The life of a major league baseball player is, of course, as glamorous and cool as you’d expect.
But a move to the majors doesn’t magically change a minor leaguer’s lifestyle overnight.
Texas Rangers rookie Jake Smolinski can attest to that. He’s been living out of a hotel room since he was called up from Double A Frisco on July 7.
And we’re not talking the Ritz-Carlton or Four Seasons, to name two of the high-end hotels the team stays at on the road. No, Smolinski, the 25-year-old outfielder who is experiencing his first taste of the big leagues after seven years in the minors, has been staying at the Fairfield Inn when the team is in town.
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Most of his worldly possessions are still packed in his 2007 Chevy Silverado that he drives to Globe Life Park every day.
Not that Smolinski is complaining. Far from it. He’s living a childhood dream since growing up playing baseball (and most other sports, including high school quarterback) in Rockford, Ill., which is about 86 miles northwest of Chicago.
But the life isn’t easy for young players trying to find their way in the big leagues. For the 2014 Rangers, who’ve been hit with an unprecedented rash of injuries, there has been a steady stream of wide-eyed minor leaguers joining the team to help fill out the depleted roster. If there’s one silver lining during this disappointing season, it’s the long look and big league experience that players such as Smolinski, Daniel Robertson and Roman Mendez have been afforded.
Smolinski has been on the disabled list since July 25 (retroactive to July 22) since fouling a ball off his left foot, which caused a small crack and bone bruise.
But he was impressive in 11 games before the injury. He was batting .389 with 14 hits and five RBIs. He set a club record with eight hits in his first four games, including three doubles. He also made several diving catches in left field.
“You can’t really describe it,” said dad Mike Smolinski, who came down with Jake’s mom, Mary, in time to see their son get two hits in his second start against Houston. “You almost want to pinch yourself. You look out and see your son on a major league field. It’s an experience. It was just awesome.”
They know the long journey their son has taken, the never-ending bus rides, the hotels, all the work for not much monetary reward that is life in the minors.
“It wears on you. I’ve seen a lot of guys use drugs or alcohol,” said Jake, who has stayed away from the vices, including snuff. “A lot of guys will just say I’ve had enough and just quit. It’s not easy. It’s just a grind.”
When he got the call that he was headed to Arlington, Smolinski was with Triple A Round Rock. He had played eight games there since moving from Double A Frisco, where he had an apartment with teammates. He spent the time over the All-Star break clearing out the rest of his stuff, which is now filling up the bed of his truck.
He’s decided to remain in a hotel instead of looking for an apartment near the ballpark because it’s unclear, at the moment, if and when he’ll be sent back down.
“It’s been kind of crazy,” he said. “You just kind of have a feel for what’s going on and the role you have and the situation you’re in and just kind of use your best judgment. I feel like week-to-week is kind of where I’m at, so this is what I’m going to do the rest of the year.”
The Rangers put players up in the nearby Hilton Hotel (with a special player’s rate) for the first week, but after that they’re on their own. Either they find another hotel, an apartment, or find a teammate with an extra room.
Fellow rookie Daniel Robertson, who started the year with El Paso, then Round Rock, before making his debut with the Rangers on April 29, has tried to give Smolinski the same help others gave him.
“Regardless of how much time you have, if someone is new and you know the ropes you try to get them feeling as comfortable as possible, get them as used to the things you had to get used to,” Robertson said.
“My girlfriend helped me [find an apartment] so thank goodness she’s supportive. You know you have to lean on the women to take care of those things. You have to go to Walmart and get the bare essentials, the stuff you need like bedding, pots, pans, cups, and the silverware.”
Robertson found an apartment across from the park and makes the seven-minute walk before and after games.
“We’re not that pampered. We’re still adults. We have to find a place to live just like somebody else from another state,” said Robertson, who spent six years in the minors. “I just walk across the street amongst the people. It’s awesome. Sometimes they don’t recognize you.
“People make this big deal that we’re baseball players or football players, but we’re all normal people; we’re all human. No one is better than the next person. We just happen to love something different than they do. Baseball is my passion and I’ve loved it ever since I was a kid.”
