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As I arrived at Fifth Third Field, where the Toledo Mud Hens play their home games, I could not help but feel as if I had underestimated what it takes to make it in major league baseball.
Professional football players often joke in the locker room about how we should have played baseball, and how much easier it would have been. We see the huge guaranteed contracts and the bright lights of Sunday Night Baseball, and assume baseball players are living the good life. I never gave much thought to what it takes to get to the big show.
Yes, there are the high-draft-pick superstars who reach their dreams immediately. But some have to drive a different road, one filled with speed bumps and setbacks, while they try never to lose sight of the ultimate goal: the big leagues.
Early in our mock press conference, Joe Napoli, Mud Hens president and general manager, said that in the past 10 years, the Mud Hens have had roughly 30 players called up to the major leagues. This set off bells in my head: I thought to myself, here we have a Triple-A team with direct affiliation to the Detroit Tigers, and only 30 players had a chance to play in the majors.
I had to know more. After the press conference, I was able to take Mr. Napoli to the side and pick his brain. I looked him in the eye and asked him: “Just how hard is it to get called up?”
He chuckled and said to me: “Much more difficult than you may think.”
He told me about a man who had come through his organization named Skeeter Barnes. Mr. Barnes played 12 seasons in Triple-A ball before finally getting an extended chance in the big leagues with the Tigers in 1991. He was 34 years old before he was able to put his feet on stable ground.
He spent parts of nine seasons in major league baseball before he retired; talk about perseverance. But for every Skeeter Barnes, there are plenty of other players who don’t have such happy endings. Most see the fire of their dreams die out without even sniffing a big league park.
Mr. Napoli also told me what a typical day is like for Mud Hens players. The players ride buses to all their away games. Fortunately for the Mud Hens, they have a boss who cares: The organization recently upgraded its bus so that players can at least lie down and be comfortable — a luxury not afforded to most other clubs.
Players who like to come out early may be on the field warming up at 1 p.m. for a 7 p.m. game. They play nine innings before they get back on the bus and prepare to do it all over again the next day. That sounds really glamorous.
I did some research of my own and found that the minimum salary in the major leagues was $480,000 in 2012, and the average salary was more than $3 million a year.
Conversely, a first-year free agent playing Triple-A ball makes $2,150 a month for a five-month season while he waits to get called up. Talk about a life-changing call.
There are always exceptions to the rules. Players with split major league-minor league contracts can make as much as $25,000 a month. A player on a rehabilitation assignment in Toledo still gets paid as a major leaguer.
In some cases, the stress and pressure of making it to the big leagues are too much for players to handle. As with most other sports, the majority of baseball is mental — so much so that organizations such as the Mud Hens have started to bring in a therapist to try to help ease players’ minds. As I think about it, I can see why playing in the minors would wear on them.
As an undrafted free agent going into my sixth season in the National Football League, I can’t help but feel a connection to these players, who are trying to figure out where they fit in their profession.
To my brothers in arms, I say: “Keep driving.” One day you’ll look at that road in your rear-view mirror, and be proud of how far you’ve come.
Erin Henderson is a linebacker for the Minnesota Vikings. He and other NFL players participated in a recent sports journalism “boot camp” at Bowling Green State University, designed to help them pursue careers in the media after their playing days end.