moving you to second."

Casey said, "No, coach. I'm your shortstop. That's my position."

"OK, hotshot," Malone said. "You can try, but I'm bringing this guy in with every intention of him taking your position."

Malone laughs. "Casey was our shortstop. He just outplayed him."

When Malone got the call from Casey's father, Tom, on Tuesday morning, he went looking for the school's athletic director to tell him the terrible news. But first, he saw the school's compliance officer and told him. The man broke down, pulling off his glasses and crying, and then spending the rest of the morning wandering in and out of Malone's office to talk about Casey.

Malone says everyone around the school has been like that, the most random people you would never think Casey knew breaking down over the news.

The Islanders had a road game that day. A lot of the guys had played with Casey, who graduated in 2016. Malone told them on the bus. He doesn't remember exactly what he said, but it was something like: "Casey wasn't fake tough. He was real. To sound like that old coach—kids these days, there's a lot of fake tough right now. Everybody's got Twitter and Snapchat and they want to give off a persona that's fake tough. And I've been telling these guys, Man, don't let that be important to you. If you haven't started saying I love you to your mom or dad or siblings, it's time. This is just a game. The relationships you make, that's what we all take away."


IN HIS FINAL DAYS, Casey was experiencing an emotion somewhat foreign to him: Worry.

Casey's professional baseball career got off to a somewhat lackluster start, but it was a start. Drafted last summer in the 34th round, Casey hit .258 with 18 RBI in 37 games for Oakland's rookie league team in Arizona.

After spring training ended this year, the A's didn't given him a minor league assignment, leaving him stuck in Phoenix in extended spring training.

Brugman felt for him and said that Casey worked hard, and coaches saw that and they liked that, and that he'd for sure at least go to Oakland's short-season team in Burlington, Vermont, like Brugman had a few years earlier. He told Casey that he heard the coaches saying good things about him, about Casey's amazing hands, about how "he always got hits—line drives all the time." And how after most of those hits, coaches shook their heads, unsurprised, saying, "There's Casey finding holes again."

But still, Casey worried. Not a lot, just some.

It's a natural and common emotion for minor leaguers, especially ones on the bubble. Many worry that they might be wasting their time, that maybe they should pursue another career rather than invest such important career years into a dream that begins feeling more like a trick. Minor league baseball life is a poverty-stricken grind. The working conditions are brutal, the hours long, the pay (mostly) terrible.

They don't get paid at all, in fact, to be at spring training or extended spring training, only getting a per diem and a little extra if they don't live in team housing.

Many minor leaguers' lives are spent, as Brugman puts it, in "some random little city" and "going from town to town on a crappy bus" usually for long rides on endless roads in between.

 

In fact, some 2,000 former Minor League Baseball players have joined a class-action lawsuit against Major League Baseball and its organizations over it all.

But that wasn’t Casey's worry. Brugman remembers Casey saying, "Minor League Baseball—you grow up hearing stories about how it was a grind, and they all say it sucks, but when you look back, they have amazing stories, and that makes you who you are."

Casey was thrilled that over the last couple months, playing baseball had helped him make a "wad of cash," Brugman says—which was really maybe a few hundred bucks from squirreling away his per diem and the housing stipend.

"He was living his dream, really," Brugman says.

Brugman and Sokol and Shabansky and Malone are but a few of dozens of others like them who have had much to say about Casey over the last few days. Casey Thomas lived like he knew he was lucky to be where he was—on that field, afforded the luxury of being able to dream of playing a game as a career.

Casey also knew the odds against him having a long and illustrious baseball career. He told Brugman that whenever it did end, he'd be fine. He'd own his flow, maybe go to scout school, take after his father.

"He had his priorities straight," Sokol says. "It comes God, family, education, then sports. And I'm not saying it has to be a distant fourth. It can be a close fourth. But you can't get them turned around, or you're going to have some problems in your life. And I think Casey understood that."

So no, Casey wasn't worried about life the way a lot of other minor leaguers sometimes are. What Casey was worried about, rather, was that the A's would assign him to their rookie team in the Arizona league again—that, Brugman says, he "would not be able to leave."

Before baseball ended, Casey wanted more than anything else to truly know that terrible, great minor league life, to play in some random little city for next to nothing, to ride from town to town on a crappy bus, because it’s the games you remember, and it’s the relationships you make that you take away—not the long, rough road in between.

   

Brandon Sneed is a writer-at-large for B/R Mag and the author of Head In The Game: The Mental Engineering of the World's Greatest Athletes (out now from Dey Street). His writing has also appeared in Outside, ESPN The Magazine, SB Nation Longform and more. He has received mention in The Best American Sports Writing. His website is brandonsneed.com. Follow him on Twitter: @brandonsneed.

