Pay­ing the price for a di­a­mond dream

Like other Blue Crabs play­ers, Ro­driguez lives on shoe­string bud­get while push­ing for a ma­jor league ca­reer

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By CHARLIE WRIGHT cwright@somd­news.com

It’s the ral­ly­ing cry among in­de­pen­dent base­ball play­ers, a bea­con of hope, a true mark of suc­cess for ev­ery ath­lete at this level: mak­ing it to “The Show.”

But first, they have to make it to af­fil­i­ated base­ball.

Ballplay­ers ply­ing their trade in in­de­pen­dent ball are in a con­stant state of limbo, tee­ter­ing on the edge of rel­a­tive star­dom and ir­rel­e­vance.

Scan­ning through ros­ters of the six sig­nif­i­cant in­de­pen­dent leagues across the coun­try con­jures up mem­o­ries of yes­ter­year as well as cu­rios­ity. Ev­ery team seems to have for­mer ma­jor lea­guers, un­drafted col­lege stand­outs and re­cent mi­nor league dropouts. No mat­ter their ori­gins, their back­sto­ries or the num­ber of en­tries on a Base­ball Ref­er­ence page, the goal re­mains to some­day earn a check signed by one of the 30 Ma­jor League Base­ball or­ga­ni­za­tions. That could be with any of their mi­nor league af­fil­i­ates on the way up — or the ul­ti­mate des­ti­na­tion — call­ing their home field one of those Amer­i­can cathe­drals of sports.

Yet, th­ese young men must weigh cur­rent fi­nan­cial re­spon­si­bil­i­ties against fu­ture ca­reer

op­por­tu­ni­ties. Play­ers in the At­lantic League of Pro­fes­sional Base­ball — of which the South­ern Mary­land Blue Crabs are a char­ter mem­ber — earn a min­i­mum of $600 a month, with a max­i­mum al­low­able salary of $3,000. Ac­com­mo­da­tions and liv­ing ar­range­ments vary from team to team, and salary is gen­er­ally based on pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ence and time spent with the or­ga­ni­za­tion. Play­ers are paid only dur­ing the sea­son, from April to Septem­ber, and con­tracts are rene­go­ti­ated at the be­gin­ning of ev­ery year.

“I al­ways tell peo­ple I don’t play in­de­pen­dent ball for the money,” Blue Crabs out­fielder Devon Ro­driguez said. “If I was wor­ried about the money, I wouldn’t be play­ing indy ball. I woulda hung ‘em up al­ready.”

Ro­driguez has played three years in in­de­pen­dent leagues af­ter star­ring at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley. This sea­son, his first with the Blue Crabs, the 25-yearold is hit­ting .401 and was se­lected to the ALPB All-Star game. His ser­vice time puts him on the lower end of the pay scale, al­though he did not di­vulge his ex­act salar y.

A typ­i­cal game day for the Los An­ge­les na­tive be­gins with a work­out at World Gym, mem­ber­ship cour­tesy of the Blue Crabs. Then comes the first fi­nan­cial de­ci­sion of the day: lunch on the road or cold cuts at the ball­park? Ro­driguez prefers to hit up Chipo­tle or Pan­era Bread be­fore head­ing to the field to avoid the monotony of the pregame spread. Af­ter bat­ting prac­tice it’s game time, and then an­other de­ci­sion: late-night meal out or postgame food ta­ble? He must take into ac­count the $7 daily club­house dues, and the $5 to $10 tip for the club­house guys.

“It’ll add up pretty quickly,” Ro­driguez said. “That’s prob­a­bly the big­gest thing, eat­ing at the field. If you can do that, you can save some good money.”

This Novem­ber, Ro­driguez will marry his fi­ancee, Micken­zie Reese. The cou­ple re­cently moved to San Fran­cisco for Reese’s new job as ter­ri­tory man­ager at World­wide Ex­press, a freight de­liv­ery com­pany. This places an ad­di­tional fi­nan­cial bur­den on Ro­driguez.

