Minor Leagues, Major Lessons
Now that I’m in finance, and I write mainly finance-related material, it’d be easy to say that earning less than $10,000/year taught me the importance of savings, frugality, squeezing a quarter out of a nickel, finding a healthy meal at a gas-station-pit-stop in the middle of the night during a ten hour bus ride, etc - all valuable lessons I learned. And while I appreciate those lessons, they aren’t what I’m most thankful for.
In the minors, salaries are set by the Minor League Baseball Players Association according to level and tenure, and you cannot negotiate those terms. Most often, top round draft picks make their money by earning a huge signing bonus (what you read about on the internet), and then go off to play rookie ball making the same monthly paycheck as the rest of us.
How much, exactly, is that monthly paycheck? Well, my last full season was 2010. I was earning $1,450/month, or about $600/paycheck after taxes….from April through the first week of September. I wasn’t paid between the last game of the season in September and the first game of the next season the following April.
That’s how the baseball world works, even in the big leagues. Players are paid while they are in season. So, when you hear about guys making $20 million/year, that pay period starts on game one of the season and ends on game 162. Fun fact - that $20 million ends up being about $1 million per paycheck after taxes… sure beats my $600, but I’m so grateful for my $600 paychecks.
My goal was to play in the big leagues, and I never got out of High A. I’ll be the first to say it - I flat out, 100% failed in achieving my goal. But I hardly see those years as a failure. Sure, I couldn’t hit water if I fell off a boat most of the time, and going through that experience was painful, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
I grew so much as a person in those five minor league seasons. I’m most thankful for the lessons I learned in the middle of nowhere America with twenty four other brothers all chasing the same dream, spending every waking minute together, trying to figure life out.
I traded the additional $30, $40, $50, $60k/year my college peers were making in exchange for an MBA in Life, something you cannot put a price tag on, and I could not be more thankful for the experience.
In this blog series, and in this season of thanksgiving, I will highlight the life lessons I learned in the minor leagues that I am most thankful for. They are even more applicable to my life today than they were then.
In high school, if you told me that I’d be drafted as a catcher, play minor league baseball for five seasons, mostly as a catcher, and never make it out of High A, I’d tell you, “Get in line behind all the other naysayers and watch…and a catcher? You’re crazy.” I was a pitcher.
After my senior year of high school, I was drafted in the 48th round out of 50 as a pitcher/shortstop by the San Diego Padres...life was going as planned.
Fast forward five seasons with them, and I was released as a PITCHER, wrapping up my minor league career, never making it above High A, spending the first four years as a catcher and the last as a pitcher.
Fast forward six years, and I’m now married with five kids, have farm animals in my back yard (after growing up in a city), and am working in an industry I was always formerly skeptical of but am now in love with…not what I planned, but I couldn't be happier.
I can name about 1,000 more instances throughout those years where things didn’t go as planned. You can, too, I’m sure.
But you know what? My life today is exponentially more rewarding than it was as a minor leaguer chasing the dream.
Life will never go as you plan, no matter how hard you try. Despite the pain often associated with change, be grateful. You never know how that change will become a tool in your life-toolbox down the road.
Through my failures as a minor leaguer, I am SO much better at letting go of things I have no control over. Traffic, weather, stock market declines, sick kids, chickens aren’t laying enough eggs, whatever it is - I save the mental stress of worrying and instead focus my efforts where it matters - things within my control, and I am so thankful for learning this lesson in the minor leagues.
In the minors, everyone plays the role of GM at one point or another. On long bus rides, we would move guys up, down, and out as if they were chess pieces. When the “brass (front office staff)” was in town, everyone speculated who was moving up or shipping out. The draft would happen in June, and everyone questioned whether that recently drafted high school or college player was his replacement.
Personally, I played GM every night when I got home from the game, especially when I wasn’t hitting my weight. Every night I lay in bed and wondered, “is tomorrow my last day?” Then I carried that weight with me to the ballpark the next day.
When I got to the field, the first thing I did was check the lineup card. “Phew, not starting again tonight. They can’t release me if I’m not given a chance in games…or can they?” Side note - yes they can.
Without a doubt, worrying about what was out of my control took up valuable mental space and negatively affected me over time. I could have been reading, watching a movie, learning something new - almost anything could have been more productive than worrying about things that were out of my control.
Today, this lesson holds true in all parts of my life. When the stock market drops and I lose money, I don’t sweat it. I know we at Beck Bode have a disciplined investment process that has withstood the test of time. A decline in the market is completely out of my control.