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This Is What It’s Like to Chase Your Pro Baseball Dreams…For 12 Bucks an Hour

Kyle Johnson brought his wife and their two young daughters with him to spring training this year, here in Port St. Lucie, Florida. It was about $3,000 more expensive than in 2016, when he crashed on a friend’s couch in Jupiter, 35 miles south, to save money.

A speedy 27-year-old outfielder, Kyle—like all baseball minor leaguers—did not get paid to work here. He did not get paid for extended spring training either, or for the fall instructional league.

But Kyle didn’t care anymore. He’d given so much of himself to baseball, perhaps nothing more than the six months he has sacrificed, each of the last five years, working away from Susan and the girls, seven-year-old Adelyn and two-year-old Channing. Cost be damned—this year, Kyle wanted some semblance of work-life balance. He wanted his girls with him because this year felt different.

For one thing, he’d finished last season at the top of the Mets’ farm system, as the starting left fielder for the Triple-A Las Vegas 51s, and more than once, he felt like any day he would walk out of that minor league locker room for the last time, the old buses and grind traded in for the dream he’d been chasing all of his life.

For another, hey, at least having his daughters here saved some money on daycare.

And then there was the part where he’d done what agents have been advising minor leaguers not to do—at least not if they want anything to do with the bigs ever again: Kyle had just become the first active minor leaguer to publicly declare his part in an ongoing class-action lawsuit against Major League Baseball over unfair wages and unjust labor practices.

So, yeah. Spring training would be a little different this year.


Walk around the stadium here during a big league Florida Grapefruit League game, ask the fans how much they think the minor leaguers scrimmaging on the back fields make, and they’ll guess anywhere from $50,000 to $500,000 per year. Ask 14-year-old Liam Turner from Perth, Ontario, who dreams of pitching in the bigs one day, how much they’d have to pay him to pitch in the minors, and he’ll say, “Nothing.”

Anyway, Liam is closest at the guessing game: In five years as a minor leaguer, including his time in Triple-A, Kyle Johnson has never been paid more than $11,500 a season by a baseball team.

Not unlike young Liam, a player with a pro baseball contract doesn’t care about the money in the beginning. A player with a shot at the bigs—a player like Kyle Johnson—just wants to play.

The Los Angeles Angels selected Kyle in the 25th round of the 2012 MLB draft. They gave him a $5,000 signing bonus, which came to $3,100 after taxes, most of which he spent on an engagement ring for Susan. He was 22 years old.

Right away, he got shipped to the Angels’ short-season team—the entry-level tier of any MLB organization’s minor league system—in Orem, Utah (population: roughly 91,000) and began his professional baseball career. He played well that summer, but the reality of what lay ahead of him quickly snapped into focus: His first paycheck for two weeks of work was about $420.

Back home, old college classmates were starting their careers in finance, pulling down $60,000 a year. By the end of his first season as a pro ballplayer, Kyle had made maybe $2,500.

Kyle did the math. His salary worked out to around $35 per game—maybe 12 bucks an hour.

This, he said to himself, is not anything close to what I thought it was going to be.

It almost never is for any of the 1,200 minor leaguers drafted every year, even though MiLB.com spells it out clearly: $1,100 a month is the maximum contract for every first-year player.

That offseason, Kyle interned at Northwestern Mutual and seriously considered never playing baseball again. He graduated from Washington State after a good college career as an outfielder—he hit over .300 his senior year as the Cougars’ leadoff man and was second in the Pac-12 in stolen bases—and left with an economics degree and a minor in business. He was smart. So was Susan. And she was big-hearted, too, serving as an outreach coordinator who helped victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse.

Kyle and Susan talked. Should I keep playing? And they decided, yes, he should. He should see where it went and show their daughter how to chase dreams.


Call around minor league baseball, ask dozens of guys for their war stories of trying to get by to make it to the show, and you’ll hear tales both funny and sad, all at the same time. Stories of six guys cramming into a two-bedroom apartment. Stories like the one about the 6’4”, 230-pound pitcher sleeping on an air mattress, looking forward to the long, cramped bus rides just because, if nothing else, a hotel with a real bed waited at the end.

Guys are afraid to unionize. ... These guys are chasing a dream, and they are afraid to stick their necks out.” — Garrett Broshuis, attorney

Sometimes, to save money, minor leaguers will stay with “host families” in their team’s city, which breeds its own genre of stories. There are tales of delightful, grandparently hosts. But then there are the stories of “cleat-chaser” cougars on the prowl, of Sports Dads. And most host family stories are always a little depressing. Because there’s no escaping the weirdness that is being a grown man and professional athlete—and yet also being so poor you have to live with a stranger just to do your job.