“I do have bills back home to pay, so I fac­tor those in now,” Ro­driguez said. “It’s a lit­tle dif­fer­ent, but for the most part I’ve done a pretty good job” of bud­get­ing.

Mi­nor league play­ers re­ceive salaries sim­i­lar to those in the in­de­pen­dent leagues, if they are not on the 40-man ros­ter of their ma­jor league team. Wages have been a hot topic at that level in re­cent years, as sev­eral groups of mi­nor lea­guers have filed law­suits against Ma­jor League Base­ball re­gard­ing an­titrust laws, min­i­mum wage re­quire­ments and over­time stip­u­la­tions. Open­ing Day pay­rolls in 2017 for MLB teams ex­ceeded $4 bil­lion, ac­cord­ing to Forbes — a stag­ger­ing num­ber con­sid­er­ing the pal­try earn­ings of mi­nor lea­guers.

The sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween mi­nor league and in­de­pen­dent league wages would seem to sug­gest un­fair treat­ment of the lat­ter, when in fact it un­der­scores the scope of or­ga­ni­za­tions like the At­lantic League. In­de­pen­dent teams are just that — en­ti­ties com­pletely sep­a­rate from Ma­jor League Base­ball. While mi­nor league teams serve as feeder pro­grams into their par­ent clubs, in­de­pen­dent teams have no con­nec­tion to any other or­ga­ni­za­tion. There aren’t 30 deep-pock­eted own­ers who can dis­trib­ute wealth from the top down. Th­ese teams are re­spon­si­ble for ev­ery as­pect of the team, and pay­roll is no dif­fer­ent.

“In the in­de­pen­dent leagues, we’re re­spon­si­ble to hire and pay all the

play­ers, whereas the Bowie Baysox up the high­way, they don’t do that,” said Blue Crabs ma­jor­ity owner Jack Lavoie. “The Ori­oles are pay­ing the play­ers, the Ori­oles own the play­ers. They just put on the ball­park around it.”

Lavoie, a Vir­ginia lawyer, pur­chased the ma­jor­ity share of the team over the win­ter. Af­ter at­tempt­ing and fail­ing to put to­gether a league in Alexan­dria, he was drawn to the growth po­ten­tial of Wal­dorf and the South­ern Mary­land re­gion. Though he sees the ven­ture as a pos­si­ble money-mak­ing op­por­tu­nity, in­de­pen­dent ball has al­ways been an in­ter­est of his.

“I think it’s re­ally pure in a sense,” Lavoie said. “There’s al­ways sort of the hu­man strug­gle, the recla­ma­tion story that ev­ery­one’s got. The play­ers, man­agers, coaches, ev­ery­body all around. That’s part of what I’ve found ir­re­sistible about the whole thing.”

The struc­ture and nu­ances of in­de­pen­dent ball are even more ev­i­dent in the of­fices of Re­gency Fur­ni­ture Sta­dium. Ev­ery mem­ber of the Blue Crabs staff is an at-will em­ployee and han­dles a wide range of re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, all the way up. Gen­eral Man­ager Court­ney Knichel is the poster child for this or­ga­ni­za­tional flex­i­bil­ity, han­dling the role of sales­man, con­ces­sion worker or grounds crew mem­ber at any given point on game day.

“No day is the same,” Knichel said. “What­ever de­part­ment needs my at­ten­tion at the time is what I do.”

This by no means sug­gests Blue Crabs man­age­ment is any­thing less than ma­jor league qual­ity. Rather, it speaks to the dy­namic of the league. Knichel han­dles player ac­qui­si­tions and con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions just like any other ex­ec­u­tive, but it’s hard to imag­ine some­one like Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als GM Mike Rizzo trot­ting onto the di­a­mond dur­ing a rain de­lay to help roll the tarp onto the field.

Knichel is also in­te­gral in the lives of the play­ers out­side of base­ball, as she has over­seen the Blue Crabs’ host fam­ily pro­gram since its in­cep­tion in 2008, and works with play­ers to find jobs and ways to sup­ple­ment their in­come over the off­sea­son. Knichel said it’s dif­fi­cult for the guys to land steady jobs, given they’re only avail­able from Oc­to­ber to March, and also have to stay in play­ing shape dur­ing that time.

