Little Big League

The backdrop for most minor league ballparks isn't one of the largest cities in the world (via Doug Kerr).

The backdrop for most minor league ballparks isn’t one of the largest cities in the world (via Doug Kerr).

New York tourists and professional ballplayers have one thing in common. Both are taught to never be in awe of their surroundings. Whether it’s a big league clubhouse or a canyon of skyscrapers, the lesson is clear. Act like you belong there.

But Ethan Carnes can’t help it. The left-handed reliever is both tourist and ballplayer as a Texas native playing short-season Single-A ball for the Staten Island Yankees. He always finds himself staring wide-eyed at the big video board at Richmond County Bank Ballpark before home games, grinning and getting goosebumps despite himself.

“They show Manhattan and Times Square and play the Jay-Z New York song, and it just hits me that I play for the New York Yankees organization, one of greatest sports franchises in world,” says Carnes, the Yankees’ 21st-round pick in the 2013 draft. “I know I’m still on the journey, but I feel like it’s a dream come true.”

Staten Island is one of the most unusual lower minor league communities in the country. According to Minor League Baseball’s ranking of markets where its teams play, the New York metro area, which includes the Staten Island Yankees, Brooklyn Cyclones, Hudson Valley Renegades and Lakewood Blue Claws, is the biggest.

And big means expensive. According to the Web site City-Data.com, the most recent data it has on Staten Island, from March 2012, shows that the cost of living index there is 405.3. The U.S. average is 100.

Minor league salaries make no distinction for the higher cost of living. According to Michael McCann, a Massachusetts attorney and the founding director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, most minor league players earn between $3,000 and $7,500 over a five-month season. Even fast-food workers make more than that.

Right-hander Jordan Foley, a fifth-round pick of the Yankees this year out of Central Michigan, says he and his teammates save on food expenses by taking advantage of the pre- and post-game spreads the Yankees provide when the team is home.

“There’s also a really good New York-style pizza place next to the field that I like,” says Foley. “It’s just a minute walk from stadium, so I’ll grab a couple of slices for lunch.”

That pizza place, Pier 76, also has a kiosk at the stadium, where fans can enjoy its giant pizza slices, meatball subs and other Italian goodies.

Like Foley, Carnes says he likes to forage around Richmond County Bank Ballpark for food when the pre-game spread isn’t enough.

“I tend to eat a lot of deli sandwiches and pizzas,” he says. “And I’ve had a lot of Dunkin Donuts breakfasts this summer. I love their coffee. We don’t have it back home. I’m going to miss it.”

On the road, players make due with the meager meal money they get.

“It’s a lot of eating out and trying to keep it as healthy as possible,” says Foley, like opting for the grilled chicken sandwich instead of the burger at McDonald’s.

The team does its best to help the players save money. President and general manager Jane Rogers, who has been with the Staten Island Yankees since their inception in 1999, says she and her staff want to keep their players’ off-the-field concerns to a minimum so they can focus on baseball.

“We don’t want to spoil them, but we do some very generous things,” she says. “We have a steak and lobster dinner for them once a year. We bring them goodie bags when they go on the road. Coming up, we’re having a desert night for them. We try to provide them with all the comforts of home.”

Most of the post-game meals are full-fledged dinners prepared under the nutritional guidelines of the New York Yankees training staff in Tampa. But Rogers says she’ll add a little New York into the menu now and then.

“The first thing players want when they get here is New York bagels and pizza, so we try to give them a little of everything,” she says.

Rogers and her staff act as mother hens, not just keeping the players well fed but also mailing packages for them and hiring a barber to their hair clipped to Yankee specifications. Rogers says she always tries to be as empathetic as she can.

“Many of the players we get are from smaller towns and I’m sure it’s overwhelming at first,” says Rogers.”Even the way we talk. We talk extremely fast to begin with, so I have to calm myself down when I talk to them.”

But there’s only so much she and her staff can do to make players feel at home. They still have to stay in budget hotels, both at home and on the road.

The two hotels they use on Staten Island, however, are a little different — with an emphasis on little.

“The rooms are nice but everything is so compact,” says Carnes.

“It’s cramped,” agrees Foley, “but it’s nice being all together so you can hang out with anyone who’s around.”

Their Staten Island hotels are relatively isolated, set just off a highway toward the south end of the island. The team sends a regularly scheduled van to ferry players to the ballpark, although those rides can be a white knuckle experience for the inexperienced rider.

“You have city buses that are always clogging up the road,” says Foley. “It gets a little hairy when they pull out from the curb in front of everyone.”

A few players brought their cars for the summer. Foley says he hitches a ride with them every once in a while.

“You can also take a cab if you really wanted,” he says, although his tone makes it clear that’s a luxury neither he nor his teammates can really afford.

