Picture an empty, two-story house in a Midwest suburb, with a “For Sale” sign in the front yard. Cars and trucks of all kinds surround it. Air mattresses, bought from the local Walmart, litter the inside. There are eleven grown men living in the house, all at the same time — three in the living room, three in the attic, two in the basement and three, living large, with their own rooms to themselves. To some of you this may be shocking but to these guys, it’s just another day in indy leagues.
When people ask me what I do, I’m always quick with a smirk and an answer: I play baseball. However, I try not to mention that I play independent league ball. I do this not out of shame but because I find that most people don’t understand what “independent ball” is.
In my opinion, the best way to think of indy ball is as the junior college (JUCO) of the professional level. Much like players come to JUCO with the hopes of finding a college team to play for, players come to indy ball with the hope of moving on to the next level. Some come after college. Others are former organizational players who have been released. But they all have the same set of goals: to sign with an organization, move up the ranks and to achieve the dream of playing in the big leagues.
There are some key differences between playing for a minor league organization and playing for an independent team. In an organization, players often get the benefit of multiple seasons to prove themselves. In indy ball, there is a much shorter leash. Upon first joining the indy ball ranks, I remember Nick Belmonte, one of my coaches, telling me, “Independent ball contracts are renewed hourly.” This means that everything — from a trade to an outright release — is a possibility at all times. I have seen a manager release six or seven players at once, simply because another team folded and he wanted to bring in its best players. I have had friends who have gotten as few as seven at bats — for a pitcher, perhaps as a little as a start — to prove themselves. Imagine: One week, you have a job playing baseball. And the next, you’re back at home catching up on Netflix.
Not only do you have to make your mark quickly in indy ball but you also have to be wary of the league you choose. The more established independent leagues are the Atlantic League, the American Association, the Frontier League and the Can-Am League. These are the preferred leagues to play in. They’ve been around longer, they have the ability to pay more and they aren’t as much of a grind as the “lower-level” indy leagues (“as much” being the operative term). In short, they do things more professionally.
The lower-level leagues are different story. I have dabbled in a lower level league and let me tell you — you must really love baseball to keep playing through some of those conditions. There was the packed house mentioned above but there was another place our guys stayed at that became known as “the jail.” And for good reason — it was literally an old detention center. The doors locked from the outside. The bathrooms had toilet seats and showers with no dividers. If you ever wanted to have a conversation on the toilet while looking your friend in the face, this was the place for you. It was a cozy setup.
Which leads to the obvious question: Why subject yourself to playing at the lower levels and to grinding it out to such a degree? Well, as a good mentor of mine, former Texas Rangers pitching coach Tom House, always told me: “It’s much easier to find a job when you have one than when you don’t.” In baseball terms, if you are not playing somewhere then your career is considered dead. And while sticking it out at the lower levels may be less than glamorous, it’s also more than dead. It’s something. It’s a way of keeping your career in motion and your dream alive.
In the end, we are all just clinging to a dream we haven’t given up on yet. We are all just hoping to get noticed by that one scout, on that one day, who will give us a shot. To play indy ball you have to have a voice inside your head pushing you to continue, no matter the odds. You have to love what you do. For me, the love part comes easy — I get to play baseball every day. I wouldn’t trade that for anything in the world.
Dylan Badura is a pitcher for the Road City Explorers in the East Coast Baseball League