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Once the nation’s top QB recruit, Gunner Kiel grew up an hour from Cincinnati, but it took him three years, four teams and a world of grief to go from his final high school game to his first college start. It was worth the wait.
By Pete Thamel
THE SAFETIES and linebackers are creeping up, switching from over Four to man-to-man. It's second-and-eight from the Toledo 11-yard line, and Cincinnati quarterback Gunner Kiel senses a blitz. He audibles from an outside-zone run to four vertical passing routes, barking out the new call and protection while alerting his receivers with hand signals. Kiel takes the snap, steps up in the pocket and delivers a sizzling spiral before absorbing a hit. The ball whizzes between a collapsing safety and cover corner, a hole the size of a barroom coaster, and hits receiver Nate Cole for a touchdown. Cole is the only one who could have caught the pass, and it Velcroed to his inside shoulder pad with such precision that there's no way he couldn't have.
From the Bearcats' box in Paul Brown Stadium, quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw marvels at the play's complex symphony and says, "That's what the special ones do." Kiel thrusts his arms up in celebration, delivering a defining image from the Sept. 12 season-opening 58-34 win, in which he completed 25 of 37 passes for 418 yards and six touch-downs. Kiel—who at 21 is only seven months younger than Johnny Manziel yet still has three years of eligibility remaining—said after the game, think I silenced the critics?' Maybe.
Rivals.com rated Kiel the country's No. 1 pro-style quarterback in the class of 20123 alongside the No. 1 dual-threat QB, Jameis Winston. While Winston won the Heisman Trophy last year at Florida State, Kiel had not even taken a live snap since his senior year in high school, 1029 days before the Toledo game. In that time he had aligned himself with four schools, transferred once, got called out in the press by a prominent coach and took so much grief from fans that he had to quit social media. He earned a reputation as the quintessential millennial quarterback—allergic to commitment, averse to adversity and famous for just being famous. At 6' 4" and 208 pounds, with blond hair and blue eyes, Kiel has always looked like the stereotype of a stud quarterback, and Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville says that Kiel's arm and natural talent have never been an issue. "We had to figure out," Tuberville says, "the between-the-ears syndrome." Was Kiel an underappreciative, over-parented brat trying to game the sys-tem in a billion-dollar business? Or simply a kid who had seen the harsh reality of big-time ball and hoped to avoid getting crushed by it? Was he worthy of all the attention or not even
worthy of taking a snap? The years and the questions took a toll. "When he got here, he was broken" says Hinshaw. His spirit was broken. He had a lot of accolades, and then nothing happened from it. The recruiting process can really screw you up."
DRIVE DOWN High-way 11 through Columbus, Ind, past Flo's Diner and Granny Ike ass electronics store, and you'll eventually come to the metaphoric intersection of Mellencamp and Marinovich. The four-acre Kiel spread is easily recognizable amid the soybean and corn fields by the rusting yellow goalpost, full-length basketball court and the airplane-hangar-sized garage that doubles as a workout facility with a drop-down batting cage.
On the living room wall hang portraits of Rip and Aleta's three boys—Drew, Dusty and Gunner—in matching white T-shirts, all holding footballs. Kip starred at Columbus East High, starting at quarterback for the 1980 season, and he went on to play defensive back at Ball State for two years and then at Butler. Kip's brother Blair was a four-year starting quarterback at Notre Dame who played eight seasons in the NFL A manufacturing rep by day, Kip coached the boys in junior high and did so well with them that from 2005 through '11 a Kiel boy started every game except one at quarterback for Columbus East, in a combined 75-11. Although Drew, who is five years older than Gunner, was named all-state his junior year, he received scholarship offers from only Central Michigan, Eastern Illinois and Illinois State, to which he committed in 2008. Kip felt that a lack of early exposure had kept Drew from get-ting bigger offers and decided that wouldn't happen again.
Gunner grew up idolizing his brothers, following them to 5 a.m. backyard workouts and later avoiding soda and sweets as they did. Now Kip had him tag along when the older boys went to camps and combines. One of the first was a summer camp at Illinois State, during which all the participants were asked to intro-duce themselves. "I remember Dusty getting up and saying, 'Dusty Kiel, quarterback, sophomore, Columbus East'" says Gunner. "Then I get up: 'Gunner Kiel, 13 years old, Central Middle School, seventh grade.'
"Heads turned, and Gunner felt the room asking, What is this seventh-grader doing here? On the practice field no one questioned if Gunner belonged.
When Gunner was in eighth grade, Scott (Izzy) Isphording then an Eastern Michigan assistant, visited Columbia East while recruiting Dusty and watched Gunner throw during an open workout. "If I could offer you right now I would,' he told Gunner.
Kip's strategy was paying off. In the summer before his senior year Dusty committed to Indiana. Two years later, as a sophomore, Gunner held offers from Indiana, Iowa and Purdue. By the middle of his junior year he got the No. 1 ranking and his offers reached well into the double digits. Nick Saban called from Alabama, Les Miles visited from LSU, and Gunner got off the phone with Lane Kiffin one day and announced, "Mom! I got a USC offer!" But he did not love the recruiting process, so like Dusty, he committed to the Hoosiers before his senior year His reaction was not so much joy as relief.
HEW HAD chosen Illinois State to play for hotshot offensive coordinator Justin Fuente, who left two weeks after Drew signed. (He's now the coach at Memphis.) Even without Fuente, Drew earned his first start as a redshirt sophomore and completed 20 of 22 passes in a 30-6 loss to Eastern Illinois. But worse, he suffered a right-thumb injury that cost him the starting job, which he never won back. After his redshirt junior year he left school with a degree in nutrition and a season of eligibility remaining.