“You’re not go­ing to find bankers and lawyers,” Knichel said.

Even given the lessthan-ideal pay­checks, Ro­driguez and his team­mates are for­tu­nate to be in one of the cushi­est hous­ing sit­u­a­tions in the league. The Blue Crabs are the only team in the ALPB to of­fer ev­ery player free hous­ing, Knichel said. Par­tic­i­pants are given free tick­ets for fam­ily and friends for the du­ra­tion of the sea­son, gifts from the team and a huge meal at the end of the year. Host fam­i­lies are ex­pected to pro­vide a bed and a place to shower — but many of them pro­vide much more.

“They’re awe­some peo­ple,” said Ro­driguez, who lives with Doug and Tara Han­cock at their home just across the Po­tomac in King Ge­orge, Va. “Ev­ery off day they like to cook us some­thing good. They’ll make us steak, they’ll make us what­ever we want. It’s pretty neat, you get a good re­la­tion­ship with them.”

The Han­cocks are in their third sea­son of host­ing ballplay­ers, af­ter find­ing the ap­pli­ca­tion link on the Blue Crabs web­site. They have two chil­dren, ages 19 and 20, but added to their fam­ily when they joined the pro­gram.

“It’s like they’re your kids,” Tara Han­cock said. “I’m like the base­ball mom.”

“I’ll get texts like ‘all my boys are play­ing,’” chimed in Doug.

Tara hardly misses a game, con­stantly vis­i­ble in the first row down the third base line. Doug, who works in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., makes it out to the games when he can. The Han­cocks cook meals for the play­ers as of­ten as they can, and of­fer them the run of the house. Ro­driguez’s room is down­stairs, flank­ing an entertainment room af­fec­tion­ately known as “The Dun­geon.” The room is lined with gameused bats and signed base­balls, me­men­tos from play­ers who have come through the house­hold in sea­sons past.

The Han­cocks said they wanted to be a part of the jour­ney for th­ese men, a help­ing hand along the wind­ing road of pro­fes­sional base­ball.

“We thought it might be neat to help them live the dream, that’s my big thing,” Tara said. “We tell them that all the time, we want to help them live the dream.”

It’s the quest that is shared by ev­ery player to live with the Han­cocks and ev­ery name on the Blue Crabs ros­ter. In­de­pen­dent base­ball is meant to be a spring­board, a launch­ing point for ris­ing through the ranks of the sport. It can also be the be­gin­ning of the end, a ceil­ing cap­ping a once-promis­ing ca­reer. Ro­driguez’s pro­duc­tive year may likely lead to a new team in 2018, po­ten­tially for an af­fil­i­ated ball­club. He plans to work with his step­dad this off­sea­son to earn some ex­tra cash. For now, the dream, and its price tag, are still in range.

“Un­til I feel like I can’t com­pete at the high­est level, I’m go­ing to keep play­ing,” Ro­driguez said. “As of now, I’m go­ing to keep play­ing.”

PHOTO BY BERT HINDMAN

South­ern Mary­land Blue Crabs out­fielder Devon Ro­driguez jogs in from left field.

STAFF PHOTO BY CHARLIE WRIGHT

South­ern Mary­land Blue Crabs out­fielder Devon Ro­driguez shows off his room at the Han­cock house­hold.

PHOTO COUR­TESY OF BERT HINDMAN/MEM­O­RIES PHOTOGRAPHY

South­ern Mary­land Blue Crabs out­fielder Devon Ro­driguez’s sweet swing may carry him to ma­jor league star­dom.

PHOTO COUR­TESY OF BERT HINDMAN/MEM­O­RIES PHOTOGRAPHY

Devon Ro­driguez launches a game-win­ning home run in the bot­tom of the 11th in­ning against the Bridge­port Blue­fish on June 26.

STAFF PHOTO BY CHARLIE WRIGHT

South­ern Mary­land Blue Crabs Gen­eral Man­ager Court­ney Knichel in­ter­acts with a young fan.

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