Game Changer: A Minor League Pitcher's Lost Season
MITCH HORACEK: As a 28-year-old, it's time for me to get to the big leagues or get out. And so I was, I was really optimistic that this year was going to be the year. And now that there's just no year at all, like, you know, there's a lot of uncertainty. We don't know what's going to happen next year.
This is Death, Sex & Money. The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot, and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale. And this is our series, Game Changer.
Across the globe, sporting events and seasons have been cancelled or postponed because of COVID. And that’s meant big changes for athletes, who make their money from the games they play and organize their lives around them too.
Mitch Horacek is a minor league baseball pitcher who went from spring training with his teammates in Florida to working out his arm alone in a park near his grandma’s house in Breckenridge, Colorado.
MH: I would just throw my baseballs at the net, go pick them up, and then scoot back and throw them again.
Minor League Baseball was cancelled this year, but Mitch still needed to stay in shape.
MH: All of the gyms were closed, so I actually went to Home Depot, which was one of the only places that was open, and bought a bunch of concrete and flowerpots.
AS: Uh huh.
MH: And fastened my own set of weights. And I basically, I was mixing concrete on the, on my driveway and, you know, with, with like rubber gloves on, and I poured the concrete into the flower pots to let it dry. And basically made these homemade 45 pound plates. I have four of them.
AS: Are they like terra cotta flower pots?
MH: I don't know what terra cotta flowerpots are, but they're -
AS: Like orange, like the kind of orange flower pots. That just, like -
MH: No, they're 18 inches in diameter and I think four inches deep.
AS: I see, like a plate. So it’s like flat.
AS: So did you figure this out, you're just like cruising around a Home Depot with a cart and like, what am I going to use? Like what - [laughs].
MH: Yeah! I mean, it's, it's a, you had to get creative!
Mitch and I talked in early August, nine months after he’d gotten picked up by the Minnesota Twins, to play on their minor league teams.
MH: I was probably slated for AAA baseball this year, um, which is the closest level to the big leagues.
And he says, going into the season, he felt like there was a good chance he’d get called up by the Twins to make his major league debut. Mitch was signed to the Twins on a free agent contract — his first, since being drafted after his junior year of college.
MH: I was finally able to, negotiate a salary on the free market.
AS: Uh huh.
MH: It's a, it's a huge problem in baseball. You know, the minor league salaries are really, really low, you know, the contract that everybody signs out of the draft is a seven year contract.
AS: Seven years!
MH: Yeah. And so the only way to get out of that is either to get released or to basically get called, get to the big leagues and get onto a major league contract. But, so I knew, I knew that the wages were going to be bad, but, uh, there's, you know, the, the very widely held belief among Minor League Baseball players, especially the ones that are just signing. Um, you know, it's like, it'll only take me a couple of years to get to the big leagues. So I'll just live off my signing bonus and everything's going to be okay.
AS: How did you think about how much money you were going to earn after that signing bonus? When you're becoming a minor league baseball player?
MH: So, so I signed — this, this is public information — I signed in the ninth round in 2013 for a hundred thousand dollars. After taxes it came out to be like 70 something.
MH: It's a good chunk of money for 21 years old.
MH: It's a good chunk of money. I got, I didn't get it all at once either. I got it over the course of a year and a half. So, um, but I did get that money and I knew that, you know, beside that signing bonus, the salaries, the wages in, in minor league baseball were ridiculously low. Um, you know, the lowest being $1,200 a month to the highest in triple AAA being like $2,100 a month. You only get paid during the season. And before you know, it, you know, you're in the minor leagues for year after year after year. And at certain point, you know, you, haven't made a reasonable income for, you know, five, six, seven years. And you look back and you're like, wow, I wish I wish that things weren't like this.
AS: Hm. And what did you do with your signing bonus?
MH: So I didn't do anything with it, honestly. I, the only thing that I bought was, uh, uh, a few books on investing. So I, I learned how to, I learned how to invest. I saw a lot of my teammates buying cars and buying all sorts of toys and, um, you know, I realized that that was probably not a good idea and that, you know, $70,000, isn't a ton of money. Like, it can go pretty quick if you don't save it the way you should.
AS: I want to move ahead to you're like four or five years into your contract. So when you're making, you know, at most $2,100 a month, um, how did you do it?
MH: So, I mean, Minor League Baseball players, including me, um, are like militantly frugal. Um, like we're very creative, um, when it comes to saving money, at least most of us are. The ones that, that don't have, you know, the million dollar signing bonuses. The way I have played it, um, every season is that I try to break even, while, like during the season, while I'm playing. Like, for example, last year, 2019, 2018, uh, I was in AA for most of those years and I was making about $770 after tax biweekly. So, I mean, it's not a lot of money.