At Indiana, Dusty was enduring similar difficulties. Bill Lynch, who had recruited him, was replaced after Dusty's rcdshirt freshman year by Kevin Wilson, who was bringing in his own players. Still, during Dusty's sophomore year, first-stringer Edward Wright-Baker injured his ankle and Dusty started two Barnes, going 39 for 82 for 427 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Then Dusty too hurt an ankle, knocking him out of the lineup and out of the program's big picture. He left the team with two years of eligibility remaining.
As Dusty struggled, so did the Hoosiers getting off to a 1-6 start. Gunner began to question his decision. He recalls thinking at one point, I don't want the same thing that happened to Drew to happen to me. I don’t want the same thing that happened to Dusty to happen to me.
In late October he reopened his recruitment. Many of the big boys came storming back. Gunner had arranged to graduate in December and head to college in January, creating pressure to make a quick decision, so two days after Christmas he committed to LSU. In early January, Gunner had his belongings shipped to Baton Rouge, but when he woke up on the morning of his departure. Jan. 16, something didn't feel right. "There was tension in the whole family" he says. "It wasn't because of the program, it was because it was so far away. They wanted to see me play, they wanted to see me? Gunner never got on the plane. After this second change of Gunner did not love the recruiting process or the attention, so before his senior year he committed to Indiana. His reaction was not so much joy as relief.
After this second change of heart, a narrative took hold: Strong-armed golden boy is indecisive and afraid of competition. When Gunner announced his commitment to Notre Dame the next day—the last day to register for classes—talking heads chattered, blog posts proliferated, message boards filled with screeds. When the story finally faded a few weeks later, Miles revived it by issuing the rare public ripping of a recruit, saying, ''''There was a gentleman from Indiana that thought about coming to the Bayou State. He did not necessarily have the chest and the ability to lead a program?' Gunner wasn't bothered by Miles's comment—"Every coach I decommitted from probably wasn't happy' and says he asked Kip if he could take the semester off after the LSU decommit, but his father wanted him in college. Notre Dame made sense. Besides the connection with his uncle (who died in 2012 of a heart at-tack), the family knew coach Brian Kelly because he'd recruited both brothers—Drew at Central Michigan and Dusty at Cincinnati. "I wasn't going to say no Kelly says. ''''Having had the history with the family, once he decommitted from LSU, I was going to take the kid."
ON HIS first night in South Bend, Gunner sat alone at a team training table and looked up to see himself on three television sets. "The other guys are staring at the screen and then just kind of looking [at me Kiel says. "So I'm like, Golly, guys, I'm gonna go hide under my shell real quick."
Kiel never truly emerged. In his first snap during seven-on-seven drills he came to the line and a line-man barked a request for the protection call. Gunner had no idea how to respond, so, rattled, he called time-out. Asking for time in an up-tempo football practice is about as welcome as a cellphone call during a moment of silence in the Grotto.
Redshirt freshman Everett Golson—a dual-threat quarterback ideally suited for Kelly's system—won the starting job and led the Irish to a 689 Passing yards in Kiel's first two college games, both against MAC teams.
Kiel tumbled to the scout team struggling with the offense and the expectations. You have to come to Notre Dame and become the next Joe Theismann in five minutes, or everyone is wondering what's the matter with you," says Chuck Martin, who was then ND's offensive coordinator.
Not only was he buried on the depth chart, but Kiel also felt over-whelmed academically and out of place socially. He went from being wanted at every school to feeling un-wanted at the school he picked. He chafed at the intensity of the coaching. "It was kind of worse," he says, comparing it with his dad's backyard urgings. "You'd get yelled at by Coach Martin, and then you'd go to Kelly and he'd chew you out." His confidence dwindled as football trans-formed from Let's go have fun to Oh, Man, I hope I don't screw up.
Kelly saw Kiel's struggles, but he didn't see him fight for a chance or a place. "He went home every week-end," Kelly says. The Irish staff tried to engage him, putting him on the travel squad for Oklahoma and Boston College. Kiel didn't see that as a compliment or an opportunity. "I knew I wasn't gonna play!" he says. "I'd been with the scout team all week. There was no point for me to go? When Kiel made the travel squad for Notre Dame's trip to USC at the end of 2012, he told the coaches he'd prefer to go home for Thanksgiving. I can get a long break," he recalls thinking. "It would be awesome to see the Coliseum and stuff, but I'm good. I just want to go home."
Despite his unhappiness, Kiel didn't transfer at the end of the fall semester, and in January he traveled with the team to the BCS title game in Miami, which the Irish lost 42-14 to Alabama. When spring practice came, Kiel chose not to challenge Go1son, an entrenched starter just one year ahead of him. He stayed in school but announced his intention to transfer. The move brought back questions of his ''''chest," especially when Golson was expelled from school for the 2013 season later that spring. The fallout of so bad that Gunner canceled his Twitter account, leaving behind thousands of followers. “It kind of sucked getting bashed and hearing them say, 'Oh, I hope you tear your ACI,' or 'Go die'" he says. "I was like, Dang, man, why? I'm just trying to do what's best for me. I didn't mean to upset you guys. Sorry?'
