Confessions of a Minor-League Jockstrap Washer

Greg Larson

Alex Schmarzo sits in front of his locker in the Aberdeen Ironbirds’ clubhouse during preseason workouts. There are forty players milling around a locker room meant for thirty. Schmarzo was the Orioles’ forty-eighth-round draft pick in 2010, which means one thousand four hundred thirty-seven players were chosen by every team in Major League Baseball before him. It’s 2012 now, and he is twenty-three years old, a veteran among children who have just been drafted out of high school, barely old enough to legally spit the tobacco they have lodged in their lips as they laugh around Schmarzo in groups of fours and fives. Everyone wears high black socks and all-black dry-fit shirts and shorts with the Orioles’ cartoon logo on them.

Schmarzo’s lip, too, is fat with Grizzly Wintergreen chewing tobacco that he spits into a small paper Dixie cup in his left hand. Framing his mouth is a fu-manchu mustache that makes the brown gobs of spit look like footballs soaring through goalposts. Bags shadowing his blue eyes, he stares at the ground that is visible through the faded carpet. I know Schmarzo well enough already to guess that he did not sleep last night.

When I ask him what’s going on, he glances up and shakes his head, running his hand through his hair, which is coarse and feathers out from the bottom of a mullet sticking out the back of his Ironbirds cap. This is what the players refer to as a “flow,” as if his hair always has the wind-swept look of running, even when he sits still (which, as a relief pitcher, he often does). It’s one of those baseball styling choices that garners respect in the dugout and clubhouse, but makes the guys look like high-school kids in the real world.

“I’m leaving,” he says. “Just look at all these guys.” He gestures around the packed clubhouse to players enjoying themselves despite the fact that some of them must inevitably be released.

He has already cried wolf about quitting baseball at least twice since he drove up from Sarasota, Florida, where most of these guys have been playing in hundred-degree heat in front of crowds even smaller than the team roster at the Orioles’ minor-league spring training facility.

I only nod to acknowledge his statement.

“I’m too fucking old to be here, man. What am I even doing here?”

I don’t remind him that his ERA was 6.69 last year, much worse than what he would need to move up in the organization. The Ironbirds’ season has not yet started, and Schmarzo, like several others in the oversaturated clubhouse, is not on the roster and is therefore not being paid. He is a “non-roster invitee,” which means that he is spending his days working in Aberdeen, Maryland for no more compensation than the privilege of working his ass off at the ballpark for a team of which he is not technically a part.

I shake my head, not sure how to respond.

“They’d be doing me a favor if they cut me, really. But I don’t know what I’d do. Look around at most of these guys: almost none of ‘em have a college degree. Jiminez, Rivera, Nivar … they probably never got out of elementary school. Maybe three guys in this clubhouse have college degrees, and I’m one of ‘em. And even I’m fucked. Some were drafted out of high school. Most of these guys don’t know how to take care of themselves because people like you feed them and do their laundry and shit.”

It’s early on in my new job as the clubhouse manager for the team, and Schmarzo is simplifying it a bit, but yes: essentially, I feed the team and do the laundry. I, like Schmarzo, have a college degree, but find myself caught in the web of baseball the same way he and the other players in the clubhouse have been ensnared. I will be spending my summer cutting up celery, oranges, and watermelons and whipping up chicken salads to feed the Ironbirds as if I’m the Team Mom. I’ll spend nights after home games scrubbing their game-worn pants, throwing them in the laundry, and cleaning the clubhouse well into the A.M. Some nights I won’t even sleep because the visiting team will arrive at two or three in the morning just as I’m finishing up the Ironbirds’ laundry, and I’ll have to wash the visiting team’s jerseys and jockstraps. The sun will rise and it’ll be time to make coffee for the Ironbirds coaches who arrive hours before the players. My next summer working for the Ironbirds, maybe I’ll say “fuck it” to having an apartment (which is populated by no fewer than three Ironbird players sleeping on my floor at any given time) and just start living on a blow-up mattress in the equipment closet.