In each of Kyle’s five summers on the road as a pro player, for the Orem Owlz, the Savannah Sand Gnats, the Binghamton Rumble Ponies and more, he estimates he’s sent more than half of whatever he’s made back home for daycare alone.

The rest disappeared into rent and food and “clubhouse dues”—money for the clubhouse managers, known as “clubbies,” who handle player laundry and pre- and postgame food spreads, which are more like cheap sandwiches (peanut butter and jelly, maybe deli meat on a good day or perhaps a sloppy joe) and plain potato chips. Sometimes, these professional baseball players just ate leftovers from the concession stand. And the road food wasn’t much better, with just a $25 per diem.

When he finally came home to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, each September, Kyle worked whatever odd jobs he could find. He started a side hustle selling high-end baseball gear. He made most of his money giving kids baseball lessons.

As the years ticked by, 2012 becoming 2014 becoming 2016, mostly it was Susan who kept the family afloat, working two, sometimes three, jobs, making maybe $30,000 a year. Without her, Kyle couldn’t have kept playing baseball at all. Their friends didn’t understand why Kyle still drove a rusty maroon 1999 Subaru or why he wouldn’t pick up the tab at dinner.

So they did the math again.

Until this year, major leaguers—with an average salary of $4.38 million per year—were getting a per diem of $105, enough to eat steak for dinner instead of fast food or leftovers. (A new collective bargaining agreement cut that to $30 per day—though it also required home teams to provide their visitors with freshly cooked meals free of charge in the clubhouse, and all teams must use dietitians and full-time chefs to improve nutrition.) Players on the 40-man big league rosters make the minimum of $535,000 per year. If Kyle stayed in Triple-A, he’d make $2,400 per month for a grand total of about $12,000 for the season.

He didn’t even want to think about how much he could be earning if he’d just started in finance.

Stick with it long enough, with enough good luck, and maybe Kyle would see big league money, or at least the median Triple-A salary of $5,000 a month—but sometimes he felt like a fool.

Being a professional baseball player, the economics major said to his wife, is costing me money.


All of the math, the frustration and the heady questions led Johnson to Garrett Broshuis, a 35-year-old lawyer from St. Louis spearheading a class-action lawsuit against Major League Baseball over minor league pay.

Long before he was a lawyer, Broshuis was an All-American pitcher at the University of Missouri. In 2004, the San Francisco Giants drafted him in the fifth round and gave him a $160,000 signing bonus. Within two years, he was married and already watching his money slip away—but what bothered him most was what his teammates were going through.

Broshuis remembers one fellow player in the Giants farm system in particular. He arrived from Venezuela, a teenager riding high on promises made by a "buscone," an unsanctioned scout the likes of which prowl Latin American countries to prey on poor, young talent, convincing them to sign contracts and to fork over half their earnings. The boys sign them freely, having been promised millions, and their families and neighborhoods and villages send them off with celebration.

Broshuis watched his teammate struggle to find even $20 a month to send back to his pregnant girlfriend.

While he was still playing—Broshuis lasted about six years, the last of them in Double-A and Triple-A purgatory with the Connecticut Defenders and Fresno Grizzlies—he began studying for the LSATs, poring over law books during the long bus rides. He left baseball in 2009 and went to the Saint Louis University School of Law, where he finished as valedictorian.

In the years before he came back to baseball to sue it, Broshuis learned a lot.

He learned that minor league working conditions and salaries may well violate the Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires employers to pay workers at least minimum wage up to 40 hours per week, then overtime beyond that.

He says he learned that MLB “would likely argue that it can do this” in part because it classifies minor leaguers as “seasonal workers.”

He learned that major league salaries increased by 2,000 percent since 1976, while minor leaguers’ increased by just 75 percent. Meanwhile, the United States inflation rate in that time was 400 percent, meaning minor leaguers now effectively earn less today than they did 30 years ago.

He learned that this is possible because Major League Baseball has what’s called an antitrust law exemption, which means, effectively, that MLB’s authority over the terms of minor league contracts and working conditions is absolute, which keeps wages low.

We’re over here, fighting for scraps. — Kyle Johnson

He learned that no other sport has such an exemption. Boxing, football, basketball, hockey and golf have all tried to get exemptions of their own over the decades, and all have been denied. In 1972, the Supreme Court noted in a related case that MLB’s antitrust exemption was “an anomaly” but said it was up to Congress to change. That never happened.

He learned that were it not for this exemption, minor leaguers could sue MLB for using the draft to artificially depress salaries and signing bonuses.

He learned that, as it stands, minor leaguers “can’t sue MLB and its teams under antitrust laws for colluding” to keep wages low.

And, he says he learned, “Exploitation is a strong word, but I think it can be used.”