Former NFL quarterback Trent Differ has run Elite 11—a national showcase for top-rated quarterbacks who excel at regional camps—for the past five years. Differ liked Gunner personally, but he saw something missing. "The kids that make it realize it's a hard road, and the challenge is what they get excited about," says Differ. "I didn't see that with Gunner." Kelly didn't question Kiel's competitiveness, but rather the advice he got. "His dad has been involved in everything that he's done—that's a story in itself Kelly says. ''''Sometimes there's a realization: I have to do this for myself I hope he's to that point"
It was not the first time Kip had been accused of being overinvolved, and he bristled at Kelly's assertion. "All that matters is that my boys have grown up to be responsible young men and good people," he says noting that he never once called Kelly or Tuberville. "If [Kelly] thinks that I was a meddling father, basically, then that's his opinion. I wasn't overbearing to any of my kids, I don't think?'
Before Kip's interview for this story, he called. I cringe when the first paragraph I read is [Gunner] committed to IU, LSU and Notre Dame," he says. ''''That drives me insane in a negative way." He later worried about Tuberville's describing his son as ''''broken down," and said "please don't mention a whole lot about me." Were these attempts to exert control, or was he simply sharing his thoughts? Either way, Kip has become part of the chatter about Gunner, evidence to detractors that the kid is misguided and lacking will. Gunner embraces all the criticism. "I love it!' he says. You can call me soft, you can call me not competitive, you can call me a muffin. I don't care."
A break from Cincinnati's summer practice last month Gunner Kiel sat at a cafeteria table and pruned the fat from his prime rib. He smiled easily, sprinkling the conversation with golly, jeez and gosh. "The year I sat out was the best year of my entire life," he says. "I was happy. I wasn't in the limelight. It was actually an enjoyable college experience for me: Kiel chose Cincinnati because of his relationship with Hinshaw who recruited him at Tennessee. Hinshaw says that day after day of individual attention has brought back Kiel's confidence. The school has brought back his joy.
Kiel adores his teammates, clicked immediately with his roommates and spends the weekends on campus, hanging out and watching movies. He accepted his role running the scout team last year and showed up at 6 am lifts on Fridays and Saturdays without complaint. He says he felt all the things he didn't at Notre Dame—part of the team, embraced by the coaching staff and comfortable enough that he's not compelled to go home all the time. He's a completely different person says tight end Jake Golic, who also transferred from South Bend. "At Notre Dame he more kept to himself because he couldn't be himself there, and now he's at a place where he can be himself."
Tuberville remains judicious with his expectations for Kiel. After his sterling debut against Toledo, Kid threw four touchdowns and two interceptions in a 31-24 victory against Miami (Ohio). "He was up and down," Tuberville says. "I knew that was going to happen."
Martin, now the coach at Miami, came away impressed at how Cincinnati's pro-style offense highlights Kid's ability to throw the ball down the field. "They're doing all the stuff that's in Gunner's wheelhouse" Mar-tin says. "He played great, showed competitiveness, toughness, leader-ship and the whole deal."
Kiel knows there's pressure. Many are reserving judgment until they see him against big-time competition like Ohio State, the Bearcats' opponent this weekend. But he has no regrets. "It's just normal Gunner Kiel playing quarterback," he says, "doing what he loves to do."
2015 Draft: No Clear No. 1, But College Arms Dominate
October 20, 2014 by Clint Longenecker
Coming out of the summer of 2013, North Carolina State lefthander Carlos Rodon cemented himself as the consensus top prospect for the 2014 draft. He wound up going third overall, to the White Sox.
The 2015 draft class comes out of the summer without the clarity of 2013 or other recent classes, which had defined top talents.
The long, winding road for Lorenzo Cain
If you think the Royals weren't supposed to be here, Lorenzo Cain REALLY wasn't supposed to be here. Yet, here we are.
Lorenzo Cain just won the Lee MacPhail ALCS MVP trophy. Think about that for a minute: the 28-year old outfielder who had never posted a wRC+ above average since his 43-game debut back in 2010 took home the most valuable player hardware for the Royals, on their magical quest for a World Series title. Of course, anything can happen over a short sample, and the Royals made sure it was the shortest sample possible with their sweep of the Orioles, but it was a culmination of sorts, as well as a great testament to why players with promise shouldn't be given up on.
Cain was drafted in the 17th round of the 2004 Rule 4 Draft out of a Florida high school, 496th overall, by the Brewers. Given his draft position, he wasn't thought too highly of as a prep player. Sure, the potential was in there, but Cain hadn't started playing baseball until his sophomore year of high school (when he received his very first baseball glove) and was presumably raw by the time he was drafted. In a world where draft prospects are noticed early in the process by scouts through traveling teams and youth showcases, Cain was late to the party. By the time he was a senior he'd turned himself into a draft-worthy player but hardly one of certain promise.
Keep the tools in mind, however, when thinking of Cain. He's everything a scout, coach or fan can dream on, checking in at 6'2" and 185-pounds with speed to burn and oozing athleticism when he was selected. Unrefined? Perhaps, but teams take dozens of these kinds of chances every year in the draft and sometimes they pan out. Cain's story is along those lines as the raw tools eventually translated into results. After two season in rookie ball and one at High-A, he started to finally climb the Brewers' ladder in 2008, when he put up wRC+s of 125 and 128 in High-A and AA, respectively. Baseball Prospectus' Kevin Goldstein took notice in his 2009 Future Shock review:
Year in Review: The toolsy outfielder rebounded from a tough 2007 campaign, making major strides in translating his athletic ability into baseball skills.