MH: But you know, when you're working every day, it's not, you don't really have a whole lot to spend your money on besides food, food and shelter, basically. This last off season, I had an apartment with another baseball player and you know, of course we weren't getting paid in the off season. You know, we were working, you know, side jobs and trying to make ends meet the best we could, but we furnished our whole apartment on Craigslist free. So, you know, we just collected it from all over the city, in Denver, from different people. And then at the end of the off season, we were able to sell some of it, um, and make a little bit of money back.
AS: Can you tell me a little bit more about what that apartment looked like when it was fully furnished with free stuff from Craigslist? What were the items?
MH: It was, it was a, it was a hodgepodge of stuff. Um, we had, you know, I found these really old, dirty, um, like, like bar chairs that this guy gave me for free. My roommate, and I went to go pick up this powered reclining chair, um, that this, that this, this guy had. He was, it was an 80-year-old guy and he was trying to sell it, but he couldn't get it out of his apartment. So, um, you know, people had come over to buy it for I think $300. But they couldn't lift it out of his, out of his house. And so finally he gave up and agreed to give it to us for free. Um, only if we could lift it out of his apartment. So, we went over to his house and we were able to lift it. Um, but it was not an easy, easy task. Actually, that was the only piece of furniture we had was that couch.
AS: So since you signed, how many, how many different cities and apartments have you lived in?
MH: Oh my God. So many. Um, yeah, so, I mean, since my career started, I've lived in Maryland. I've lived in Connecticut, Texas, Arizona, um, Florida, New Mexico. Um, the way - the nature of Minor League Baseball is such that you need to be able to get up and go at any time. Last season, in 2019, I was playing for the Albuquerque Isotopes, which is the AAA team for the Rockies. And I wasn't pitching very well at all. It was a really tough, tough spot in my career, but, you know, I had an apartment in Albuquerque. And I wasn't pitching very well. And the Rockies organization decided to send me to Hartford, um, in like the middle of May. And I got, I got the news that I was go- I was being demoted during the middle of a road trip. So I was in Tacoma, Washington, you know, with a suitcase for, you know, a seven day road trip. And they sent me to Hartford with just my suitcase and I never, I never went back to Albuquerque, um, to clean up my apartment. My brother had to do it for me.
MH: You know, you can be sent across the country, you know, at a moment's notice.
AS: And did you like just say to your teammates, like, see you later?
MH: Yeah, pretty much. I mean, they, they all understand, you know, the nature of - the nature of the game. I mean, so it's a crazy business. I mean, you gotta be able to get up and go at a moment's notice. And you might stay there the whole summer. You might be there for three days. You really just don't know. So.
AS: Yeah. I want to understand, so your seven years - you did your seven year commitment and then this season was supposed to be a one year free agent contract with the Twins.
MH: That's correct, yes.
AS: Does that mean you were making more money than, than you had before?
MH: Yes, I was - I was making considerably more money.
AS: Is that public. Can you tell me how much you're making now?
MH: I'd prefer not to.
AS: Okay. Is it like you feel like, [sigh of relief], enough money that you can feel like you can buy furniture for yourself?
MH: Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. It's it's, it's not, I mean, it's, I - and by all means I wasn't gonna get rich, but, um, it was definitely like it was a, it was a comfortable, a comfortable wage, um, you know, to support myself the whole year. And so I, I would only, I'd still only be paid during the season, but it was enough money to comfortably support myself, you know, as a 28-year-old, you know, the whole year round.
AS: Got it. So seasonally paid, but enough to fix you for the year.
MH: Yes. Yes. And so, and, and it's, um, it - what really sucks is I had that contract and it was signed and executed. However, the, the Twins are not honoring it. Um, since the season is canceled, um, they, they, they don't feel as though they they're obligated to pay me that salary, which has been very frustrating in and of itself.
AS: So you're not getting paid right now.
MH: Not - it, well, so Minor League Baseball - all of the teams agreed to pay their minor leaguers $400 a week stipends. I don't know if all teams are still doing it. Uh, the Twins are, so I am getting paid $400 a week. After taxes, like five, $560 biweekly. Um, so it is something, but it's, it's a, it's a long shot from what I was, uh, what I was expecting.
AS: So you were expecting to have a salary that was going to make you feel like you could finally be comfortable as a 28-year-old, and now you don't have that.