But I’m not even a player for a professional baseball team: I do all of this humiliating work because I just like to be around the game. I’m the little brother tagging along because I want a taste of what it’s like to be a big kid. Ever since my days of playing high school baseball, I wanted nothing more than to be drafted and become a professional baseball player. The problem was that I couldn’t hit worth a damn and I was the back-up shortstop on a low-level high school team in metro Minnesota, a state known more for ice fishing and hockey than producing baseball stars. And I’m not Joe Mauer, Dave Winfield, or Paul Molitor: I’m Greg Larson, and I suck at baseball. The problem, I’m seeing already, is that these guys in the minors don’t suck at baseball. In fact, they are some of the most elite players in the world, and the difference between their skill level and the skill level of those on a major-league roster is so small that an average person wouldn’t know the difference. The players themselves often don’t even see the difference. They hold on to their own illusions, blind to the fact that almost none of them will ever step foot on a major-league ball field. Alex Schmarzo harbors no such illusions. Alex Schmarzo could be served well by being a little blinder.

“Most of us don’t have any idea what we’d be doing if we weren’t playing baseball,” Schmarzo continues. “It’s our identity.” Zach Petersime—Alex’s best friend, roommate, locker neighbor, and forty-fifth-round draft pick—walks past. “Slime,” says Schmarzo to him, “What would you be doing if you weren’t playing baseball?” Slime looks at Schmarzo like they’re both stupid and shrugs as if the question has never crossed his mind before.

He says he has no idea and walks away.

“See what I mean?” Schmarzo says. “This life fucks with you, man. I always say it’s like scratching lottery tickets: when you have enough guys together playing the lottery—buying scratch-offs—of course one or two of them are going to win big. It’s inevitable. But they win and you’re just left sitting there scratching away. You throw your money and time away one dollar and one day at a time. But those guys won, though, right? So maybe I can, too. So we keep coming back for more and more until we realize that we’re broke and out of time.” He breaks his frantic eye contact with me and leans his elbows back onto his knees and stares through the floor again. “That’s what it’s like to play Single-A baseball.”

Nearly three years after that conversation—and long after I stopped working as clubhouse attendant—the only lottery ticket winners from that season’s Ironbirds team have been right-handed pitcher Kevin Gausman and first baseman Christian Walker, who were respectively drafted fourth overall (first round) and one hundred thirty-second overall (fourth round) in 2012. Kevin Gausman has been a valuable pitcher for the Orioles in his first few seasons as a major-leaguer, and Christian Walker was called up to the Orioles for the first time in September of 2014—long enough to have his “cup of coffee” in the majors, as they say, and long enough to hit his first big league home run.

In the day-to-day operations of the clubhouse, it was obvious that Schmarzo was right when he said that most of these guys didn’t know how to take care of themselves. As the clubhouse attendant, I did what the players couldn’t do for themselves, which was often everything except wiping their butts for them. Aside from cleaning up after them, I fed them and did their laundry. And it’s this aspect of my job that makes me feel at least partially responsible for being part of the unfair system that takes advantage of minor-league baseball players. Although scrubbing game pants and having a pre- and post-game food spread was necessary, the way I was compensated for this job makes me feel guilty even to this day.

The exchange of money in baseball clubhouses works on an archaic system that nobody can quite explain. I mean that in two ways. First, clubhouse managers, or “clubbies,” provide food and services to the players (think tobacco and beer runs) in exchange for daily dues—seven dollars per player per day in my clubhouse. What makes me feel guilty about this system, which is used in every clubhouse across minor- and major-league baseball, is that the meal spreads I provided often consisted of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or leftovers from the stadium kitchens, items that cost me no more than a few bucks for a jar of peanut butter or a twenty to grease the palms of the food services kids in the kitchen. When you also consider the schemes I had running inside and out of the clubhouse—e.g., trading opposing teams cases of beer for team caps, then trading those caps to the stadium’s beer supplier for even more cases; or making players turn in their broken bats for new ones, then selling those broken bats through the gift shop for a cut of the sale—I was turning a profit higher than most of the players on the team. In each of my summers working for the Ironbirds, I netted about $15,000 in a couple of months. There were at least a handful of players on that team who made less than me, even when you added their sub-$10,000 signing bonus to their season salary.