The Good: Milwaukee credits Cain's step forward to a more disciplined approach, as he learned to lay off of breaking balls out of the strike zone and wait for pitches that he can drive. This also allowed him to begin to tap into his power, as his 11 home runs represented a career high, and with five more in the Arizona Fall League, the Brewers dream about him hitting 20 or more homers eventually. He has above-average speed, and is a good baserunner and a solid center fielder.
The Bad: Cain's game still needs some refinement. He can fall in love with his power at times, and becomes a bit pull-conscious. He still needs to work on his outfield play, particularly his jumps and reads. There are fears that if he can't stay in center, he'll profile as more of a tweener.
Perfect World Projection: He's not a huge impact player, but a nice everyday center fielder who can beat you in a variety of ways.
Glass Half Empty: He becomes a fourth outfielder who can play all three spots.
Cain lost time in 2009 due to injury and performed poorly when on the diamond, missing the cut and finding his way off the Brewers' top prospect list. He was good in the high minors in 2010 and earned a promotion to the big leagues, where he logged 43 games, slashing .310/.348/.415 in his rookies season, good enough for a 107 wRC+ with seven steals and 11 doubles. As predicted, he notched positive defensive values with a UZR/150 of 5.4, accrued primarily from playing in center, in addition to a handful of innings in left and right. The Brewers had their center fielder of the future on their hands.
And then they didn't.
In December of 2010, Cain was traded, along with Alcides Escobar, Jeremy Jeffress and Jake Odorizzi, for Zack Greinke. It was a blockbuster of a deal, as the Brewers sent four highly-regarded players to the Royals in exchange for the 2009 Cy Young winner. The change was likely tough to embrace for Cain and his fellow tradees. Kansas City had lost at least 93 games in seven of the previous eight seasons, making it one of baseball's blackest of black holes. The change of scenery didn't exactly improve Cain's performance: It was back to AAA for Cain with the Royals, save for a six-game trial where he didn't turn heads. But his minor league time appeared useful, as he was excellent over 128 games.
The extra seasoning was perhaps just what the doctor ordered, due to his lack of overall baseball experience. He was 25, however, and it would have been easy to dismiss his AAA performance. 2012 was destined to be his breakout, but the universe had other plans. Instead of bursting onto the major league baseball map, Cain was derailed by a series of injuries, starting with the fifth game of the major league season. He was injured trying to rehab and only managed to log 61 games with the Royals, in which he put up 1.7 fWAR, mostly on the back of strong center field defense. Still, it was a sign that if Cain could stay healthy and contribute for a whole season, he might just turn into a real difference-maker.
This is obviously what the Royals were hoping for when the 27-year-old reclaimed the center field job in 2013, but Cain fizzled at the plate. His 80 wRC+ over 115 games was not what anyone was hoping for, and with Jarrod Dyson knocking on the door, Cain either lost playing time or was moved to right field on occasion. In yet another year when it was all supposed to come together for Cain, the results were less inspiring than hoped for. His defense in the outfield saved his value, however, as he was able to accumulate 2.7 fWAR thanks to a UZR/150 of 29.2, fourth-best in the majors for all outfielders. He had the defense thing covered, but the bat was still lagging. Although he'd posted a career minor league slash line of .294/.366/.430, he managed a measly .251/.310/.348 and left a lot to be desired. Worst of all, the clock was ticking; as he approached his age-28 season, Cain's leash most certainly was tightening considering the team's aspirations heading into the 2014 season.
And then it all clicked. He hit for more power. He stole more bases. He was more consistent. He played a career-high number of games, and even managed to get luck on his side. The defense held, the offense came around, and when the dust settled, Cain put up nearly 5 fWAR in his long-awaited breakout campaign, good enough for seventh-best among all major league center fielders. As you can imagine, the timing couldn't have been better. The Royals scratched and clawed their way into the playoffs with only one extra game to spare. An untimely falter by Cain (or any of his teammates) could have seen the Royals at home right now rather than entering the World Series for the first time in 29 years.
Instead, Lorenzo Cain finally blossomed before our eyes. The physical gifts turned into defensive and offensive production and Royals have certainly needed every bit of it he could muster. On the biggest stage of his career, Cain was stellar in the ALCS, going 8 for 15 (.533) with five runs scored, two walks and three strikeouts while making highlight reel catches appear entirely routine. He certainly captured America's attention during the series as the Royals pushed their magical season one step closer to completion.
This is Lorenzo Cain: a guy that wasn't supposed to play baseball, wasn't drafted highly, rarely received accolades in the minors, was traded to one of baseball's worst-performing franchises, suffered from injuries, failed to perform in the majors and looked to be on the verge of washing out as a defense-only player at best. Instead, that vision that Kevin Goldstein and countless other scouts had seen for Cain in the past finally manifested itself. It came at the perfect time for his team, as they're one step away from a World Series crown. Baseball's funny sometimes, and I guess that's why we watch it. Lorenzo Cain's been magnificent, and he's certainly worth watching, too.
Minor-league lawsuit claims MLB fails to pay minimum wage to minor-leaguers
Behind the romantic notion of baseball's hard-scrabble minor leagues lies the less-idealized reality that the players are paid poverty wages.
By: Brendan Kennedy Sports reporter, Published on Fri Oct 17 2014
CLINTON, IOWA—Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams is just an hour and a half northwest of here. That old corn field from which he carved a supernatural baseball diamond is a little ways up the Mississippi, near Dyersville, Iowa, where it stands today as a tourist attraction, preserved to look just like it did in the movie.
Down here in Clinton, a shrinking factory town that’s home to the minor-league LumberKings, sits a field for a more earthly dream, though equally romantic.