MH: Exactly. Exactly. Yes. The most upsetting and difficult part of this is that, you know, a baseball career is very short. And, as a 28-year-old in the minor leagues, you know, I'll be at the high minor leagues. Um, I'm considered, you know, old, um, for what I'm doing. And so, you know, it's, it's, it's not, it's not a great feeling knowing that, you know, I lost a whole season, you know, especially when I was so close and, you know, it's just very frustrating.
Coming up, Mitch turns down his only opportunity to make it to the major league this year.
MH: The way I saw it, I was going to, the only chance I was going to be invited back is if either one, a whole bunch of guys got hurt. Or two, and more likely, a whole bunch of guys got sick. Like that's not a circumstance in which I want to come back anyway.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
Only about 10 percent of Minor League Baseball players ever make it up to the majors, where they have a union, and much, much higher salaries.
And at the start of the summer, after minor league spring training was cancelled, Mitch Horacek still thought he had a chance to get called up to join the Twins roster. So that’s how he ended up lifting weights he’d made himself at his grandmother’s house in Breckenridge.
MH: I couldn't go for months and months without lifting, especially lifting heavy. I mean, there's only so much you can do that's sufficient to stay, you know, powerful and explosive for baseball. So I was like, man, I gotta figure out a way to, you know, move around some weight.
AS: So when you say that you're trying to stay in shape in case you get called up, like, like how have you thought about that as the months have gone on, and you're trying to think about, "Oh, can I have that candy bar?" Or like, "Do I need to do that run?" Or, you know, like, how have you thought about staying in shape and what your obligation is right now?
MH: So, it's, it's kind of evolved as the time has passed. So, you know, earlier in the spring, there was a debate, um, you know, as to how MLB was going to resume play. And so, you know, I felt like I had a chance to be invited back when play started, started again. And I did. I mean, I was, I was, you know, one of the, I was one of the top, you know, Minor League Baseball players in the organization with the Twins that, um, that wasn't on the roster. So I like, I wasn't on the team, but I was pretty close to being, you know, like one of the guys that would be a replacement if another guy got hurt, for example. So, you know, in April, May and even June, I was training really hard. I was training six days a week, you know, really trying to stay in shape. And MLB finally figured out a plan to resume play, and that was like mid June, maybe? And then they finally released rosters, uh, you know, the names of all the guys that they were going to invite back on June 28th. And on June 28th, I got a call from the Twins, uh, and, they basically said, look, we're not gonna invite you back now, but there's a chance that if something happens, we're going to invite you back. So we want you to stay ready. And so, you know, I had been staying ready. I was ready to go. Um, you know, I was, I was in shape, ready to be invited back, you know, whenever they called. But when I got the call from, you know, the organization telling me that I wasn't going to be invited back, but they still wanted me to stay ready? I was, I was kind of faced with a dilemma, right? Here I have an organization who wants me to continue training in suboptimal circumstances. At the same time, they're not paying me what my contract has on it.
AS: Yeah. I bet that didn't feel good.
MH: No, it did feel very good at all. So, at that point I told the Twins basically like, you know, I'm - don't call me.
AS: You did.
MH: Yeah. So it, you know - 'cause if, you know, if they're not going to keep up their end of the deal, why should I? Especially, like why should I come work for them, you know, contributing to their billion dollar enterprise, um, if, if they're like gonna put me in a bad situation financially, and then perhaps a bad situation, you know, from a health standpoint?
AS: Yeah. Was that a phone conversation with someone or was it email? How did you communicate that?
MH: Yeah, multiple - it was multiple phone calls.
AS: When you hung up the phone, did it feel like the end of your baseball career?
MH: [Sigh] Yeah I'm - I don't, I don't know. I mean, yes and no. Um, you know, I have a one year contract that expires in November. Um, you know, I would like it, I would like for that contract to be renewed. Um, but I, I don't know if that's going to happen. So, you know, that's - you're right. I, it could be the end of my career. I, I really don't know. Um, at a certain point, you know, I'm not going to be bossed around or, or bullied around, um, you know, just because, you know, the quote unquote, the dream. I want an equitable deal.
You know, if - I do believe that if, you know, I, the season happened this year and I was pitching well, you know, right about now. Um, and there was a spot open, it could have been my number that was called. You know, I was like, you know, pretty close, honestly.
AS: What's it feel like when you say like, if this had been a normal year, I might be, I think I would have been called up right around now. What's it feel like to say that?
MH: It, it makes me, I mean, it's not a good feeling at all. I'm - it's been a pretty sad and depressing, uh, couple of months. You know, I put a lot of time and effort into, into something and then it just kind of disappears almost overnight. And it's, it's definitely, it's, it's definitely upsetting. I mean, it's, it's, it's, it's just, uh, it's some adversity and, you know, I recognize that there are Americans all over the country that are in different, but equally, um, crappy situations right now. And, you know, I, I, so I'm, I'm not, I don't want to be interpreted as, as complaining about it, but it, it does - it is unfortunate. It's just a very exciting and exhilarating, you know, thing to be able to compete against, you know, some of the best athletes in the world. Um, you know, it's, you can't really replace it.
