Paying the price for a diamond dream
Like other Blue Crabs players, Rodriguez lives on shoestring budget while pushing for a major league career
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.”
Southern Maryland Blue Crabs outfielder Devon Rodriguez shows off his room at the Hancock household.
Southern Maryland Blue Crabs outfielder Devon Rodriguez’s sweet swing may carry him to major league stardom.
Devon Rodriguez launches a game-winning home run in the bottom of the 11th inning against the Bridgeport Bluefish on June 26.
Southern Maryland Blue Crabs outfielder Devon Rodriguez jogs in from left field.
Southern Maryland Blue Crabs General Manager Courtney Knichel interacts with a young fan.