For Love of the Game: Chasing Big League Dreams For 12 Bucks an Hour

Kyle Johnson brought his wife and their two young daughters with him to spring training this year, here in Port St. Lucie, Florida. It was about $3,000 more expensive than in 2016, when he crashed on a friend’s couch in Jupiter, 35 miles south, to save money.

A speedy 27-year-old outfielder, Kyle—like all baseball minor leaguers—did not get paid to work here. He did not get paid for extended spring training either, or for the fall instructional league.

But Kyle didn’t care anymore. He’d given so much of himself to baseball, perhaps nothing more than the six months he has sacrificed, each of the last five years, working away from Susan and the girls, seven-year-old Adelyn and two-year-old Channing. Cost be damned—this year, Kyle wanted some semblance of work-life balance. He wanted his girls with him because this year felt different.

For one thing, he’d finished last season at the top of the Mets’ farm system, as the starting left fielder for the Triple-A Las Vegas 51s, and more than once, he felt like any day he would walk out of that minor league locker room for the last time, the old buses and grind traded in for the dream he’d been chasing all of his life.

For another, hey, at least having his daughters here saved some money on daycare.

And then there was the part where he’d done what agents have been advising minor leaguers not to do—at least not if they want anything to do with the bigs ever again: Kyle had just become the first active minor leaguer to publicly declare his part in an ongoing class-action lawsuit against Major League Baseball over unfair wages and unjust labor practices.

So, yeah. Spring training would be a little different this year.

Walk around the stadium here during a big league Florida Grapefruit League game, ask the fans how much they think the minor leaguers scrimmaging on the back fields make, and they’ll guess anywhere from $50,000 to $500,000 per year. Ask 14-year-old Liam Turner from Perth, Ontario, who dreams of pitching in the bigs one day, how much they’d have to pay him to pitch in the minors, and he’ll say, “Nothing.”

Anyway, Liam is closest at the guessing game: In five years as a minor leaguer, including his time in Triple-A, Kyle Johnson has never been paid more than $11,500 a season by a baseball team.

Not unlike young Liam, a player with a pro baseball contract doesn’t care about the money in the beginning. A player with a shot at the bigs—a player like Kyle Johnson—just wants to play.

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