Yesterday the Padres selected three players through the first two full rounds of the 2019 draft. As fans, we want to get excited about players right away and forecast how they can fit into future plans. We want to look at first-rounder CJ Abrams and see a young Kenny Lofton or Dee Gordon. With sports like football and basketball, this is useful because drafted players have the opportunity to make an immediate impact at the game’s highest level. That isn’t the case in baseball. The kids selected this week will enter a system of development and promotion where the ultimate goal is a distant daydream. They face years of struggle and frustration, with a relatively small chance of ever reaching the majors, and along the way they will likely change role, position, and organization. It’s important to keep these things in mind when we consider the players who will sign their lives away on a dotted line and begin their careers as professional baseball players.
Many of us dreamed of being a professional baseball player before we could even hit the ball off of a tee. Professional sports is glamorized through media and merchandise, and we consume it with voracious hunger. We see baseball’s best players signing contracts for money beyond our wildest dreams, living lavish lifestyles, and adored by their fans. But the sport tends to hide the other side of the disparity in the industry’s class system, and it’s only recently begun to come to light. Minor league baseball is not glamorous.
While some kids sign for big bonuses, the vast majority of them enter the game without a big bankroll, get paid a pittance during the season, and then are expected to eat and train like world-class athletes through an offseason when they are not paid a penny. During the season they have to scramble to arrange living spaces, often packing a bunch of dudes into a small apartment and sleeping on cheap air mattresses. They train in facilities funded by a local business that may or may not care to invest for the betterment of the players who belong to a separate entity. The players put in long hours between preparation and the actual game, then board a bus for a long ride through the night where they try to sleep in their seats or in the aisle before checking into a cheap hotel for a couple of hours, only to get back to the park and do it all again. They play games in sometimes ugly conditions, in front of small stands that are sparsely pock-marked by disinterested fans. They have to buy their own equipment and pay clubhouse dues just to get clean uniforms and a halfway decent spread on game days. The point here is, it’s not easy or glamorous in the minor leagues. These kinds are in for a long, hard grind.
So please pardon me if I speak with words of caution or hesitation in times like this. As I’ve learned more about the lives of minor league baseball players, I’ve gained an appreciation for the challenges they face and the difficult decisions it requires to pursue a dream without a clear path to the end goal. It’s fun to look at a first round draft pick and hang a Hall of Fame caliber comparison, but we need to remember that these are kids in their late teens and early twenties, and we’re comparing them to grown men a decade their senior, and even then it’s the rarest of breeds who succeed through the meat grinder that is minor league baseball. Today, let’s try to view draftees through rose-tinted lenses, looking for the player they may one day become, but also know that the trail they face is strewn with the memories of those who never completed that same journey.