When my kids get sick, are up all night, and all I can do is give them medicine and hold them, I try not to stress out. I’m doing everything I can in that moment for them…and I have plenty of coffee to get me through the next day, or two, or five. I can’t control how quickly they get better.
Letting go of things that are out of my control continues to free up my mental energy to focus on the things that really matter in my life, and I owe it all to my failures as a minor leaguer.
Don’t be mislead by cliches like “Love what you do and never work a day in your life,” or “It’ll never feel like work if it’s something you love.”
I was playing baseball for a living. The Kansas City Royals were giving me a paycheck twice/month to play a game I loved since I was five. It doesn’t get much better than that for a job.
But guess what? There were days I didn’t feel like going to the ballpark. And there were parts of my day I didn’t enjoy all the time.
The baseball season gets insanely repetitive. Every day is Groundhog Day. The routine never changes: Wake up around 10am, eat breakfast, kill an hour or two, go to the ballpark, spend 8-10 hours there, go to bed around 2am. Repeat x 162 (140 in the minors), not including spring training and fall/winter league.
Most of the time it was a blast, but there were days I wanted a break from the monotony, and there were parts of the job that I didn’t always enjoy: batting practice, running poles, team lifts, arm care work, infield/outfield, cuts and relays, bunt defense, PB&J for the 100th time before a game, the same music in the clubhouse - you name it, some parts of the job felt like work at times…even though I loved what I was doing.
That was an important lesson for me to learn, especially when my playing career ended. Instead of searching for a career where I would love 100% of my days, I looked inward to understand what made me tick and then searched for a career that could fulfill my needs.
Given that it’s a Sunday, I thought it was appropriate to share this lesson today. I know the lesson sounds cynical, but it’s not at all. Let me explain.
For anyone who knows me well, it’s no secret that my faith guides my decision making. I’ve learned that having a faith or belief system that doesn’t fail you is vital, especially when the sky feels like it is falling.
Back when I used to play GM (Lesson 2), I worried all the time about things that were out of my control. I was frustrated and angry with my lack of performance on the field. Baseball had always been something I was good at, and I felt like baseball was failing me as much as I was failing at it.
I fell into the trap of letting baseball identify me. It was not something I did. It was who I was. I was a baseball player, not someone who played baseball.
It didn’t matter what was going on in my life - parents’ divorce, failed relationships, struggles in school - I could always depend on baseball to provide me that identity and security I needed…
Until I couldn’t.
Failing in the minors was so important to my growth and development as a person. I learned that my faith in God was the only thing that wouldn’t fail me, and it is now the cornerstone of my identity - much more secure than identifying as a baseball player.
Today, I know that the things most important in my life - my wife, children, work - can and will fail me at some point just as I will fail them, and that’s ok. I don’t expect them to be perfect, and thank goodness they don’t expect perfection from me.
Our faith, however, won’t fail us, and for that it is the foundation for how we live our life.
Chemistry trumps talent almost without exception.
Ask any former minor leaguer what they miss most about their time in the minors, and they will tell you they miss their teammates, the clubhouse shenanigans, and the off-the-field bonding. You develop some incredible relationships with your teammates in the minor leagues.
Think about it, you are in a small town in the middle of America, you know nobody, there’s nothing to do, and you’re all chasing the same dream every night. Your job requires you to be together from 2-11 every day, but you end up hanging out all the time.
In my experience, the teams with the best chemistry, not the most talent, were the premier teams I’ve played on. And the stronger the relationships, the better the teams played together.
If you combine top talent and a tight-knit chemistry, you have a championship caliber team.
Take, for example, when I played for the Wilmington Blue Rocks in 2009. That was an incredibly talented team (13 guys from that team made it to the big leagues). At the start of the season, we didn’t know each other very well, but as the season progressed, we became like family, and it’s evident in our record.
We finished the year 84-55, but check out the first and second half splits, 38-31 and 46-24 respectively…same team, same players (for the most part), but we finished +16 games in the second half.
The 2004 Red Sox were the first team in MLB history to come back from an 0-3 deficit in a seven game series, despite having a payroll almost $60 million less than their rival Yankees (aka less talent on paper). That same ’04 team was nicknamed affectionately a “Band of Idiots.” “Cowboy up” was coined that season. Long hair and beards became cool in baseball because of that team.
Everyone praised that team for its chemistry - go ahead and Google “2004 Red Sox chemistry” and see how many articles come up. Now Google “2004 Red Sox talent.” You won’t find one article exclusively highlighting the talent on the team that year.
