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Friday, May 27, 2005

The Persistence of Dreams

Last night, I attended a baseball game featuring the Gary RailCats and the Edmonton Cracker Cats of the independent Northern League. The teams in this league do not have working arrangements with major league baseball teams, and the players are under contract solely to the team for which they play.

Players in this league are pursuing a dream. Some of them have never played in "organized baseball"--they never signed a contract (or, if they did, they failed to make the cut for a minor league team). Occasionally, a player on an independent team has been drafted, but failed (or refused) to sign--J.D. Drew is an example. Or a player might be hanging on, staying in shape, and hoping to make it back the the majors (Darryl Strawberry did this, and Ricky Henderson has done it more than once. Last year, Wes Chamberlain played for the RailCats).

My prior was that most of the players who do not fit into the categories in the previous question would be young--18 to 25, maybe. What surprised me was the age composition of the (22-player) RailCats roster. Two of the players are 23-24. Two or three are in their 30s (the oldest is 32). The rest are 25-29. That's 17 or 18 players in their mid-to-late 20s. And, for some of them, their first professional experience has been in the last two years.

These players are working for almost no money. The teams have a payroll cap of $95,000 for their rosters. Granted, the seasons are short--three months of play, with 2-3 weeks of spring training (in May) before. So the average monthly player salary (calling it 3.5 months) is a little over $1200--about $4300 for the season.

Almost certainly these players have alternative employment that would pay them more (the implicit hourly wage, assuming an 8 hour day and 22 work days per month, is $7.00). These young men are, in effect, paying--giving up income--in order to play, not just minor league, but lower-than-minor-league, baseball. How much? Based on the player bios about 15 of the players had attended college. According the the Census Bureau, the mean annual earnings of males ages 25 - 29, with some college, in 2003, was about $30,000. I don't know what these players can earn during the off-season, but it's surely less than they could earn if they were full-year workers. But just focusing on what they five up during the 3.5 months they commit to playing baseball, they are giving up about $4400 per playing season to pursue this dream.

Not a choice I would make. But, clearly, a choice these men are not only willing to make, one they are eager to make.


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