Low-level minor-leaguers make about $1,200 per month. And that’s only during the season, which for us was only two-and-a-half months long. According to a complaint in an upcoming lawsuit between a group of former minor-leaguers and Major League Baseball, big league salaries have increased more than two thousand percent since 1976, while minor-league salaries have increased by only seventy-five percent, a rate that does not even compensate for inflation over that time. When you take into account the dues they had to pay to guys like me, plus rent to host families, cell phone bills, and agent fees, Schmarzo was right: a lot of these guys were literally losing money to play minor-league baseball.

Some guys recognized this fact; some of them wouldn’t have noticed it if you hit them on the side of the head with a ninety-five mile-per-hour fastball. And everyone coped with the struggles of minor-league baseball differently—the nine-hour bus rides, the sixty-hour work weeks, the shitty meals, the separation from wives and girlfriends. Most often I saw them get drunk and cheat on loved ones.

My second season with the Ironbirds, our trainer, our manager, and I spent almost every homestand night sleeping in the clubhouse: the trainer with his air mattress blown up on the weight room floor, the manager in his private office, and me in the equipment closet. The three of us would stay up late drinking beers on nights before the team would go on the road at dawn, taking cuts in the batting cages at three in the morning with stogies in our mouths. The manager would tell me about the yoga instructor he was looking to fuck, and I’d think of the tickets for his wife that I had left for him at will-call a few days before. More than once I remember having to shake our still-drunk trainer awake so he could get on the bus full of kids half his age and twice as sober. Likewise, our batting coach’s fiancée broke up with him in the middle of the season because of problems related to his constant absence.

Then there was Gary Allenson (or Muggsy, as he was known in the clubhouse), an ornery prick who called everybody “Slick.” Muggsy had a bushy mustache and piercing blue eyes, and if he stood up straight enough he was maybe five-foot-six on a good day. His career batting average in his six years in the major leagues (from 1979 to 1985) was .221. The year before I worked in the clubhouse he had been the manager for the Orioles’ AAA affiliate, the Norfolk Tides, and spent time as a bench coach for the big league team; now he was coaching nineteen-year-olds in Short-Season Single-A in Aberdeen Fucking Maryland, as most called it.

“Hey, Slick,” he called to me from his office one boiling hot afternoon during pre-season workouts. He gestured for me to enter, so I walked in. He shut the door behind me.

Before I could say my prayers, he said, “I can’t open the beer.” Dejected, he held up a bottle of the Fat Tire I had left in his fridge at his request.

I pulled the bottle opener off of my keychain and handed it to him.

“Keep it,” I said, and he cracked the top and sucked down the beer as if it might quench something other than thirst in the middle of that early June day in the New York-Penn League.

Lucky players wind up with a career like Muggsy’s—a few years of major-league service, a coaching job in minor-league baseball, and a desire to get back to The Show to somehow vindicate what they could never fulfill as a player. Left with no college degree and no job prospects outside of baseball, former players often have no choice but to go into coaching. This is what happens when organizations take kids straight out of high school or the Dominican Republic as teenagers and drop them into a life that grinds them down every single day, never giving them the tools they need to help themselves financially, socially, or mentally. The players all believe they can make it, because from the time they could throw a baseball hard enough to make the other kids’ knees shake, they have been pumped full of bullshit. First from their dads and coaches in little league and Legion baseball: “You’ll be a major-leaguer some day, son.” Then the college coaches who showed up to watch them play: “We’ve got a scholarship with your name on it.” Then the major-league scouts with radar guns and charts in their laps, sitting behind home plate wearing sunglasses and polo shirts with Tampa Bay Rays or Cincinnati Reds logos on the breast, telling kids they project they’ll be in the majors in four years, maybe three, if they stay on the same path. Then they get drafted, and minor-league directors and strength coaches tell guys like thirty-ninth-round draft pick Scott Kalush that if he works his ass off, he has a shot.