Chemistry trumps talent in the business world, too. CEO’s or business owners often say their number one priority is hiring and keeping the right people. Venture capitalists are far more likely to invest in amazing team with a good idea over an average team with an incredible idea.
Apple and Harley Davidson have done such a good job creating chemistry that it spills over to their customer base, and because of it they’ve created raving fans. Some even get tattoos of the Harley or Apple logos.
Grateful for learning the importance of chemistry in the minors, I now prioritize it at the top of my list when making both professional and personal decisions.
We were just getting home after a long road trip. It was four in the morning when we pulled into our home stadium parking lot.
After road trips, the bus always dropped us off at the stadium so we could unload our equipment, get in our cars, and drive home to get a few hours of sleep before we had to be back later that day.
This time, before we got into our cars, one of my teammates was called into the manager’s office. He was given a plane ticket home and was released, just like that, at 4am.
Later that day, a new name was in the starting lineup playing at his position, and a new player’s nameplate was hanging over his locker. Think about that - less than 12 hours later my teammate was gone and I had a new one…and the train keeps chugging, never missing a beat.
He wasn’t the first guy I saw released, but for whatever reason, this one got me. It made me realize,
You are always replaceable.
What an incredibly humbling lesson. In that 4am-moment, I learned that I couldn’t afford to give anything but 100%, all the time. The game didn’t owe me anything. Life didn’t owe me anything. Nothing was guaranteed to me.
I am now keenly aware that someone out there is smarter than me, more talented than me, better connected than me, has better genetics than me, etc, but nobody can outwork me, and my work ethic is completely within my control.
I know I am always replaceable, but I will make it tough to find the replacement!
When people find out I bounced around the minors for five seasons I’m often asked something like, “What were the guys like who made it to the big leagues? Was it obvious they were better than everyone else on the field?”
My anti-climactic answer is always, “No, not at all.”
Of all the future big-leaguers I played with, there was one player…ONE…who was head and shoulders better than everyone else on the diamond, Tim Lincecum. And what did Tim’s early professional career look like? First round draft pick in ’06, major league debut in ’07, Cy Young Winner ’08 and ‘09, MLB Starter of the Year in ’08, NL All Star from ’08-11, NL Strikeouts per 9 leader from ’08-10, Post Season MVP (Babe Ruth Award) in ’10, World Series champion ’10, ’12, and ’14, and the list goes on.
And as for the countless rest?
They were insanely consistent with the routine things. Don’t get me wrong, they were talented. You can’t get to that level without talent, but their consistency is what set them apart.
Hitters could take the same swing on the ball in games as they could in batting practice, and they could do that 99 out of 100 times. Pitchers could hit their spot, whether in or intentionally out of the zone, 99 out of 100 times with at least a couple pitches.
The greatest players on Earth are the most consistent players on Earth, not the most talented.
That lesson hasn’t stopped with baseball, either. Among the top performing colleagues I’ve worked with, nothing in particular has stood out among them. Instead, they too have taken care of business with alarming consistency.
Need something by a certain date or time? It’s there, on time, every time.
Need to hit certain metrics on a monthly basis? They hit their numbers every month, twelve months a year.
Pushing marketing content through social media channels? They show up every time I look at my feeds.
Expecting a certain level of quality or service? You get it from them every time, without exception.
So, today, instead of trying to be the best in my industry, I take a page out of the big-league playbook and try to be the most consistent with everything I do.
Baseball is a long and frustrating game of failure. If you don’t celebrate minor victories along the way, you can become a miserable human.
Including spring training, MLB guys are playing about 200 games/year in seven months - that’s 200 games in roughly 240 days, more if they make the post season, even more if they play winter ball. That’s 40 days off in 240 days. To put that into perspective, the typical M-F job has over 70 days off in the same time frame, over an entire month of additional time off.
Playing every day is physically and emotionally demanding, especially when you’re failing much more than succeeding. Hall of Fame hitters fail 70% of the time. On average in 2017, pitchers allowed over 5 runs/game. It’s very easy ride the emotional rollercoaster of baseball, but you can’t. It can ruin your career.
With that being said, keeping your emotions in check makes it easy to ignore all the good things that happen in a season, too. That can also ruin a career.
As Gary V would say, “it’s about the journey, not the destination.” So I ask, what good is the journey if you don’t stop to enjoy it?
My business career is a lot like my playing career. There are goals and deadlines and KPI's and schedules and personal demands all competing for my focus and attention. If I let my emotions get the better of me, I can spiral in any direction life pulls me. So, I make sure I maintain a cerebral approach to my business.
