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“Inside the Game, You Are Still a Commodity”

Dirk Hayhurst

When people think about Major League Baseball, they think about big stars and big paychecks. But today, on MLB's Opening Day, we should remember that the game is rife with exploitation — especially in the minor leagues.

Billy Hamilton of the Pensacola Blue Wahoos dives at a ground ball during the Mobile Baybears' first game of a doubleheader at Hank Aaron Stadium on August 17, 2012 in Mobile, AL. Michael Chang / Getty

Interview by
Nathan Kalman-Lamb

There has been plenty of talk recently about exploitation in Minor League Baseball, in no small part because of the passage last year of the Save America’s Pastime Act. The law exempts Major League Baseball, a $12 billion annual business, from paying minor leaguers overtime.

What this means in practice is that athletic laborers who work fifty to seventy hours per week for five months of the year can be paid as little as $7.25 per hour for a forty-hour workweek (and receive no pay for spring training). Professional baseball players might strike it rich by scrapping their way to the MLB, but even in that best-case scenario, they will have practically served time as indentured labor en route. On top of poor working conditions, professional athletes also often grapple with emotional troubles commonly overlooked by fans.

Dirk Hayhurst is a former Major League and Minor League Baseball player, the author of The Bullpen Gospels, and a former baseball analyst for print and television. Nathan Kalman-Lamb — a lecturing fellow at Duke University and the author of Game Misconduct: Injury, Fandom, and the Business of Sport — recently caught up with him to talk about the question of exploitation in Minor League Baseball and other professional sports, as well as the seldom-discussed emotional consequences of a career in athletic labor.


NKL

You’ve written about the brutal working conditions during your experiences in the minors. But I want to talk about something a little different: the emotional costs of minor league professional sports. Professional athletic careers demand more of players than we usually acknowledge, and those physical and emotional sacrifices benefit both the owners in pro sports and the fans who derive meaning and pleasure from these supposed games.

DH

Are there emotional costs to playing baseball? Sure. But there are emotional costs to every job. Every job has a cost; a cost to get in, an opportunity cost to continue it, and a cost you pay for being exposed to it for years. What I feel is unique to professional sports is that part of the cost paid to play is the alienation it brings between you and those on the outside of it; the amount of distance it puts between you and those who consume your labor.

If I sit down with you and tell you about a hard day teaching; how the kids and their parents are frustrating, you’ll hear me. You can relate. “Kids today …” you might say.

If I tell you how hard it is playing a kid’s game for a living with a shot at fame, money, and fun — you’ll tell me stop whining.

Indeed, you’ll get that in your own locker room, from your own teammates. There is very little sympathy for your perceived hardships, struggles, or emotions in professional sports — internally or externally, and that has a real consequence on a player’s ability to understand themselves emotionally, relate and connect to others, and find healthy coping mechanisms.

NKL

There is no question that the players I spoke to understood the centrality of their relationship with fans to the entire construct of professional hockey and that had major implications for their experiences as people and workers. It was no mystery to them that if fans didn’t get what they wanted out of the spectacle of professional hockey, then there would be no more professional hockey.

As one player I talked to put it, “Most of the time, fans don’t really know the real reasons why the athletes are not performing. You’re watching the games and what you think is that all the athletes are on the same page and all feeling good, all have lives without problems, but it’s never the fact, you know? … It could be health, it could be injuries, it could be something related to his home life, his family and things like that, and people are not aware of that.”

Why do you think it is that so many fans aren’t able to appreciate what players go through?

DH

To start, a common misnomer is that when you become a professional baseball player — at any level — you become rich. As soon as you sign that pro contract, your life is presumed to become what people see and hear about on nightly broadcasts: the signing bonuses, the sponsorships, the star treatment.

However, life in the lowest levels of the game is often a brutal one. Very few players are paid livable wages. Very few get a noteworthy signing bonus. And very few will ever make it to the top of the sport. Even now, as I think of all the times I’ve tried to explain the simple but well-documented truth about life in the minors, I can hear what I’ve heard so many times before echo in my head: “Yes, but you’re living your dream.”

That’s categorically false. My dream and almost every single dream of every person I’ve ever known in baseball was not to be a poor minor leaguer piling up debt so we could brag in a bar about glory days. Our dream was to be grossly overcompensated for playing a game we love at the highest level.

Ironically, when I say this, I draw out a response from fans similar to the way a zealous believer might react to sacrilege: “Well, then you’re playing for the wrong reasons, because you should be doing it for the love of the game.”

The love of the game is a fascinating concept. It suggests that you’d play baseball for free, if they let you. And believe me, “they” would. They’d prefer to get you as cheap as possible. While someone on the outside of the game may see you as a hero in uniform, or a role model and the like, inside the game, you are still a commodity. You are bought and sold and traded. No matter how you dress it up, or how much poetry you put next to it, the game people love is not a game. It hasn’t been a game for a very long time. It’s an entertainment industry product.

Baseball is a business, and if you, as a player, want to survive in it, you need to treat it like one. It’s an investment of your time, your skill, your health. Just like any highly coveted, highly specialized job, you’ll pay a high cost to get into it and survive in it. However, because we romanticize the game and its place in our culture, you also have to act thankful for the opportunity to break yourself in its service. People see you as a chosen one, someone much better off than they are.

In my experience, the casual fan does not want to hear about your struggles as a player unless it fits into a narrative that serves to increase the entertainment value of your labor. So, if I tell you now, in my retirement, that I’m thankful for all that baseball has done for me, but also have a lot of moments of wishing I’d never played it all, you might think me unworthy of what I was given. I never would have told you this while I was playing, but now, years later, I know it to be true, and it gets stronger every year.