Scott Kalush spent the majority of the season packing on muscle that did nothing but pad the space between his ass and the aluminum seat of his spot in the bullpen, waiting to warm up the next relief pitcher during the game. He brought his weight up higher than his college batting average of .198. He packed on muscle so he could be nothing more than a bullpen catcher in an organization that only hung onto him so he could help develop its pitchers, because although he couldn’t hit, the pitchers loved throwing to him; his instinct behind the plate far exceeded his instinct in the batter’s box. He had soft hands behind the plate that allowed him to block balls and frame pitches with the skill of a veteran, but those soft hands did not translate to hitting prowess once he took off his pads and stepped up to the plate to hit. Kalush once told me that he thought he had a chance of being a major-league player all the way up through the middle of that season, a time at which he had a .120 batting average.

With the unfavorable odds involved in the major-league draft, there are bound to be young men left in limbo like Scott Kalush and Alex Schmarzo. Baseball isn’t like other major American sports; for example, the NBA drafts two rounds of about seventy players and has only one developmental league. The NFL drafts seven rounds of about two hundred twenty-five players and doesn’t even have a developmental league; their drafted players go straight to the big team. The NHL drafts seven rounds as well, scooping up about two hundred players from all over North America and Europe who often go into one of two major developmental leagues, where they are unionized and make a livable salary of $32,000–$42,000 a year or more. But the Major League Baseball draft? Forty rounds with nearly fifteen hundred players and about twenty developmental leagues. None of those fifteen hundred go straight to the major leagues; most will never throw a single pitch or get a single at-bat at the major-league level, and few will make an livable wage. (Until a few years ago there were fifty rounds in the Major League Baseball draft, and in 1996 there were a full hundred.) Some of the higher draft picks get significant signing bonuses, and these are also the draftees who are slapped with a “prospect” label by the organization, often given a faster and more lenient track to the higher levels of baseball. The rest are left to fend for themselves at the bottom of the pecking order.

The Aberdeen Ironbirds are near the bottom of those twenty developmental leagues that are affiliated with major-league teams, but still a step above the extended spring-training team in Sarasota where most of the Ironbirds’ new players came from throughout the season when others got released or moved up in the system. One of our pitchers, Luc Rennie, who was a sixteenth-round draft pick and eighteen years old at the time, said, “Welcome to The Show” without a hint of sarcasm when one such player from Sarasota made his way into the Ironbirds’ clubhouse for the first time.

Alan Mills, the pitching coach who wears the kind of sunglasses that were fashionable during the height of his career in the mid-nineties, busts through the door of the clubhouse that leads out to the field. His six-foot, two hundred-pound frame commands the room when he struts into the clubhouse; orange fungo bat in hand, it’s as if he’s dragging every one of his twelve years in the major-leagues behind him with each step. It’s only the pitchers and me in the locker room, as I continue talking to Schmarzo, still staring at the carpet when Mills walks in.

“Pitchers!” he yells, and they all scramble from the couches and chairs near their lockers. “Time for PFP, cocksuckers,” he booms, spitting the juice of a fat horseshoe of tobacco wadded behind his lips. He struts around the room, tapping guys on the dick with his bat. They all throw on their caps, grab their gloves, and hurry out to the field for Pitchers’ Fielding Practice. After the last of the pack exits the clubhouse, Mill turns around to Schmarzo.

“Hey, meat, you comin’?”

Schmarzo exhales because he knows he isn’t going to leave. He isn’t going to stop scratching until someone tells him he can’t. He sets down his spit cup, slowly stands up, and grabs his glove from his locker before twitching his neck to the left as he does sometimes before walking outside behind Mills to field ground balls and throw them to first over and over again.

Schmarzo will be back the next day, and the day after that, until he gives up a grand slam in his first appearance of the season and sings the same tune again. “I’m too old for this shit,” he will say. But then something will change, something will click like the twitches of his neck whenever he makes a bad pitch: Alex Schmarzo will give up all hope of success and in doing so he will enter a hot streak of eighteen scoreless innings of relief over the course of nearly three weeks in July. His dream does come true: Alex will be moved up to the Orioles’ low-level Single-A team, the Delmarva Shorebirds. But Delmarva is still a long way from Baltimore. And here in Aberdeen Fucking Maryland, even though Camden Yards is only thirty miles down the road—for Alex Schmarzo, Scott Kalush, and many others in this clubhouse, it might as well be a thousand miles away.