Smolinski, for now, can hold off on finding kitchen utensils while staying at the Fairfield. He’s now earning the league minimum of $500,000, but just a few weeks ago he was making only a fraction of that in Frisco.
The difference in pay is so dramatic that three former minor leaguers sued Major League Baseball earlier this year, claiming that most minor leaguers earn less than the national poverty level, which is $11,490 for a single person and $23,550 for a family of four, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit also claims that minor league salaries have declined over the past four decades when inflation is included in the mix.
While major league salaries have increased 2,000 percent since 1976, minor league pay has increased only 75 percent. Big league players receive a per diem of $99 for meal money on road trips, which, for most big league salaries, is tip money. In contrast, minor league players receive $25 a day and just $12.50 for commuting trips.
Minor leaguers try to cut costs by sharing apartments, or in the case of Smolinski when he was in Surprise, Ariz, for spring training, living in former teammate Bryan Petersen’s Fifth Wheel camper. They each had rooms at either end of the camper.
“The beds were fairly big so it was fine,” Smolinski said. “Right now, he’s in Round Rock right across the street from the ballpark in his trailer at a campsite. That’s what he does.”
Smolinski has put more than 50,000 miles on his truck, mostly from driving from one baseball destination to the next, including the drive from Arizona to Frisco and then Round Rock before driving up to Arlington to join the Rangers. Much of the stuff he packed back in February before leaving Rockford for Surprise is still in the back of his truck.
“It’s a life that unless you’re in it and around it nobody really knows about,” he said.
Pride of Rockford
After receiving his first major league check, he treated himself to one indulgent purchase. But even that had a practical purpose for the low-key, soft-spoken Smolinski. He bought his first custom-tailored suit from The Man’s Shop in Arlington to adhere to the Rangers’ travel dress code.
“You do know the ups and downs and the long path and then when it actually happens it’s very exciting,” said Mary Smolinski, who made a second trip to Arlington to watch her son after the team returned from a road trip.
“I just thought, this is a once in a lifetime thing and what am I doing here in Rockford?” she said. “And to turn the games on and watch it on the Internet was not enough.”
Jake was injured in New York and hasn’t played during Mary’s second trip to Arlington. But she’s getting to spend time with her son, who is nine years younger than his two sisters, both of whom are artists.
The Rockford Register Star keeps tabs on Smolinski and when he was called up to the Rangers the news was on the front page. He’s the first position player from Rockford to play in the major leagues in 72 years, Mike Smolinski said.
“Anybody I see [in town] they come up right away and start talking about him,” he said. “They’re pretty excited.”
Smolinski was committed to Clemson, but chose to sign out of high school with the Washington Nationals after being drafted in the second round as the 70th overall pick in 2007. He earned a signing bonus of almost $500,000, but he spent the next seven seasons in the minors battling several injuries while with the Nationals and Miami Marlins.
He was signed by the Rangers to a minor league contract last fall after being granted free agency.
The biggest adjustment to the big leagues, Smolinski said, was falling asleep at night.
“I was so amped up after the first few games that it was hard to cool down,” he said. “The first few nights were definitely difficult. I just try to breathe and relax and do what I can do to get to sleep at night.”
But through the experience, from the call-up, to the eight hits in his first four games, to the injury that has him on the DL, he has kept the composure that helped him endure seven years in the minors.
“I learned over the years playing sports to control [my emotions] and focus on the things you can control,” he said. “The things that are out of your hands you can’t worry about them because it’s not going to do any good. My parents raised me to be that way.”
It’s a personality trait that serves him well while he’s living out of a hotel room, hoping his “dream-come-true” continues beyond 2014.
“Yeah, it’s the big leagues, but the minor leagues have kind of prepared me in a way for what I’m experiencing now,” he said. “I’ll leave that decision up to the people who get paid and whose job it is to make those decisions. My job is to be a player and play where they tell me to play, so that stuff is out of my control.”