In time, Broshuis and his St. Louis law firm, Korein Tillery, with help from another firm, had at least one former minor leaguer from every MLB organization join the suit as plaintiffs, and in February 2014, they filed a class-action lawsuit against MLB. Among the allegations: labor practices that “remain stuck in the 19th century” and a system that has been “artificially and illegally depressing minor league wages.”

Since then, as the case continues to evolve, named plaintiffs have increased to more than 40 in number—and some 2,300 additional current and former minor leaguers have signed on as “background class members.”

Citing ongoing litigation, several officials from MLB teams, as well as the league office, declined to be interviewed for this story. The league referred B/R Mag to a 2016 statement: “MLB pays over a half a billion dollars to minor league players in signing bonuses and salary each year. Minor league clubs could not afford these massive player costs.”

Do some more math, Broshuis says, and that’s not quite as true as it might sound: To pay the 175 to 200 players in a given minor league system an annual salary of $30,000 would cost a team upward of $6 million, which is about the going rate of a decent fourth outfielder. Cut it down more, even to minimum wage, and Broshuis says, “You’re probably talking around $1 million.”

According to a source familiar with the legal issues in the case, “One of [MLB’s] arguments is these employees should be covered by an exemption—like artists and musicians—because they’re more similar to that than an hourly worker who works in a factory.”

“The logistics for what these players are asking for, paying athletes by the hour with overtime, is a mess,” the source says. “Paying these guys a salary is a lot more workable than trying to treat them like hourly workers.”

Part of the problem, the source says, is the lack of a union with which Major League Baseball can negotiate. Before major leaguers built the Major League Baseball Players Association in the 1950s and '60s, wages were depressed below market value. Now, decades of legal battles later, they have nine-figure contracts.

Minor leaguers who are not—or not yet—on 40-man MLB rosters, however, have no protection under the MLBPA. (An MLBPA spokesman said: “We support their right to organize, to unionize, and fight for their rights. We most certainly support the efforts of minor league baseball players.”)

What Broshuis and Johnson have found, though, is the Minor League Baseball Players Association does not exist yet for one simple reason: “Guys are afraid to unionize,” Broshuis says. “Long term, I think it would be a great solution. The short-term part is these guys are chasing a dream, and they are afraid to stick their necks out.”

And indeed, although thousands of former minor leaguers have signed on to Broshuis’ lawsuit, virtually no active players want anything to do with it. When Kyle talked to guys about it, they repeated what their agents told them: Man, we can’t be part of that. We’re going to get blackballed.

But for Kyle, risks aside, he felt like he had to get involved. “Everybody is so afraid to say anything,” he says. “Whoever you play for, this kid’s going against the grain; we’re just going to release him. And everybody’s so afraid that’s going to happen to them. And now that I’m older, and I’ve been around it more, if that happens, OK.”


On a Friday afternoon in mid-March, in the middle of spring training, Kyle went to his bosses and asked them what they had planned for him.

Triple-A. Vegas. Fifth outfielder.

Kyle said he needed more money.

He knew what he was worth. He was feeling the weight of what he’d given the game, the same way he felt the weight of what he could not give his family. Six months every year. A house instead of a duplex. A husband and a father building a life instead of chasing a dream that felt more every year like a cruel tease. He needed baseball to start giving a little bit back.

The Mets said no. (General manager Sandy Alderson and the Mets declined to comment to B/R Mag.)

Since the organization owned Kyle’s professional baseball rights for the next two years, that left him three choices: play until he became a 29-year-old free agent, retire or else ask for his release.

Kyle asked the Mets to release him.

To that they said yes.

And for that he was grateful. Kyle went to the clubhouse, packed his things and loaded them into his truck. (Well, not his truck, technically, but a truck he borrowed from an aunt and uncle in Orlando.)

Then it was back to the apartment, then more packing, then on to Orlando. Kyle, Susan and the girls crashed with his aunt and uncle for the night. The next day, they flew back to Coeur d’Alene.

“I understand, as far as social issues go, there’s a lot more broken in the world,” Kyle says. “But I also understand there’s a severe lack of education. If I can change this for guys in the future and guys that continue to play. That’s my goal: Make it so MLB realizes what they are doing is absolutely asinine.”

Kyle can’t help but also think, I don’t understand why somebody that’s made it into the big leagues hasn’t really spoken up and been vocal about this. “They get taken care of,” he says. “They get everything they need. And then we’re over here, fighting for scraps.”

Kyle didn’t know it then, but that week a conversation began in the Mets’ major league clubhouse, first about life in the minor leagues but then about the lawsuit. And though most of the major leaguers, indeed, wanted nothing to do with it, one did speak up.

Veteran outfielder Curtis Granderson received a $469,000 signing bonus when he was drafted in 2002 by the Detroit Tigers. But he remembers the struggles of minor league life. He remembers that first check in the show. Pulling in $850 a month before taxes, he says: “The first thing that popped out on our paycheck was, You worked 20 hours this week. It’s like, No we didn’t. I did 20 hours in the last three days. There’s absolutely no way.”

