UCR students Matt Cunningham, Randy Blood and Brian Hoff returned to UCR last fall to take some of their final classes towards their bachelor’s degree. Once the quarter was over, they returned to their spring and summer job: playing professional baseball.
Cunningham, Blood and Hoff are among nine members of the UCR Highlanders baseball team selected in the first-year player draft over the past three years. What they came to realize was that while playing baseball for a living may be a dream, it is an elusive one, even for the most talented of athletes.
That is why they decided to take time to come back to UCR and finish their degrees.
“Ever since I was a young kid my parents have said that education comes first,” Cunningham said. “I always promised my mother that I would get my degree no matter what I did. It is important to me, it is important to my family and always has been. As much baseball as I have played in my life, my parents have always tried to instill that school is the most important thing. You can’t depend on baseball to take you through your whole life. You must have something to fall back on, because you never know if baseball is going to work out.” Cunningham is the most recent draftee. He was drafted by the Houston Astros in the 27th round and spent the summer in the New York-Penn League, playing outfield for the class A Tri-City Valley Cats. When the season came to an end in early September, Cunningham had about two weeks off before he returned to UCR to take two of his three remaining classes as he finishes his psychology degree.
Being drafted by a professional baseball team does not guarantee a big-money contract or a trip to the big leagues. The draft features 30 teams picking players in more than 50 rounds. Each of those teams has as many as six minor league affiliates. This results in as many as 4,500 players in the minor leagues, each fighting for a chance to get one of the 750 positions in the major leagues.
Hoff, a pitcher drafted by the Florida Marlins in the 27th round in 2004, spent the 2005 season primarily playing with the class A Jupiter (Fla.) Hammerheads. This fall he took three classes at UCR towards his degree in sociology administration with an emphasis in marketing. He still needs two Spanish classes to finish up studies.
“After playing pro ball for the last two years, I realize that only a small percentage of all minor leaguers actually make it to the major leagues,” Hoff said. “I am confident that one day I will get an opportunity to play at that level, yet I am realistic at the same time and also realize that if baseball doesn’t work out, I will have my degree to fall back on.”
Blood, a 2004 draftee of the Colorado Rockies who played for the class A Modesto Nuts in 2005, said that making the transition from being a student-athlete to just a student is relatively easy. Like Hoff, he is finishing his degree in sociology administration and has those two elusive Spanish classes left to earn his degree. Cunningham agrees.
“It is easier,” he said. “I don’t have to go to practice at 2 o’clock after class. I have a couple of part-time jobs and I can balance things out. I do miss playing though. I was home for a month and was ready for spring training to start.”
Finishing the degree will come in handy in another way, as well. It will free up their time and help them get a good off-season job to pay the bills while they pursue their big league dreams. While the major league minimum salary was $316,000 in 2005, minor leaguers make next to nothing. The average player is given a handshake, a contract and a plane or train ticket to their new team.
Cunningham, for example, made $1,100 a month, with $200 deducted every month by the team for rent and utilities at the team-arranged apartments.
“Minor league baseball doesn’t pay much,” Cunningham said. “Getting a degree means that in the off season you can get a decent job to pay the bills.”
“It is very difficult to make a living on what they pay us, especially if you have a family,” Hoff said. “This year at the High-A level I made around $1,500 dollars a month before taxes. Not a ton of money by any means, but then again I still get paid to play a game that I love to play.”
Despite the low pay, Hoff summarizes what each of the three feel about their experience.
“So far my minor league experience has been amazing. I have made so many amazing friends and have seen beautiful parts of the nation that I may not have seen without this opportunity,” Hoff said. “I love it, though. At this point in my life I could not see myself doing anything else.”