“It’s an amazing feeling to be one step closer to my ultimate goal in life,” says Eddie Campbell, an earnest, 22-year-old starting pitcher for the LumberKings. “And that’s to play Major League Baseball.”
The minor leagues are often glorified as a simpler, less corrupt version of America’s national pastime, where the game is unadulterated by fame or money and where long bus rides build character. But behind the pastoral charm is a less idealized reality: that it operates on the backs of workers earning poverty wages.
The LumberKings, named for the millionaire timber barons who once ran this town, are the Class-A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners, who, like every other major-league team, pay their A-level minor leaguers roughly $6,300 for the five-month season — about two-thirds what Jose Bautista makes per inning.
Players in the NBA’s affiliated minor leagues make three to five times as much, while the NHL’s unionized minor leaguers can earn even more, with greater benefits to boot. (The NFL doesn’t have an affiliated minor league.)
Minor-league baseball players regularly work 60- to 70-hour weeks with only two or three days off a month, but they get no overtime pay. They receive only a $25 meal per diem — no salary — for the mandatory four to six weeks of spring training. Same goes for any instructional leagues they may be required to attend when their 140-game schedule ends.
Players are required to pay $5 per day in clubhouse dues for each home game
A handful of players receive six-figure signing bonuses in their first year, but many sign for $5,000 or less. So most players earn less than the federal U.S. poverty line, which in 2014 is an annual income of $11,670 for a single-person household.
How does a $9-billion industry like Major League Baseball get away with this?
It has a steady supply of willing, non-unionized workers who are required to sign standardized, seven-year contracts binding them to a single organization. The players have little or no leverage to change what baseball considers a rite of passage. Besides, they’re chasing a childhood dream.
“I’m lucky to be able to be here and get paid to play the game I love,” Campbell says.
But critics accuse Major League Baseball of exploiting that dream while reaping the benefits of the minor leaguers’ cheap labour, and a lawsuit filed by 32 former minor-league players threatens to upend the current system.
“The Defendants have preyed upon minor leaguers, who are powerless to combat the collusive power of the MLB cartel,” reads a passage from the lawsuit, filed in February, which the plaintiffs hope will soon be certified as a class action.
“Baseball has just ignored this for so long that it has reached a tipping point,” says Garrett Broshius, the St. Louis, Mo.-based lawyer behind the suit and a former minor-league player himself who spent six seasons in the San Francisco Giants’ farm system.
Since 1976, when major-league players won the right to free agency, their salaries have increased by 2,000 per cent. The major-league minimum is now $500,000.
But minor-league salaries have increased by only 75 per cent over the same period while inflation has risen more than 400 per cent. In real dollars, Broshius says, minor leaguers earn less today than they did more than 30 years ago.
Though couched in legalese, the crux of the former players’ case is fairly simple: they argue they weren’t paid minimum wage, were not compensated for overtime and in some cases worked without pay entirely. They will be seeking back pay, though they haven’t yet set a specific amount for damages.
Major League Baseball maintains a longstanding exemption from antitrust laws, so its franchises can collectively agree on standardized minor-league contracts. But Broshius argues the league is not exempt from federal wage and hour laws.
Stanford University law professor Bill Gould agrees. “It’s quite clear that the league is working beyond the rules established by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 in terms of hours the players have committed and the pay they receive,” says Gould, who previously worked as a salary arbitrator for Major League Baseball. “The facts are very clear. They’re going to have to find some kind of exception.”
Major League Baseball refused to comment for this story, but in its “answer” — an initial legal response, filed in May —it put forward several potential defences, including the notion that minor-league players are seasonal workers and exempt from hourly wage laws. Gould says the seasonal exemption is baseball’s “only way out.
“If that doesn’t catch on, it seems to me that it’s a question of what kind of settlements they’re going to engage in.”
The minor-league lawsuit is the latest in a growing movement of semi-pro and student athletes fighting for fairer pay: the unionization push for Canadian junior hockey players, for instance, or NCAA athletes’ fight to organize and be compensated for the use of their names and likenesses in merchandising. The difference is that minor leaguers are unambiguously full-time professionals and represent the bulk of the league’s employees. Major League Baseball employs eight minor leaguers for every major leaguer.
“It’s a situation that is ripe for the owners to take advantage of those minor-league guys because they are chasing a dream and they want to get into the industry so badly that they’re willing to do almost anything to do it,” says Broshius.
Matt Daly is one of the former minor leaguers who joined the lawsuit earlier this year. He played five seasons in the Blue Jays’ farm system from 2008 to 2012 — earning less than $40,000 over his entire minor-league career — and remembers how quickly he became disillusioned with the life. “Everything seems glamorous and amazing when you’re a professional athlete. Then I got there and saw how different it was.”
Daly worked off-season jobs and lived in cramped apartments to make ends meet. After the birth of his first child in 2010, his in-laws paid the rent at the Dunedin, Fla., apartment he shared with his wife. “We wouldn’t have been able to afford it otherwise.”
Daly was released by the Jays in 2013 after he participated in spring training without pay. Now 28 and working for a home builder in Colorado, he says he understands people who think he should feel lucky to have been paid to play baseball. But he hopes those people also consider that the league is a multi-billion-dollar corporation, and when you compute the hours he worked with the pay he received, it doesn’t add up.
“I know every ball player that’s ever played this game is grateful for that opportunity . . . (But) realistically, you would be better off with a 20-hour work week at a minimum-wage job for a full year, from a financial standpoint. That’s something I hope people can respect and understand.”