As he eats freshly prepared fruit, bacon and grits, with the kitchen 20 feet away smelling simply glorious, Granderson remembers going to mall food courts with his teammates and buying the specials. He was eating half for lunch, he was saving the other half for dinner—and, because the minor leaguers didn’t have refrigerators, he was praying that he and his teammates didn’t get sick after eating the leftovers 10 hours later. Granderson remembers guys struggling to put on muscle because they couldn’t get enough calories.

Now, if he gets injured and spends time in Triple-A for rehab, Granderson—like many major leaguers—will order catering for the team from some restaurant. Outback, Olive Garden, whatever. “It’s very inexpensive, for at least that one day, for me,” he says. “We’re talking 500 bucks to feed a whole team for a game. That seems doable, especially for an $8 billion revenue business.”

Granderson did get one thing wrong there: MLB isn’t an $8 billion revenue business. In 2016, it made almost $10 billion.


As Opening Day approached, Kyle remained in Coeur d’Alene, in the northwestern tip of Idaho. Some independent, non-MLB affiliated teams have called, but he says he can make more doing something else now, “and provide for my family in a better, more consistent, more comfortable way.”

Some day soon, Kyle hopes to get some good news from baseball, but he knows the reality: He went against the grain, and there are a million baseball players happy to take his spot without complaint.

He’s felt scared and he’s felt sad and he’s felt many other things. Mostly, though, Kyle has felt glad to be with Susan and Adelyn and Channing, and he has felt at peace. Last week, while his old teammates were getting their assignments and shipping off around the country, he took his daughter to daycare and ate dinner with his family. And, some days, he went to a baseball field, where he taught lessons and helped dreaming young boys get better at the game that they love.

 

Brandon Sneed is a writer-at-large for B/R Mag and the author of Head In The Game: The Mental Engineering of the World's Elite Athletes (out now from Dey Street). His writing has also appeared in OutsideESPN The Magazine, SB Nation Longform and more. He has received mention in The Best American Sports Writing. His website is brandonsneed.com. Follow him on Twitter: @brandonsneed.

 

Click here to get B/R Mag on the go in the B/R app for more sports storytelling worth your time, wherever you are.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

This Is What It’s Like to Chase Your Pro Baseball Dreams…For 12 Bucks an Hour

Kyle Johnson brought his wife and their two young daughters with him to spring training this year, here in Port St. Lucie, Florida. It was about $3,000 more expensive than in 2016, when he crashed on a friend’s couch in Jupiter, 35 miles south, to save money.

A speedy 27-year-old outfielder, Kyle—like all baseball minor leaguers—did not get paid to work here. He did not get paid for extended spring training either, or for the fall instructional league.

But Kyle didn’t care anymore. He’d given so much of himself to baseball, perhaps nothing more than the six months he has sacrificed, each of the last five years, working away from Susan and the girls, seven-year-old Adelyn and two-year-old Channing. Cost be damned—this year, Kyle wanted some semblance of work-life balance. He wanted his girls with him because this year felt different.

For one thing, he’d finished last season at the top of the Mets’ farm system, as the starting left fielder for the Triple-A Las Vegas 51s, and more than once, he felt like any day he would walk out of that minor league locker room for the last time, the old buses and grind traded in for the dream he’d been chasing all of his life.

For another, hey, at least having his daughters here saved some money on daycare.

And then there was the part where he’d done what agents have been advising minor leaguers not to do—at least not if they want anything to do with the bigs ever again: Kyle had just become the first active minor leaguer to publicly declare his part in an ongoing class-action lawsuit against Major League Baseball over unfair wages and unjust labor practices.

So, yeah. Spring training would be a little different this year.


Walk around the stadium here during a big league Florida Grapefruit League game, ask the fans how much they think the minor leaguers scrimmaging on the back fields make, and they’ll guess anywhere from $50,000 to $500,000 per year. Ask 14-year-old Liam Turner from Perth, Ontario, who dreams of pitching in the bigs one day, how much they’d have to pay him to pitch in the minors, and he’ll say, “Nothing.”

Anyway, Liam is closest at the guessing game: In five years as a minor leaguer, including his time in Triple-A, Kyle Johnson has never been paid more than $11,500 a season by a baseball team.

Not unlike young Liam, a player with a pro baseball contract doesn’t care about the money in the beginning. A player with a shot at the bigs—a player like Kyle Johnson—just wants to play.

The Los Angeles Angels selected Kyle in the 25th round of the 2012 MLB draft. They gave him a $5,000 signing bonus, which came to $3,100 after taxes, most of which he spent on an engagement ring for Susan. He was 22 years old.