But I’ve learned from my stoic failures in the minors. When I was playing, I never celebrated mini-victories, but I do now, both in business and in life.
If I earn business that I’ve been working hard on for months, I’ll stop work for the rest of that day and appreciate the hard work that went into the victory.
If it’s a Tuesday morning and I’m at Legend Cafe with my older two kids (5 and 4 years old), and they use “please” and “thank you” without me reminding them, I make it a point to tell them how proud I am that they remembered to use their manners.
If it weren’t for the minor leagues, I probably would still work late on days I win business, and I probably would let opportunities to love on my kids pass me by. My inability to appreciate successes in the minors has made my life today so much more enjoyable.
More isn’t more. Believe me. I learned it the hard way.
I was always a hard worker and still am. The “bulldog” mentality that so many high school and college coaches instill in young athletes resonated with me. I wanted to be known as the guy who never quit and would run through a wall if it meant achieving a goal.
I still maintain this attitude, but I’m a lot smarter in my approach.
As a young athlete, I had dozens of coaches teach me their philosophy on (insert sport-specific move here). In business, I’ve had managers and mentors teach me their best practices for success in corporate America.
I’ve learned that everyone means well, but not all instructions resonate with me. Now I am adept at filtering noise quickly and applying what works for my personality/makeup.
I didn’t always filter the noise. If I respected a coach, and he told me to swing the bat a certain way, I’d hit thousands of balls off a tee until I figured out how to implement my coach’s philosophy…
Until a new coach taught me a new approach. In my mind, I needed to prove I was coachable and willing to work hard, so what did I do? I hit thousands of more balls until I figured it out.
That cycle repeated in perpetuity, and it wasn’t until my last year playing professionally that I realized this:
It’s OK if a coach’s philosophy doesn’t resonate. It’s stupid on my part to force things that don’t work for me.
I also learned when enough was enough. Up until my last year in the minors, I remember times when I’d hit in the batting cage and feel GREAT. Everything felt in sync, and ball after ball peppered the back wall of the cage.
What did I do? I kept hitting. In my mind, if some was good, more was better.
What ended up happening? I got fatigued, my swing got worse, and then I got frustrated with the results.
How did I fix bad results? I worked harder. So I stayed in the cage, hit more, got worse, got angrier, and eventually I got frustrated enough to pack it up and head home feeling like I made minimal progress that day.
What I realize now is that I should have shut my hitting session down when things were feeling great. More wasn’t more. More was less, but I was too hardheaded to believe it. I felt like I wasn’t working hard if I stopped, but in fact I was just being stupid.
The same is true in my business career. A classic sales manager says something like this, “Great, you just hit your goal for the week, now let’s see if you can double it. Get dialing!”
What happens? I’m frustrated that my success isn’t recognized, and I feel like I’m on a hamster wheel. More isn’t more.
So, today, I am keenly aware of what works and what doesn’t, and I do my best to pivot quickly when things aren’t working.
For better or for worse, you live under a microscope as a professional athlete. There are fans, scouts, front office staff, coaches, managers, teammates, opponents, etc. at every game.
Off the field you stick out like a sore thumb - how obvious is it when young, athletic, farmer’s-tanned boys show up dressed in jeans and a polo (or some other dress-code-appropriate collared shirt) and always travel in packs?
People notice you.
What time do you get to the ballpark? When do you leave? How do you interact with teammates, coaches, and staff? Or the media? Or the clubby? Or a random fan after going 0-4 with 4 K’s and don’t feel like talking? How do you treat the field staff? What foods do you eat? How hard do you work in the gym? When do you wake up on the road? Do you read? What music do you like? Do you slouch? How big are your hands? Are you baby-faced or mature looking? And the list goes on.
You name it, someone notices it.
They notice if you’re the guy who treats others as inconsequential in pursuit of your big league dream. They notice if you’re the guy that always smiles. They notice if you use “please” and “thank you” at the local Wal-Mart.
People notice everything.
Today, I am keenly aware that I am an example for everyone I cross paths with. I am an example for my kids, sure, but my days as a minor leaguer taught me I’m not ONLY being noticed by my kids.
Everyone notices you.
So, I choose to be noticed and remembered for all the right reasons. How? I lead with love. Call it sappy, call it cheesy, but it’s the truth. When I do that, everything else falls into place.
**It has been eye-opening and a lot of fun recalling the many lessons those five seasons in the minors taught me about life. If you’ve followed along for some or all of them, thank you. I sincerely appreciate your interest.**