AS: When you think about a professional life, a career after baseball, what are you picturing for yourself right now?
Mitch: Every off season, I've tried to, you know, work on developing my skills, um, in order to, you know, jump it - like hit the ground running, uh, after baseball in some kind of, you know, career. Uh, one year I took the LSAT because I was like, meh, maybe I'll want to go to law school. Um, you know, and I've done all sorts of little things, but this past off season I got into web development. I started learning how to code um, websites and, you know, I built a few sites this off season. I built a site, a website for the gym I was working out at, and I also built a website for, uh, one of the club, like youth club baseball teams that was working out at the gym. And so, you know, I had this little side gig going and the pandemic hit and I'm sitting up in Breckenridge like, man, I need something to do, especially to make money. And, um, you're just through a very lucky turn of events, you know, I had a tweet that went viral, um, and you know, I had a lot of people looking at my pro- my Twitter profile. And at the same time, you know, I came across, uh, another baseball player who was doing something similar. Um, he had more experience than me in web development. And the two of us, um, I had a bunch of jobs lined up, you know, from this tweet. And he has a bunch of experience doing web development and we decided to start a little business together. So I think we, we, we got together in maybe like, late April? Early May? And we started a little company called In The Zone Web Development.
AS: In The Zone!
MH: In The Zone, yeah. So it's like a, it's like a play off of like being "in the zone" coding, but also in the zone is like, like in the strike zone.
AS: Yeah, I get it! I'm with you. I got it.
MH: Yeah. So, so we, so, so that's what I've been working on, uh, you know this - since being home. This little web development agency. Um, you know, we've done, we have a whole bunch of different contracts, um, but we specialize in, uh, baseball - the intersection of baseball and the internet.
AS: Now that you're not throwing baseballs in, in a training mode right now, um, when you think about throwing baseballs and being out there on the pitcher's mound, like, do you miss it?
MH: Oh yeah. Tons. Yeah. I - it's, it's been really hard, especially because you know, baseball started back up again, like it's happening now and it's on TV. And so I've been watching some of the games and I'm watching a lot of my former teammates and some of my friends out there competing, um, like yesterday. One of my longtime teammates made his Major League debut. Um, and you know, I'm very happy for him, but at the same time, I'm like, damn, like, I wish - I wish I was out there too, like making my debut. Um, so it it's, it's been, it's been very frustrating and it's, I'm definitely sad to not be competing. 'Cause that's what I love to do.
AS: So at 28, have you looked back at yourself as a junior in college and thought, should I really have signed that contract?
MH: [Laughs] Yeah, I mean, it, it, that is a good question. I mean, it's, it's always been a dream of mine to play baseball in the big leagues. And so I, I don't really have any regrets. I mean, it's been, it's been a really hard path. Um, you know, there's a lot of things that, that haven't gone my way necessarily. But at the end of the day, like I don't regret playing baseball professionally. It's, it's been, you know, it's very cliche and I don't really like cliches, but, um, you know, chasing your dream is something that I put a lot of value in. I mean, I, you know, I have, I have the opportunity to go work, you know, go get a quote unquote, real job, um, whenever I'm done. So, um, while I still can play baseball, I feel that I should.
That’s Mitch Horacek. Since I spoke with him, he’s left Colorado and moved to Florida with his girlfriend. He's no longer getting that weekly stipend from the Twins… but he has started going back to the gym, to get in shape for next season.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. I’m usually based at the studios of the investigative podcast Reveal in Emeryville, California. Anabel Bacon produced this episode. The rest of our team includes Katie Bishop, Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn. Special thanks to Garrett Broshuis for his help on this episode.
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The pandemic upended a lot of Mitch’s plans...but he says there’s one way that his career has prepared him for a big setback like this.
MH: Baseball especially is a sport where failure is, is the norm rather than the exception, I mean if you're a, if you're a, uh, a hitter and you, your batting average is 300, you are getting, you're getting a hit 30% of the time, which means that 70% of the time, or, you know, you're getting out, you're failing. And so, you know, and a 300 hitter is among the best hitters in baseball. I mean, that's, that is like the benchmark for a really, really good hitter. And so failure is, is something that happens every day. You gotta, you gotta get used to it. You gotta pick yourself back up and go get them the next day.
Look out for the next episode in our Game Changer series coming on Friday.
I’m Anna Sale and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.