Right away, he got shipped to the Angels’ short-season team—the entry-level tier of any MLB organization’s minor league system—in Orem, Utah (population: roughly 91,000) and began his professional baseball career. He played well that summer, but the reality of what lay ahead of him quickly snapped into focus: His first paycheck for two weeks of work was about $420.

Back home, old college classmates were starting their careers in finance, pulling down $60,000 a year. By the end of his first season as a pro ballplayer, Kyle had made maybe $2,500.

Kyle did the math. His salary worked out to around $35 per game—maybe 12 bucks an hour.

This, he said to himself, is not anything close to what I thought it was going to be.

It almost never is for any of the 1,200 minor leaguers drafted every year, even though MiLB.com spells it out clearly: $1,100 a month is the maximum contract for every first-year player.

That offseason, Kyle interned at Northwestern Mutual and seriously considered never playing baseball again. He graduated from Washington State after a good college career as an outfielder—he hit over .300 his senior year as the Cougars’ leadoff man and was second in the Pac-12 in stolen bases—and left with an economics degree and a minor in business. He was smart. So was Susan. And she was big-hearted, too, serving as an outreach coordinator who helped victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse.

Kyle and Susan talked. Should I keep playing? And they decided, yes, he should. He should see where it went and show their daughter how to chase dreams.


Call around minor league baseball, ask dozens of guys for their war stories of trying to get by to make it to the show, and you’ll hear tales both funny and sad, all at the same time. Stories of six guys cramming into a two-bedroom apartment. Stories like the one about the 6’4”, 230-pound pitcher sleeping on an air mattress, looking forward to the long, cramped bus rides just because, if nothing else, a hotel with a real bed waited at the end.

Guys are afraid to unionize. ... These guys are chasing a dream, and they are afraid to stick their necks out.” — Garrett Broshuis, attorney

Sometimes, to save money, minor leaguers will stay with “host families” in their team’s city, which breeds its own genre of stories. There are tales of delightful, grandparently hosts. But then there are the stories of “cleat-chaser” cougars on the prowl, of Sports Dads. And most host family stories are always a little depressing. Because there’s no escaping the weirdness that is being a grown man and professional athlete—and yet also being so poor you have to live with a stranger just to do your job.

In each of Kyle’s five summers on the road as a pro player, for the Orem Owlz, the Savannah Sand Gnats, the Binghamton Rumble Ponies and more, he estimates he’s sent more than half of whatever he’s made back home for daycare alone.

The rest disappeared into rent and food and “clubhouse dues”—money for the clubhouse managers, known as “clubbies,” who handle player laundry and pre- and postgame food spreads, which are more like cheap sandwiches (peanut butter and jelly, maybe deli meat on a good day or perhaps a sloppy joe) and plain potato chips. Sometimes, these professional baseball players just ate leftovers from the concession stand. And the road food wasn’t much better, with just a $25 per diem.

When he finally came home to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, each September, Kyle worked whatever odd jobs he could find. He started a side hustle selling high-end baseball gear. He made most of his money giving kids baseball lessons.

As the years ticked by, 2012 becoming 2014 becoming 2016, mostly it was Susan who kept the family afloat, working two, sometimes three, jobs, making maybe $30,000 a year. Without her, Kyle couldn’t have kept playing baseball at all. Their friends didn’t understand why Kyle still drove a rusty maroon 1999 Subaru or why he wouldn’t pick up the tab at dinner.

So they did the math again.

Until this year, major leaguers—with an average salary of $4.38 million per year—were getting a per diem of $105, enough to eat steak for dinner instead of fast food or leftovers. (A new collective bargaining agreement cut that to $30 per day—though it also required home teams to provide their visitors with freshly cooked meals free of charge in the clubhouse, and all teams must use dietitians and full-time chefs to improve nutrition.) Players on the 40-man big league rosters make the minimum of $535,000 per year. If Kyle stayed in Triple-A, he’d make $2,400 per month for a grand total of about $12,000 for the season.

He didn’t even want to think about how much he could be earning if he’d just started in finance.

Stick with it long enough, with enough good luck, and maybe Kyle would see big league money, or at least the median Triple-A salary of $5,000 a month—but sometimes he felt like a fool.

Being a professional baseball player, the economics major said to his wife, is costing me money.


All of the math, the frustration and the heady questions led Johnson to Garrett Broshuis, a 35-year-old lawyer from St. Louis spearheading a class-action lawsuit against Major League Baseball over minor league pay.

Long before he was a lawyer, Broshuis was an All-American pitcher at the University of Missouri. In 2004, the San Francisco Giants drafted him in the fifth round and gave him a $160,000 signing bonus. Within two years, he was married and already watching his money slip away—but what bothered him most was what his teammates were going through.

