Satchell Wilson and Ian McCutcheon have their eyes set on professional baseball. The average fan doesn’t understand the harsh reality of the minor leagues.

By Ryan Walker, Staff Writer

*This article was first published in the Herald-Press*

“They spend all of their money on the baseball field,” Ian McCutcheon said, “and then they put you in a hotel that just smells like cigarettes, got hair in the sink, it’s just absolutely nasty.”

That’s just a small sample of the harsh reality minor league baseball players have to encounter. The HU baseball program has been known for their relationship with the Kalamazoo Growlers, a team in the Northwoods League. The league simulates the professional baseball experience for college athletes with its unique ballparks, living away from home, bus rides, and more. 

HU has sent seven players to Kalamazoo since 2017 to get a chance to improve their game and get exposure to Major League Baseball. But these two student-athletes learned the ups and downs of being a professional player.

The league plays a grueling 72-game schedule, doesn’t have the best food provided to the players, and did not get paid to play. 

“Going from playing four games a week to playing every day, no cancelations, and you have to get to the baseball field at 1:00 p.m.” McCutcheon said, “Then you’re probably leaving the field around 10:30-11:00 p.m. It’s just really long days.”

Baseball isn’t always that home run experience you’d expect, including some of the meals.

“A lot of pizza, a lot of fried chicken wings from bdubs before and after games.” Wilson said, “I don’t like bdubs very much anymore.”

Players that don’t have their own living space are able to live with a host family, people that get paid to house the players. With the families, it’s the luck of the draw. 

Wilson and his roommate from Southeastern University in Florida had a married couple that were nice and fixed them breakfast every morning. McCutcheon didn’t have a problem either, but admitted that it’s strange living with people he’s never met before.

One of baseball’s greatest strengths is the uniqueness to each ballpark, and that is true in the Northwoods League too. But the players don’t know what they’re getting into when they travel to an opposing team.

“There were no locker rooms, so we had to change in the dugout, and we just sat there for like two hours doing nothing,” Wilson said about the time when they played in Wisconsin “No locker room. I mean, it’s a little thing, and it sounds kind of petty, but, yeah.”

Not to mention the bus trips, the longest for the two players was four hours and thirty minutes.

“You can’t really sleep on a bus because they’re really uncomfortable.” McCutcheon added.

Fans may think that these are small inconveniences that everyday people have to deal with. But when taking a step back from the college simulation of professional baseball, we see that these players are not paid like professionals.

According to NBC Sports, the 2021 minimum salary for a Single-A minor league baseball player is $500 a week. When comparing that to the 20-week season for the Fort Wayne Tin Caps, a Single-A organization, that wage is $10,000 a year. In fact, before the COVID-19 pandemic started, minor leaguer’s weekly wage was $290, totaling $5,800 a year.

Ty Kelly, former Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball player of the New York Mets, took his frustrations and opinions to Twitter on the matter with a photo of the New York Mets spring training locker room. Not the Mets locker room, the spring training locker room in Port St. Lucie, Florida, which was a check worth $57 million.

Kelly also commented on the issue about the food experience with the Mets, saying that their meal was a slice of meat and cheese for a sandwich, an apple, Gogurt, and a Nature Valley bar. He also wrote on Twitter, “When we tried to make salads at our home complex before getting on the bus, we were told it was not allowed because lunch was already provided.”

Despite these issues the owner of the Growlers, Brian Colopy, explained that he wants players to come to Kalamazoo and get treated the best they possibly can, get the professional ballpark atmosphere and have fun.

“We just care about our guys,” Colopy said, “they come in here, and they’re a part of the Growlers family.”

The Growlers are unique to the other 21 teams in the Northwoods League, having a home-run derby before each home game, Grandma dancers on the field, a juggling act in the middle of the game, and much more.

Players are encouraged to participate in the on-field activities as well as their own creative ideas. For example, University of Kentucky outfielder Nolan McCarthy would chug down a Bang energy drink after hitting a home run.

The Growlers also provided pre-game snacks such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, granola bars and those Bang energy drinks, which clearly made a difference.

Players from bigger Division I schools may not appreciate the little things as much as smaller schools. But Satchell Wilson doesn’t take the little things for granted, like sandwiches and snacks.

“Being from a small school, you don’t really get that like some of the big schools get,” Wilson said, “It was pretty cool, I thought.”

Brian Colopy also makes physical health a priority, allowing any Growlers player to weight lift at the YMCA for free, which is where McCutcheon and Wilson bonded in their limited free time.

Even after a summer where some realities settled in for Wilson and McCutcheon, the goal remains the same, to get drafted to a Major League team.

“That’s why I’ve been playing all my life,” Wilson said, “I’ve been putting so much work and effort into it, I definitely would like to play professionally.”

The NAIA has seen very few players get selected in the MLB Draft, but Huntington is no stranger to it. Dalton Combs, an HU graduate and Growler was drafted in the 35th round to the San Francisco Giants in the 2017 MLB Draft.

Combs during the COVID-19 season was released along with hundreds of other minor league players. But is still playing in the Frontier League for the New Jersey Jackals, an independent team.

Combs said in an email interview that the Giants organization treated them the best that they could and he appreciates that. But from an overall perspective, he’s on the same page as other players.

“For the amount of time we put on the field, there should be more opportunities for us to make a better salary.” Combs said, “But I think we will see some change in the near future.”

Smaller schools in the NAIA, unfortunately, don’t always get the love that they deserve when it comes to the MLB Draft. Just three players were selected from the NAIA in the 2021 reduced draft, so Combs and Forester baseball players dream past the harsh conditions.

“Most minor league players are getting paid under poverty,” Combs said. “But when you love the game and want to chase dreams, you become numb to the money and part and more focused on making it to the top.”

The good news is that in a recent rule change, Major League Baseball at the start of the 2022 season will cover housing costs for minor-league baseball players. These changes have not been officially announced, but will have more details before the start of the season.

This is a huge step into baseball’s biggest problem.