LIVING THE DREAM
The first thing you notice in Clinton is the smell. Or smells. The strongest — a sour, stale-beer stink — comes from the Archer Daniels Midland corn-processing plant, a sprawling complex that dominates the town’s southern waterfront.
The company is Clinton’s biggest employer and looms large, not only in its physical presence but also in the town’s psyche. The plant’s workers have not been organized since 1979, when the previous owner, Clinton Corn, busted the local union after a nearly year-long strike. Clinton’s population has dwindled ever since, from a high of nearly 35,000 in 1970 to today’s 26,473.
The aroma of dog food competes, wafting over from the Purina plant. On a hot day with a little wind it makes for a putrid potpourri.
“This isn’t an ideal place to live for the summer,” admits LumberKings’ centre fielder Aaron Barbosa. “But at the same time we don’t make that much money and it’s cheaper to live in a worse place.”
Most players live four or five guys — sometimes six — to a one- or two-bedroom apartment in the cheapest building in town, splitting the rent to stretch their $625 biweekly paycheques. “Fit as many people in as you can in to save money,” Barbosa says.
Typically, the veterans get a bedroom while the others sleep on air mattresses in the common room or on the couch. “It’s only a place to crash,” shrugs catcher Luke Guarnaccia, 22, who shares a two-bedroom apartment with four other players.
The athletes are at the ballpark for about 10 hours every day, not including travel time or double-headers — the LumberKings have played 11 this season. For a 6:30 p.m. game, they will arrive around 1 or 2 and take advantage of the free peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the clubhouse before mandatory stretching, batting practice and drills. They may come earlier to work out in the gym with the team’s trainer.
“I knew it was going to be a lot of work,” says Blake Holovach, a 23-year-old left-hander from Kansas City. “But I didn’t know we were going to be at the field all day.”
Baseball’s grind of a schedule and repetitive practice regime necessitate long days at the ballpark. “But if you’re working at a job that requires you to put in that many hours,” Broshius says, “out of basic fairness it just makes sense that you should be compensated for those hours that you put in.
“If you’re working at McDonald’s and you end up working 60 hours a week for whatever reason, they have to pay you for all 60 of those hours and for 20 of those hours they have to pay you overtime. If McDonald’s can figure out a way to comply with those laws, then why can’t Major League Baseball figure it out?”
RITE OF PASSAGE
I arrive at the ballpark at 9:30 a.m. to join the LumberKings before a three-game road trip to Kane County, Ill. The team is in the middle of a stretch of 20 games without a day off to end the season, and their playoff hopes are dim.
This bus trip is an easy one, though — only two hours. Just long enough to watch a Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson buddy flick, and nothing like the eight-hour treks to Bowling Green, Ky., or Dayton, Ohio.
The LumberKings’ manager, Scott Steinmann, played three minor-league seasons before becoming a coach in 2003. He says the conditions for players are cushy compared to what he went through, recalling when he played in the Southern League and melted through eight-hour commutes on old buses with no air conditioning. Everybody would strip to their underwear and the bus would reek from 30 sweating men.
“This minor league, it’s kind of like a rite of passage,” he says. “You go through it, you’ve endured it, you’ve transcended up to the level of a major-league player. But all those guys up there have gone and played on fields like this and played in small towns like Clinton, and you always have those stories and those things to draw upon to say, ‘I’ve gone through a bit of struggle but I’m better because of it.’ ”
The LumberKings lose all three games to the first-place Kane County Cougars — the eventual champions of the Midwest League — and drive back to Clinton late Saturday night, arriving around 1 a.m. Sunday. The players have to be back at the ballpark in about nine hours for a Sunday afternoon home game.
Barbosa, the LumberKings’ lead-off hitter, collects six hits on the three-game trip, boosting his season-long batting average to .310. The 22-year-old from outside Boston is enjoying a breakout season and could get promoted to advanced Class-A next season. He plans to finish his civil engineering degree from Northeastern University this off-season, and says it’s “flat-out stupid” not to have a backup plan beyond baseball.
Barbosa won’t openly complain about his low pay, though he eventually admits it “doesn’t seem fair. “But it makes sense in a way, just because of how many of us there are.”
Baseball’s minor-league system is vast and deep. Most major-league teams are affiliated with eight minor-league teams, ranging from the short-season Dominican and Gulf Coast rookie leagues to Triple-A, which is one step below the majors.
Some minor-league teams are owned by the parent clubs, but most operate independently, linked to their major-league affiliate by player-development contracts. The major-league team pays the players and coaching staff and oversees all player development, while the minor-league team runs daily operations, such as tickets sales and concessions.
The LumberKings — who are in low Class-A, the lowest level of full-season professional baseball and four steps below the big leagues — are one of the few community-owned franchises left in minor-league baseball, and they have operated that way since 1937. They are a for-profit corporation, but general manager Ted Tornow says they have never paid dividends to their 1,000-odd shareholders. “Any profits have gone back into the team or the facilities,” he declares.
Monthly minor-league salaries range from $1,100 in rookie leagues to $2,150 at the Triple-A level. All players receive one-time signing bonuses, which range dramatically, from more than $1 million for a first-round pick to as little as $1,000 for a late-round college senior.
The LumberKings’ lone Canadian, Tyler O’Neill, signed for $650,000 last year. O’Neill — who grew up in Maple Ridge, B.C. — will be financially secure even if he has to stretch the bonus for five or six minor-league seasons. Some of his teammates, however, signed for a fraction of what he did. Kevin McCoy, a college senior, signed for $5,000.