Broshuis remembers one fellow player in the Giants farm system in particular. He arrived from Venezuela, a teenager riding high on promises made by a "buscone," an unsanctioned scout the likes of which prowl Latin American countries to prey on poor, young talent, convincing them to sign contracts and to fork over half their earnings. The boys sign them freely, having been promised millions, and their families and neighborhoods and villages send them off with celebration.

Broshuis watched his teammate struggle to find even $20 a month to send back to his pregnant girlfriend.

While he was still playing—Broshuis lasted about six years, the last of them in Double-A and Triple-A purgatory with the Connecticut Defenders and Fresno Grizzlies—he began studying for the LSATs, poring over law books during the long bus rides. He left baseball in 2009 and went to the Saint Louis University School of Law, where he finished as valedictorian.

In the years before he came back to baseball to sue it, Broshuis learned a lot.

He learned that minor league working conditions and salaries may well violate the Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires employers to pay workers at least minimum wage up to 40 hours per week, then overtime beyond that.

He says he learned that MLB “would likely argue that it can do this” in part because it classifies minor leaguers as “seasonal workers.”

He learned that major league salaries increased by 2,000 percent since 1976, while minor leaguers’ increased by just 75 percent. Meanwhile, the United States inflation rate in that time was 400 percent, meaning minor leaguers now effectively earn less today than they did 30 years ago.

He learned that this is possible because Major League Baseball has what’s called an antitrust law exemption, which means, effectively, that MLB’s authority over the terms of minor league contracts and working conditions is absolute, which keeps wages low.

We’re over here, fighting for scraps. — Kyle Johnson

He learned that no other sport has such an exemption. Boxing, football, basketball, hockey and golf have all tried to get exemptions of their own over the decades, and all have been denied. In 1972, the Supreme Court noted in a related case that MLB’s antitrust exemption was “an anomaly” but said it was up to Congress to change. That never happened.

He learned that were it not for this exemption, minor leaguers could sue MLB for using the draft to artificially depress salaries and signing bonuses.

He learned that, as it stands, minor leaguers “can’t sue MLB and its teams under antitrust laws for colluding” to keep wages low.

And, he says he learned, “Exploitation is a strong word, but I think it can be used.”


In time, Broshuis and his St. Louis law firm, Korein Tillery, with help from another firm, had at least one former minor leaguer from every MLB organization join the suit as plaintiffs, and in February 2014, they filed a class-action lawsuit against MLB. Among the allegations: labor practices that “remain stuck in the 19th century” and a system that has been “artificially and illegally depressing minor league wages.”

Since then, as the case continues to evolve, named plaintiffs have increased to more than 40 in number—and some 2,300 additional current and former minor leaguers have signed on as “background class members.”

Citing ongoing litigation, several officials from MLB teams, as well as the league office, declined to be interviewed for this story. The league referred B/R Mag to a 2016 statement: “MLB pays over a half a billion dollars to minor league players in signing bonuses and salary each year. Minor league clubs could not afford these massive player costs.”

Do some more math, Broshuis says, and that’s not quite as true as it might sound: To pay the 175 to 200 players in a given minor league system an annual salary of $30,000 would cost a team upward of $6 million, which is about the going rate of a decent fourth outfielder. Cut it down more, even to minimum wage, and Broshuis says, “You’re probably talking around $1 million.”

According to a source familiar with the legal issues in the case, “One of [MLB’s] arguments is these employees should be covered by an exemption—like artists and musicians—because they’re more similar to that than an hourly worker who works in a factory.”

“The logistics for what these players are asking for, paying athletes by the hour with overtime, is a mess,” the source says. “Paying these guys a salary is a lot more workable than trying to treat them like hourly workers.”

Part of the problem, the source says, is the lack of a union with which Major League Baseball can negotiate. Before major leaguers built the Major League Baseball Players Association in the 1950s and '60s, wages were depressed below market value. Now, decades of legal battles later, they have nine-figure contracts.

Minor leaguers who are not—or not yet—on 40-man MLB rosters, however, have no protection under the MLBPA. (An MLBPA spokesman said: “We support their right to organize, to unionize, and fight for their rights. We most certainly support the efforts of minor league baseball players.”)

What Broshuis and Johnson have found, though, is the Minor League Baseball Players Association does not exist yet for one simple reason: “Guys are afraid to unionize,” Broshuis says. “Long term, I think it would be a great solution. The short-term part is these guys are chasing a dream, and they are afraid to stick their necks out.”

And indeed, although thousands of former minor leaguers have signed on to Broshuis’ lawsuit, virtually no active players want anything to do with it. When Kyle talked to guys about it, they repeated what their agents told them: Man, we can’t be part of that. We’re going to get blackballed.