NKL

The thing about that labor and sacrifice — because I think that’s really what those struggles you describe amount to — is that it is doing something for fans (which makes it all the more galling they expect players to love it).

Let’s take the state of North Carolina — where I live, and you once worked as a minor leaguer — as an example. In the Triangle, the Carolina Hurricanes, an NHL franchise located in Raleigh, drew 546,142 fans in 2017–2018. In effectively that same year (2018), the MiLB’s Durham Bulls pulled in 536,304 — almost an identical amount (albeit over more games). Even more strikingly, in Charlotte, the state’s most populous city, while the Carolina Panthers of the NFL drew 590,182 and the Charlotte Hornets of the NBA were attended by 671,404, an astonishing 619,639 fans came to watch the Charlotte Knights of the MiLB.

My contention is that MiLB is comparably popular to its more lucrative cousins. That relative popularity may have as much to do with the seasonal calendar as with the product on the field: for most of its season, MiLB is the only game in town. And when it’s the only game in town, fans come, because fans are desperate for the meaning and collectivity they derive from athletic spectacle. Yet, regardless of the motivation, that can only be realized through the labor and sacrifice of players on the diamond.

How would you measure those costs? What did it feel like to work as a MiLB player?

DH

I completely agree with you that players do become part of a product that helps facilitate meaning and identity for a consumer, because playing for the fabled Durham Bulls did that for me!

However, by the time I got to the Bulls, I was near the end of my career. And at that point, I no longer cared what fans thought I was doing. My wife and I were trying to have kids and it wasn’t going so well. I was in pain almost every day, and on the DL a lot. I could feel the end of my career in my bones.

The ranting of a fan that is so far removed from those feelings, but feels connected because they own tickets and paraphernalia is kidding themselves. They are no more connected to me than they are to the person they feel is driving too slowly in front of them on their daily commute to work. You want them to hurry up because you have something you need achieve, not because they have something they need to achieve.

It’s a myopic point of view that, honestly, is more arrogant than the presumed arrogance of players who “don’t care what the fans think.” In fact, almost every single time a player implodes at the Big League level it is because they cannot stop worrying about what other people think.

And, sadly, baseball doesn’t do a very good job of helping the men who play it recognize what’s happening to them as a by-product for committing to a life in it. Specifically, it doesn’t do a very good job of helping men deal with failure in a way that isn’t “manly.”

In a recent conversation about life after baseball, a former teammate of mine told me he’d never experienced depression until he retired. Outside of the game, he felt lost. He said he wasn’t the only one — a couple of the guys he played with ended up killing themselves because they couldn’t get on with life after the game. Nothing felt the same for them anymore. They didn’t feel the same.

I used to feel so weak when my mind gave way to all the competing emotions of my rather persistent failures in pro baseball. I felt I was a fake. I was afraid most of the time, anxious, overwhelmed with doubt, and yet I tried to act tough. I had to. What else could I do? There was no quarter for any of the other feelings. If I let them out openly, I would have lost any respect I had, been branded a head case, and quickly forfeited all the years of my life spent trying to get to the space I was.

Does this sound like losing at a kid’s game?

NKL

One aspect of this struggle is the literal fear associated with making it, or, if one has made it, of keeping that job and fending off the next aspirant. One hockey player told me, “If I didn’t play, they’d call somebody up, which is always a chance that that guy takes your job …. So I would always have to play hurt unless it was a broken bone or something.” Another player summed up the alienating qualities of athletic work: “You’re not a human being, you’re a number, you’re a product, you’re an asset as long as you can perform. If you can’t perform, then you’re a liability and they’ll drop you.” No one can work under such conditions without suffering from the strain of what is at stake.

And yet, if the experience of professional sport is saturated with stress, the end of the career comes with its own emotional cost. For, despite all the challenges associated with it, one undeniable dimension of professional sport is the near euphoric pleasure that can come from a successful performance in front of thousands of fans invested in your every move. Former NBA star Chris Bosh, despite suffering from life-threatening blood clots in his lungs, was willing to risk his life to get back on the court. And, it is for this reason, as you say, that depression, drug and alcohol use, and suicidal thoughts and actions are often a debt players pay for their fleeting moment in the spotlight. As one told me, “I contemplated suicide, I was on drugs and alcohol and I was in the worst part of my life.”

It all leaves me asking, can it possibly be worth it? And, how do you cope with all that as a former professional athlete?

DH

I’m no longer in baseball. I don’t broadcast, or write about, or watch it. I can’t. I wasn’t famous enough as a player, nor was I spiritually connected to the game through some “love is all you need” conviction. I had my cup of coffee — which I drank as slowly as I could — and my time passed. Now I work a day job, and it feels like the equivalent of being on Lithium.

Like you mentioned, nothing in the traditional work settings I’ve been in feels like a win, and nothing bad that happens seems relevant. I don’t feel invested in it, even when I’m breaking sales records or getting chewed out by a client. It’s all just what I do now … now that I’m not doing what I did.

To achieve a dream briefly and then watch it slip past … well, let’s just say that can leave a very unique hole in you. And just as often as you think back to what you’ve done, you’ll think forward to what you won’t ever do again. I can’t speak for all of us former players. Many of us turn that raw, internal need to compete; to win; to face adversity, and channel it into something productive. For many, baseball was simply one outlet of that force to begin with.

But many of us don’t. Far more than you’d think — mostly because talking about it would feel like a malfunction. When you’re on the other side of a pro career, when you’ve seen what I have, it’s hard to look at the next, young, invincible boy and now say, “It’s not worth it kid.” For some crazy reason, I don’t. I guess I just hope they’ll be as great as they believe they will, with no consequences.

But even long careers in the game end early, and there is a lot of life left when you’re done.