For love or (some) money
Former Stanford University standout and current River Cat Michael Taylor has ‘no complaints’—even though he took home only $8,000 last year. It’s the price of a shot at the big leagues.
Raley Field400 Ballpark Dr.
West Sacramento, CA 95691
Oh, the life of a big league ballplayer. Floating in waves of cash. Lavish travel. Idolized.
Then there’s Michael Taylor, the 25-year-old Oakland A’s minor league prospect dwelling in Sacramento with the River Cats—at least to start the upcoming 2011 season.
For him, it’s an entirely different ballgame.
River Cats players aren’t swimming in riches; they’re barely staying afloat. Taylor says he cleared just more than $8,000 after taxes last season. That’s not a typo: Eight thousand dollars.
“People really don’t know,” Taylor said of how little minor league ballers earn during an interview last week. “I pay for my own apartment. I pay for my own food. And we pay $13 minimum to the clubhouse every day whether on the road or at home. That’s why you work in the offseason. You’re broke.”
Taylor said he made $900 per month his first minor league season, $1,200 his second, $1,500 his third and $2,100 per month last season. Taylor did receive a $131,000 signing bonus after he was drafted by Philadelphia in 2007.
Taylor remembers being in the 100-plus degree humidity of the Florida State League, lower down the minor league pole. It was game No. 142 out of 143. He stood in the hole, waiting to hit, as a teammate grounded out to second base and gave an uninspired effort running down the line.
“A guy in the crowd was just wearing him out, yelling, ‘What are you doing, you bunch of prima donnas, I’d run it out for $80,000!’” Taylor recalled. “I turned to him and said that we don’t make anywhere near that. I told him, ‘I’m making $1,200 a month, bro, for the six months I play.’”
Basically, it’s an internship for the major leagues, where Taylor is expected to eventually move, into a coveted spot in the big show in Oakland. The outfielder is currently ranked as the Athletics’ No. 10 overall prospect by Baseball America. Though not a power slugger yet, Taylor hits for average and has a highly regarded arm in the outfield.
This year, the 6-foot-5-inch, 255-pound outfielder was on the A’s 40-man roster and is making more than $30,000 a year.
“I think I’m rich now,” he joked.
There’s a titanic gap between the earnings of a major league player and a minor league player. But the gap in talent isn’t nearly as great. A few points on a batting average, a few favorable opinions from organization decision makers, an opportunity to show off—sometimes that’s all it takes to go from being in debt to potential millions of dollars.
And there’s a high level of stress that goes with that.
“It’s your life,” Taylor said with a dramatic emphasis. “Trust me, I have no complaints. For everything that goes on in the world and the poverty out there, you can’t complain about the opportunity to play professional baseball.
“But you’re trying to make it to a level where you can provide for your family. All those things are very important. You’d love to play forever. But it’s hard to play for free. It’s hard to go in the red every year. But that’s basically what happens until you make it. You’ve got to think about your future and your life, what’s next and what makes you really happy. You can only hang on for so long.”
At age 25, it’s still early for Taylor to think about giving up. But the window is small in baseball. And when players get to age 26 or 27, the opportunities shrink even further. There’s always going to be a new crop of young prospects.
Taylor was chosen out of Stanford University by the Philadelphia Phillies in the fifth round of the 2007 draft. He was traded in December 2009 as part of the deal with the Toronto Blue Jays that sent the star pitcher Roy Halladay to the Phillies. Taylor was then immediately traded to the A’s in exchange for infielder Brett Wallace.
Taylor hit for a .346 average and a .320 average in minor league seasons in 2008 and 2009, but hit .272 in a full season with the River Cats in 2010. This year, there’s an even greater pressure for Taylor to succeed, which he calls a watermark season for himself.
So how is he handling it?
“I have this feeling of anxious indifference,” Taylor said. “I am really excited to play this year. But at the same time, I don’t care. I am going out there really, really free. And it’s a good feeling. It really is. I am going to enjoy every pitch, every at-bat, every moment that I possibly can.”
He admitted that he worried so much about his numbers last season that he was miserable. “If I ever play like that again, I will stop playing baseball,” said Taylor, who is 17 units away from a political science degree at Stanford. “I will quit. It is not worth it for me to not be happy. I am such a happy guy. I am not going to make myself miserable when enough things in life get you there.”
His goal this season is no different than last year, or from anyone else in his River Cats clubhouse: He wants to play in Oakland. He’s never had a major league at-bat. But he said he’s not going to put the same pressures on himself that he did last year.
Johnny Doskow, the long-standing River Cats radio broadcaster, spent some time with Taylor this spring training. In his 19th season in baseball and 11th year with the River Cats, Doskow has seen the difficult pressures of the minor leagues.
“When I saw Taylor, he looked really happy, and I think he is enjoying baseball again,” Doskow said. “It’s hard for these guys. It’s easy to think, ‘Oh, don’t put pressure on yourself.’ I think the key for these guys, no matter what level you are at, is to keep it simple and have fun. It is a challenge.”
It’s all about perspective, and Taylor expects his refreshed attitude will fit in nicely with this year’s River Cats club.
“We have guys who are going to go out there and do everything they can do to have fun and just destroy people,” Taylor said. “We’re focused as a group to be the best Triple-A team in history.”
Of course, Taylor might not be in Sacramento by the end of the season. He could be having fun out west in Oakland.