But for Kyle, risks aside, he felt like he had to get involved. “Everybody is so afraid to say anything,” he says. “Whoever you play for, this kid’s going against the grain; we’re just going to release him. And everybody’s so afraid that’s going to happen to them. And now that I’m older, and I’ve been around it more, if that happens, OK.”


On a Friday afternoon in mid-March, in the middle of spring training, Kyle went to his bosses and asked them what they had planned for him.

Triple-A. Vegas. Fifth outfielder.

Kyle said he needed more money.

He knew what he was worth. He was feeling the weight of what he’d given the game, the same way he felt the weight of what he could not give his family. Six months every year. A house instead of a duplex. A husband and a father building a life instead of chasing a dream that felt more every year like a cruel tease. He needed baseball to start giving a little bit back.

The Mets said no. (General manager Sandy Alderson and the Mets declined to comment to B/R Mag.)

Since the organization owned Kyle’s professional baseball rights for the next two years, that left him three choices: play until he became a 29-year-old free agent, retire or else ask for his release.

Kyle asked the Mets to release him.

To that they said yes.

And for that he was grateful. Kyle went to the clubhouse, packed his things and loaded them into his truck. (Well, not his truck, technically, but a truck he borrowed from an aunt and uncle in Orlando.)

Then it was back to the apartment, then more packing, then on to Orlando. Kyle, Susan and the girls crashed with his aunt and uncle for the night. The next day, they flew back to Coeur d’Alene.

“I understand, as far as social issues go, there’s a lot more broken in the world,” Kyle says. “But I also understand there’s a severe lack of education. If I can change this for guys in the future and guys that continue to play. That’s my goal: Make it so MLB realizes what they are doing is absolutely asinine.”

Kyle can’t help but also think, I don’t understand why somebody that’s made it into the big leagues hasn’t really spoken up and been vocal about this. “They get taken care of,” he says. “They get everything they need. And then we’re over here, fighting for scraps.”

Kyle didn’t know it then, but that week a conversation began in the Mets’ major league clubhouse, first about life in the minor leagues but then about the lawsuit. And though most of the major leaguers, indeed, wanted nothing to do with it, one did speak up.

Veteran outfielder Curtis Granderson received a $469,000 signing bonus when he was drafted in 2002 by the Detroit Tigers. But he remembers the struggles of minor league life. He remembers that first check in the show. Pulling in $850 a month before taxes, he says: “The first thing that popped out on our paycheck was, You worked 20 hours this week. It’s like, No we didn’t. I did 20 hours in the last three days. There’s absolutely no way.”

As he eats freshly prepared fruit, bacon and grits, with the kitchen 20 feet away smelling simply glorious, Granderson remembers going to mall food courts with his teammates and buying the specials. He was eating half for lunch, he was saving the other half for dinner—and, because the minor leaguers didn’t have refrigerators, he was praying that he and his teammates didn’t get sick after eating the leftovers 10 hours later. Granderson remembers guys struggling to put on muscle because they couldn’t get enough calories.

Now, if he gets injured and spends time in Triple-A for rehab, Granderson—like many major leaguers—will order catering for the team from some restaurant. Outback, Olive Garden, whatever. “It’s very inexpensive, for at least that one day, for me,” he says. “We’re talking 500 bucks to feed a whole team for a game. That seems doable, especially for an $8 billion revenue business.”

Granderson did get one thing wrong there: MLB isn’t an $8 billion revenue business. In 2016, it made almost $10 billion.


As Opening Day approached, Kyle remained in Coeur d’Alene, in the northwestern tip of Idaho. Some independent, non-MLB affiliated teams have called, but he says he can make more doing something else now, “and provide for my family in a better, more consistent, more comfortable way.”

Some day soon, Kyle hopes to get some good news from baseball, but he knows the reality: He went against the grain, and there are a million baseball players happy to take his spot without complaint.

He’s felt scared and he’s felt sad and he’s felt many other things. Mostly, though, Kyle has felt glad to be with Susan and Adelyn and Channing, and he has felt at peace. Last week, while his old teammates were getting their assignments and shipping off around the country, he took his daughter to daycare and ate dinner with his family. And, some days, he went to a baseball field, where he taught lessons and helped dreaming young boys get better at the game that they love.

 

Brandon Sneed is a writer-at-large for B/R Mag and the author of Head In The Game: The Mental Engineering of the World's Elite Athletes (out now from Dey Street). His writing has also appeared in OutsideESPN The Magazine, SB Nation Longform and more. He has received mention in The Best American Sports Writing. His website is brandonsneed.com. Follow him on Twitter: @brandonsneed.

 

Click here to get B/R Mag on the go in the B/R app for more sports storytelling worth your time, wherever you are.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com