Rogers says the accommodations situation used to be much worse. Four years ago, before the team struck a deal with the two hotels where it currently puts its players for the whole season, the Yankees placed players in dorms on the Staten Island campus of St. John’s University. Then they used the dorms at Wagner College. There was just one problem with both arrangements.

“In August, we had to move out because the kids were coming back to school,” says Rogers.

For the final month of those early seasons, players had to shuttle in and out of hotels. The team finally went to hotel accommodations full-time, but even then there was a logistical problem.

“Players had to check out of their rooms when they went on the road and put all their stuff in storage rooms until they got back,” she says. “Then they had to check in again.”

Now, with the Yankees’ deal with the two hotels, at least players get to stay in the same rooms all summer, not having to check out every time they go on the road. Still, most of the Yankee players catch the early team van to the ballpark and spend most of their idle time before games there. The view, they say, is much better on the field.

“I like to look at the Manhattan skyline just beyond our outfield wall,” says Foley. “When the sun goes down and everything lights up out there, it’s a pretty awesome sight.”

Carnes says he likes to face the outfield during the pre-game stretch so he can take in the view. It’s a siren to all of them. The players take every chance they get to go to the city, hopping on the ferry and sailing past the Statue of Liberty.

Sometimes they go at night after an afternoon game. Foley says he and a bunch of teammates went to Manhattan recently to have dinner in Little Italy. Afterward, they went to Times Square, an experience that was easily the highlight of his summer in New York.

“That was an eye-opening experience because it’s pretty chaotic with people walking everywhere and lights flashing all around you,” he says. “It’s a crazy place that sums up New York. Once you see it, it changes everything you think about the city.”

Carnes says he visited Manhattan with his family when he was younger. Going now with teammates, however, is a different experience. It’s not about sightseeing as much as just being caught up in the hustle and bustle of the people and soaking everything in.

“You always think of New York as this place where people don’t talk to you because they’re in such a hurry,” says Carnes. “But when I’m on the subway, I can talk to anyone down there. I talked to one guy who said he was Brooklyn born and raised. That was fun because I just like hearing the accents.”

Sometimes, Carnes can get a little too caught up in the moment. On his trip into the city, he and a few of his teammates missed a transfer on the subway ride home from a Yankee game. The group wound up deep in Brooklyn and panic set in. Good thing Carnes was there. He’d already chatted up half the city on the subway and had no qualms about asking for directions.

“The locals are very nice,” he insists. “The first person I saw said, ‘Just take this train and transfer to that train and that’ll get you to South Ferry.’ We were able to make it back with no problems. That whole day was a cool experience I’ll tell the kids and grandkids one day.”

He can also tell them that he pitched well in his time in Staten Island. He gave up just five earned runs and struck out 23 in his first 23 innings of relief work. Foley, meanwhile, made five starts in his first 10 appearances for the Little Yanks, posting a 4.23 ERA and 1.73 WHIP in 27.2 innings of work.

Both say they that when they’re on the mound, they can tell that they’re squarely in the center of Yankee territory. Fans wearing Jeter sherseys and Yankees caps fill most of the 7,000 seats at Richmond County Bank Ballpark nearly every night, although Rogers says the team draws many Mets fans, too.

“We have plenty of Mets fans here, which is evident whenever we play the Brooklyn Cyclones, the Mets’ affiliate,” says Rogers. “Most of the people on Staten Island are transplants from Brooklyn. Once the Verrazano Bridge was built [in 1964], everyone from Brooklyn who wanted a house with a backyard moved here.”

But the Yankees fans are more vocal. They cheer lustily for their team as if they were at Yankee Stadium rooting for Jeter and Co.

“You feel some of that pressure to succeed with all the fans,” admits Foley. “You know all the history and when you put on the pinstripes the jersey looks the same except for the logo. You look over and see the city skyline and realize you’re pretty close but have a lot of work to do.”

Carnes has a different outlook. He says he’s just enjoying the ride for as long as it lasts.

“I love to have a lot of fans out there every night because it makes such a great baseball atmosphere,” he says. “I don’t feel any extra pressure pitching in Yankee territory. You just have to go out there and enjoy the game as long as you can before you have to hang ‘em up.”

Whenever that may be, this summer will have given him plenty to talk about.

“It’s a great time every I time step on field in Staten Island,” he says.

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Comments

  1. said...

    Amazing how little a team like the Yankees – worth how much? – pays these guys to play. 5K a season? And then the GM Rogers says:

    “We don’t want to spoil them, but we do some very generous things,” she says. “We have a steak and lobster dinner for them once a year. We bring them goodie bags when they go on the road. Coming up, we’re having a desert night for them. We try to provide them with all the comforts of home.”

    That’s spoiling them, huh… The minor leagues compensation system is messed up.

  2. Barney Coolio said...

    Adam: The hotel arrangement thing seemed pretty generous, whether or not the players are paying for that. It seems like the Yankees are aware that living expenses in Staten Island are more than most Triple A locales, and are finding ways to defray those costs.

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