So while technically every player receives the same in-season salary, the organization invests far more resources in highly touted prospects who are being groomed for the majors. But even the highest-ranked prospects typically spend years in the minors, and they need players to play with and against. That’s why teams need cheaper signs like McCoy to fill out the rosters.
McCoy, though, doesn’t see it that way. Like Campbell, he’s just happy for the opportunity.
“I feel very fortunate to be paid to play baseball, something I’ve been doing my whole life,” he says. “The Mariners are an incredible organization.”
The 23-year-old relief pitcher is a trivia buff and fitness nut who believes in the power of positive thinking. “(The low pay) doesn’t bother me because I have the mindset that you can’t put a finite, monetary amount on a dream, on an ambition, on an aspiration. It’s something that transcends yourself. You’re playing for every single kid that one day dreams of being in your shoes.”
There is a dissonance that occurs in every conversation with a minor-league player. When they talk about their commitment to the team and what’s expected of them, they use the language of employment: This is a business. I gotta do my job. This is what we get paid to do. But when the topic of their actual salaries comes up, they fall back on a different kind of cliché: You can’t put a price on a dream. We play a kid’s game. I’m doing what I love.
“It’s a system or a culture (the league) has created where it’s a business when they need it to be a business and a game when they need it to be a game,” says Lucas Mann, an Iowa-based writer who spent a full season with the LumberKings in 2010, chronicling the year in his book Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere.
The players also embrace an image of themselves as heroic underdogs, Mann says. “Even the word dream, right? These general terms do a really good job of whitewashing everything else.”
Roughly 10 per cent of the 6,000 active minor-league players will get a sniff of the big leagues. So only two, maybe three, of the 25 players currently on the LumberKings’ roster will get a chance to earn major-league money.
But LumberKings manager Steinmann waves away the long odds. “If you’ve got a uniform, you’ve got a chance,” he says.
He’s not wrong. Mark Buehrle, the Blue Jays’ veteran left-hander, was a 38th-round draft pick. He has earned $119 million over his 15-year career and will make $19 million next year. Mike Piazza, a 12-time all-star, was selected in the 62nd round — after most teams had stopped drafting — as a favour to his father. He became a superstar and earned more than $120 million in his career.
Stories like these are a powerful incentive.
“The only thing that keeps you going is the hope of making all that money, and hopefully it’s in a couple to a few years, so you don’t have to worry about the little money that we make now,” says Holovach, who was drafted in the 27th round in 2012. “It’ll all hopefully pay itself off.”
Until then, some players will get financial help from their parents while others try to save as much as they can in their off-season jobs, which range from giving baseball clinics to pumping gas to selling shoes.
To a man, the players say they wouldn’t trade their experience. They relish the competition and the camaraderie. The time between the lines, under the lights, is intoxicating.
“I have a lot of bills to pay and an apartment back home with my fiancée that I still pay for, and I barely get by,” says reliever Aaron Brooks, who sends her $200 from every paycheque. “But it’s way better than going home and working in McDonald’s or something. They may be making more money, but they’re not enjoying it.”
For others, the game is like an extended adolescence.
“I still feel like a kid so when I get these cheques I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s kind of a lot of money,’ even though it’s not,” says Campbell.
Blue Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey, 39, spent 14 seasons in the minors (though the bulk was at the Triple-A level) and says he enjoyed the experience despite the low pay.
“Of course you’d like it to be more, but you also understand that you’re working towards something much like in any industry you start in the mail room to work your way up to being a CEO . . . Nobody’s holding a gun to your head saying you gotta be a minor-league baseball player. You do it because you love it and you dreamed about doing it.”
Dickey, who made $850 in his first minor-league season, worked a multitude of off-season jobs, from menial warehouse work to landscaping to working at a bookstore.
While he enjoyed his experience in general, Dickey says, he wishes there had been some type of union protection for when the Texas Rangers pulled back their initial signing-bonus offer of $800,000 and reduced it to $75,000 when team doctors found he did not have an ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow.
“Outside of that I kind of just accepted my surroundings. As a 21-year-old kid, whatever they were, they were. I didn’t really know the difference. When you don’t have something to compare it to, it’s hard to know if it’s unsuitable working conditions or not.”
FEAR OF BEING BLACKBALLED
The minor-league lawsuit won’t be resolved for years. The trial, if it comes to that, isn’t scheduled until the fall of 2016. The class-action certification could take months.
In the meantime, Broshius hopes the suit will spur minor leaguers to think about forming a union.
Several LumberKings players have ideas to improve their working conditions: housing allowances, increased per diems, ensuring adequate sleep on road trips. But they have no union and no representation in the major-league union, even though the collective bargaining agreements between the MLB and its players regularly affect minor leaguers.
For instance, the most recent agreement, in 2012, reduced the overall pool of money for signing bonuses — a concession made by major leaguers to win benefits elsewhere — and the agreement signed in 2007 delayed minor-league free agency by an extra year. “Yet minor leaguers have no voice at the table,” Broshius says.
The Major League Players’ Association refused to comment for this story. In an emailed statement, communications director Gregory Bouris said the MLBPA’s “general belief” is that “all workers, regardless of industry or profession, deserve the right to protect their interests by unionizing and/or pursuing statutory options that may be available to them through the court system.”
The biggest roadblock to unionization is the players’ reluctance to rock the boat for fear of risking their careers.
“The notion that these very young, inexperienced people were going to defy the owners when they had stars in their eyes about making it to the major leagues — it’s just not going to happen,” the late Marvin Miller told Slate in 2012. Miller, a former executive director of the big-league players’ union who negotiated baseball’s first collective bargaining agreement in 1968, said the fear of being blackballed had long deterred any organizing by minor leaguers.
