Transition Out Of Baseball Not Easy For Most Players

David Ortiz
David Ortiz earned approximately $160 million in his baseball career (Photo by Ken Babbitt)

Chances are that upon retirement, David Ortiz and Mark Teixeira didn’t need job placement services or financial advice. But for the non one-percenters of baseball, a transition out of the game is loaded with questions.

Major League Baseball is hoping to fix that.

"Over the last two years, we've started taking a more direct look at post-career transitions," said Paul Mifsud, vice president and deputy general counsel of labor relations at Major League Baseball. "Not just major leaguers or minor leaguers, but also kids who play in the (Dominican Summer League). We have a ton of kids who are never going to leave the island and have spent their lives playing baseball and then they're too old to play ball professionally.

"We have been looking at that issue more acutely, and we have programs in the DR to help teams teach kids (what they need to know) . . . but we're taking on more of that at a league level."

Mario Rodriguez was one of those DSL players. Although he was talented enough to play his way to the United States after signing with the Giants in 2006, the lefthander lasted just five seasons before he was released in 2012. At 23, he needed a new career.

"For me, it was easier once I got released," Rodriguez said. "The Giants offered me the job as a pitching coach (for the Giants' DSL team). But I finished high school when I was 17 and I knew, if I didn't have (a baseball job) I could always go back to school and prepare myself. But some of those guys, when they're at the end of the road, they say, 'Oh I've got to do something.

"When I played the game, I was one of 3-4 players (who) finished high school on the whole team—that tells you a lot. It's a big problem. I would say some of the players, once their career is almost over, there's not too many options. Some guys who make it to the States, it's not about ‘What do I do next?’ It's more about ‘How do I survive?’"

Mifsud acknowledged keeping tabs on players is a difficult problem for MLB to get its arms around, largely because of the logistics of an enormous, rolling player population.

"Baseball is a little different than the NBA," he said. "There are so many players in the minors who never get a chance. . . .We're talking about 1,200 players at any given moment. . . . It's less than ideal.

"But clubs are very interested in this issue. . . . It's something they've done individually, and the Baseball Assistance Team has also raised the issue with us over the last couple of years to try to work with us to develop some sort of system to get vocational training and get (players) back to school or get vocational training."

Steps have been taken in recent years to help ease the transition. Thanks to MLB's Dominican Republic office, released players are now handed a brochure that makes them aware of certain career transition services, including education and vocational counseling players may qualify for. It's the kind of information Mifsud said MLB is working to prepare for players in the States as well, and he credits new MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark for his advocacy of increased transition outreach.

For players who reach the major leagues, the transition to retirement is easier because of pensions and health insurance. Players who play 43 days in the majors earn a minimum $34,000 annual pension plan. Just one day in the majors gets them healthcare coverage, and players with four years in the majors have the option of retaining it—at a cost, of course. After 10 years in the big leagues, benefits grow to $100,000 annually. Like social security, there is a minimum age to tap into a pension plan—it is 45, according to Mifsud—and it increases the longer a player waits to start collecting.

However, players who ever reach the majors still account for a small percentage of the baseball-playing industry.

As such, MLB wants to incorporate post-baseball training into its rookie development seminars, which currently focus on media training, the sport’s domestic violence policy and workplace conduct, among other facets of playing pro baseball. The issue, Mifsud says, is timing.

"One of the problems we've run into is that, when you talk to a player in spring, he has no interest in talking about what happens next. He's 1000 percent committed to making the Opening Day roster," Mifsud said. "He doesn't want to talk about (leaving the game)."

Brett Kay, now the head coach at JSerra Catholic High in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., was one of those players who wanted to talk about his future. He just didn't know who to talk to.

Kay was a standout catcher at Cal State Fullerton and an eighth-round pick of the Mets in 2001, but after three seasons of  minor league ball, he was looking for a way out.

"I didn't know if I was going to be a career minor leaguer and I wanted to get started on real life," said Kay, 36. "I look at Mike Hessman—not a knock on him, I played with him (at Mater Dei High)—but I wanted to start a family. I knew I wanted to be a coach, but I didn't know how to do it.

"The cord was cut (when I decided to stop playing) . . . there was no conversation."

Kay bought into a training facility in Irvine, Calif.—"which seems to be the norm of a pro player when they're done," he said—but it was a bad financial move.

He found his way into coaching with travel ball teams, but was still living with his parents, staying up until 3-4 a.m. and living the life of a minor league ballplayer.

In 2006, he was asked by one of the parents of a player at tiny Capistrano Valley Christian in San Juan Capistrano to take over the team. He did, leading the program from a losing season the year before to a 17-5 record and a CIF-Southern Section playoff berth.

While there, Scott Boras' son Shane, then a player at JSerra, caught wind of Kay’s coaching and was impressed. He told his super agent dad about Kay and in August of that year, Kay landed the coveted head coaching job at JSerra.

Kay—the brother of longtime Angels communications director Eric Kay—acknowledges he had a lot in his favor, which many former players in his position do not. He had a relative in a high-profile position in an MLB organization and one of the most influential figures in Boras in his corner.

"I had the right networking, and with Scott, it all fell into my lap," Kay said. "I'm lucky to have my brother, to have met Scott, an unbelievable advocate."

Without that help, Kay knows his future could have been different.

"Some guys are just statistics (to an organization),” Kay said. “I know a guy who was suicidal (when he was released). I know guys who say they're going to keep playing until they rip the jersey off. I had to be realistic."

And that's the message Mifsud wants to drill into all players—and early.

"Getting to them in a way that doesn't threaten them is going to be a challenge," Mifsud admitted. "We're in the process of putting together materials for clubs to give players in the discussion when they're going to be released, 'here's a list of numbers and resources for your next step.'”

College tuition plans can be written into every player contract—they are standard in most—and part of the new collective bargaining agreement that was ratified on Dec. 14 gives players more latitude in making post-playing educational choices.

Players have two years after retirement to begin using the tuition money agreed to in their contracts, but language in the new CBA allows a stay of that tuition usage until after they play in a foreign league, such as Nippon Professional Baseball, or any professional independent league. Previously, that two-year window began upon leaving affiliated ball in the United States.

Players also now have choices beyond a traditional semester system, such as vocational training or online educational institutions, provided they are accredited and have graduation rates higher than 50 percent. Previously, the tuition payouts covered only brick-and-mortar, nationally accredited schools.

“If a player wants to stay in baseball, we want to tell him what avenues to take to make that happen,” Mifsud said. “And if he wants to get an education, we want to make sure he can do that.”

Mifsud acknowledges there are financial implications of a bigger outreach, but there could be unforeseen benefits.

"The cost is there, none of these things are free," Mifsud said. "By giving a player peace off the field that he has his life in order, that could actually improve his play on the field."

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