By contrast, baseball’s minor-league peers in professional hockey have been unionized for nearly 50 years. In 1967, Mark Messier’s father, Doug, hired a lawyer and rallied his Portland Buckaroo teammates to fight for higher salaries and better health care. From there, the Professional Hockey Players’ Association was born and the union now represents 1,600 players in the American Hockey League, East Coast Hockey League and the Central Hockey League.
The difference in salary compared to their baseball counterparts is stark.
In the AHL, which is one step below the NHL, the minimum salary is $45,000, while the average is more than $80,000, according to the association’s executive director, Larry Landon. That’s roughly four to eight times the standard pay for a non-free-agent Triple-A baseball player. In the ECHL, roughly equivalent to baseball’s Double-A level, players receive $1,700 a month, which is closer to the salaries in baseball’s high minors — though still higher — except that all ECHL players have their housing and utilities covered.
Yet Major League Baseball generates more than twice the annual revenue of the National Hockey League.
“The faster the baseball players at the minor-league level can unionize, the better off they’re going to be,” Landon says. “Our guys are talking about this lawsuit, saying, ‘Why doesn’t Minor League Baseball unionize? Why don’t those players see what we have and take action?’ ”
LumberKing reliever Brooks says he wished there was a union in baseball’s minors but he doesn’t have the time or energy to devote to something like that.
“We’ve got 140 games and maybe an off-day or two a month, plus travel. There’s definitely things that need to change, but right now we need to do our job, which is to play baseball, which I think is a good enough opportunity.”
Daly, the former Jays’ minor leaguer who joined the lawsuit earlier this year, understands that mentality. “I never said anything when I was a player. If you get into anything like that, your job’s in jeopardy, your chance (at getting promoted) is in jeopardy.
“But truly, in your heart you feel that you’re basically not getting what you should given the amount of time and hours and effort that you’re putting into it from a true job perspective. It’s not fair.”
Blue Jays prospect Matthew Boyd reflects on the value of demotion in 2014
Toronto Blue Jays pitching prospect Matt Boyd struggled while making the transition to Double-A in 2014, but feels that he's found positives from the experience.
Blue Jays prospect Matthew Boyd Reflects on the Value of Demotion in 2014
Getting to the Double-A level, where so much is proven, is considered one of the biggest jumps in professional baseball. For Toronto Blue Jays prospect Matthew Boyd, the promotion to Double-A was one that he embraced, but soon felt overwhelmed by. His approach began to change. His mind wasn’t on the game he’d played all his life; instead he’d lost touch with a very simple mantra all players learn to live by.
"The game is the same no matter what level. And I didn’t think it was the same game," he said Sunday. "That was the biggest thing working against me."
That mental struggle, as well as foot pain that he’d been playing through, led to consistent struggles. In six starts through May, he surrendered 20 earned runs.
"The second time I went up to Double-A, in July, and got three or four good outings, I felt a lot better. I gained a lot of confidence back," he said.
The idea that the game speeds up the higher the level sounds a bit mystical. But, realistically, players in Double-A will have more finely tuned instincts, sharpened through repetition, making them quicker to figure things out. Sink or swim thinking caught up to Boyd. Players talk about the change in atmosphere, and a more professional manner overall . Everything looks a bit more major league.
"The pace is different. And not just the level of hitters, but even what the locker rooms are like is different. I had to learn my routine," he explained.
Boyd’s journey began when the Blue Jays drafted the two-position player in 2013 in the sixth round out of Oregon State University. He went 11-4 with a 2.04 ERA for the season, while striking out 122 in 123 innings, and was named to the Baseball America All-America Third team and the All-Pac 12 First Team. He played first base and made an impact at the plate throughout high school and college, but he was fully converted to a starting pitcher as a senior for Oregon.
"It was time to focus completely on pitching. They didn’t want to burn me," he said.
He’d been a reliever through parts of college, but it’s the rotation where he feels most comfortable.
"You kind of control the game when you’re a starter, and I love that. You’re leaving your stamp on it. I could easily convert back to the pen if they need me to. But starting is a joy for me."
In his first season of pro-ball he split time between the Florida State and Midwest leagues, making just five starts, with 24 innings pitched. He started the 2014 season repeating Class-A Florida State League with Dunedin, but received an early season promotion to the the Eastern League. While some players can skip Triple-A, Double-A performance tends to dictate a lot.
Boyd struggled with New Hampshire, posting an 8.31 ERA in 22 innings in six starts in May. He was sent back to Dunedin, then moved back up to New Hampshire again in July. His ERA was still high in five starts there at 5.57 in 21 innings, but his K/BB was greatly improved at 23/2. He returned to Dunedin in August. Overall, he posted a 1.39 ERA with a 103/20 K/BB in 91 innings for Dunedin, but 6.96 ERA in 43 innings for New Hampshire, though his K/BB at least was good at 43/13. The problem was 55 hits in Double-A.
Boyd’s issues seemingly lock him up for a season back with New Hampshire. However, if fully healthy and consistent, he adds more depth to a system already deep with solid young arms.
Boyd’s difficult transition to Double-A, back to Class-A, then back up again was a lesson in keeping it simple. He’s focused now on developing his slider more, and picking up from where he left off in take-two of the Double-A experience.
"The second time around, I could see where I made mistakes, and I was able to build off of that. I got back to taking it one game at a time."
Sometimes an oft-used statement to sum up playing the game just works.