For love and the game
We were only dating then, and I actually thought that crisscrossing the country to watch my boyfriend play baseball was romantic. It was 2007 and Tyler had just been drafted out of Rice University by the St. Louis Cardinals and was shipped out to the middle of nowhere, but I was convinced it was just the first step toward stardom and all the luxuries of his life as a pro athlete. I was wrong. It was during that trip to Batavia, N.Y., almost three years ago that I got my first taste of minor league baseball living.
When I arrived, Tyler couldn't wait to show me his new place, or more accurately, his space. He was one of five players living in the cramped, 1970's style basement of an 80-year-old host mother, and my tour lasted about 30 seconds. I saw an ancient, remote-less TV, four mattresses and a dehumidifier that the guys claimed to empty daily (though my frizzed-out hair told me otherwise).
At the time, he was making the minor league maximum (yes, maximum) salary of $1,100 per month. I wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry when he called from a long bus ride to explain what he and his teammates had been discussing:
"Hey! Guess what?" he said.
"We broke down the time we spend in the clubhouse, on the field and on the bus and figured we're making about $3.60 per hour," he said. "Can you believe that?"
Okay, so maybe the road to playing ball on the well-manicured turf of a major league stadium was going to be a little rockier than I had initially imagined. But still, I found something incredibly admirable and attractive about watching someone chase a dream. It didn't hurt that he was a sweet Alabama boy with a kind heart and impeccable manners. I was, without a doubt, in love, and thus more than willing to overlook the struggles of being a minor league baseball girlfriend.
Becoming a baseball wife
Over the next year, I visited him as often as I could. Tyler didn't drink, smoke, chew tobacco or bring home groupies (as far as I knew), but I got used to seeing his house littered with remnants of those vices courtesy of his roommates. It was amidst the beer bottles and dip cups that we started talking about marriage.
"Here's the thing," he said. "I don't want a long-distance wife."
And I couldn't blame him. We had been apart for most of our two-year relationship, and I, too, wanted a break from phone conversations and plane flights. I wanted to wake up next to the man I married.
But I had a job. I had friends. I had a life. After graduating from Rice with an economics degree, I was expected to pursue my career, not give it up to follow a boy. By that point, I was familiar with the challenges of playing pro ball. I knew about the slim odds of success and the poor pay. And I knew that supporting a significant other to the point of self-sacrifice is often equated with needy dependence or loss of individuality. Would I be perceived that way?
Truth is, once a player is drafted, you might as well tattoo "Property of [Team]" on his forehead. For six full seasons (if he makes it that far) an organization can reassign a player at will, trade him at a moment's notice or cut him without warning. None of that sounded appealing. Plus, I had heard stories about baseball wives who did little but sleep in, get mani-pedi's and attend games. The thought of becoming one of "them" terrified me.
So I decided to jot down a pros and cons list. The con side was packed full within minutes. Marrying the love of my life would require me to leave home, leave great friends, quit my job -- and potentially lose my identity as a self-sufficient woman in the process. I would have to embrace the unknown -- a longtime adversary. I also considered life after baseball. If things didn't work out, Tyler would still have a year of college to finish before trying to start a career in his late 20s. What if we had kids by then?
I was able to scrape up a couple of positives, but the two sides of my legal pad were unbalanced to say the least. After telling my mom about the list, she laughed.
"There's really only one question that matters," she said. "Can you live without him?"
I knew I couldn't, and just six months later I was walking down the aisle. I knew our existence would be as stable as the cleat-chasing girls that hang around minor league clubhouses, but I didn't care. Soon after the wedding, we headed to spring training, where my new husband was told he was being promoted to Double-A in Springfield, Mo.
"How exciting!" I told him, but deep down I was one heart palpitation away from cardiac arrest. What in the world was I going to do in Missouri?
To my great surprise, Springfield was a charming town full of some of the nicest people I had ever met. They loved their baseball team, and I loved hearing the buzzing of the crowd instead of the buzzing of the lights, as is the case at many poorly attended minor league games. I soon found a great job teaching tennis while my husband was having the best season of his career.
By stripping away all that was comfortable to me, my fledgling marriage blossomed. With only each other to depend on, my husband and I built a strong, faith-based foundation. And boy, were we going to need it.
A relationship through rehab
After an incredibly successful first year of marriage, we left for our second season as a married couple. We got a tantalizing taste of the big time when my husband was invited to play with the major league team during spring training. The highlight was receiving a bank envelope heavy with his big-league-level meal money. Ironically, the guys in the majors who need it the least get up to $100 per day for food alone, while minor leaguers just recently got a meal money raise: from $20 to $25.
Tyler was assigned to Triple-A in Tennessee to start the season -- one step away from the big leagues. Life in downtown Memphis turned out to be less than inviting and provided the backdrop as I helplessly watched my husband struggle though the worst slump of his career. Things only got worse when he was placed on the disabled list with an elbow injury.
He came off the DL a month later only to be sent down to Double-A that same day. Calm, cool and collected, I was not. The downward spiral continued when the apartment complex that promised to "work with us" charged us $2,500 for breaking our lease. Then we found out the team would have covered the charge -- if he were being called up to the big leagues. Talk about depressing.
Less than 24 hours later we were back in Springfield, and I was back in the role of supportive partner. "This isn't the end of the world," I told him, and myself. But soon the elbow pain was back. Doctors told my perpetually optimistic husband he would need Tommy John surgery -- an elbow operation that would take at least seven months of rehab.
It was a setback we didn't see coming and despite being intellectually prepared for the "worst," I quickly realized my heart was not so well equipped. Of course I wanted to see my husband's hard work pay off for his benefit, but I also saw every step in the wrong direction as a tiny indicator of what my future might hold. As a player, you could never survive placing that much weight on any one event or at-bat. It's not so easy when you sit in the stands.
You see, in baseball an unexpected injury or an untimely slump can mean the difference between celebrity and a nomadic life lived below the poverty line. Fear of the latter was paralyzing, but we learned quickly that dwelling on the uncertainties of our chosen lifestyle was unwise and destructive.
So this offseason, while big leaguers were relaxing in their luxury homes and vacationing in the Caribbean, my husband and I were living in my parents' spare bedroom to save money during his months of rehab. Though some friends told me I'd be better off sticking with my "normal life" and steady job, I can't imagine how much more difficult this season would have been had I not joined my man on the baseball rollercoaster.
I'm proud to say that after two full seasons, not only is my individuality intact, but I'm certain I have stronger marriage than I would have had I stayed home and let Tyler travel alone. I can't imagine missing out on spending every day with this man who loves me without question. The career I thought I wanted was a small price to pay to feel a love like that, and I can only imagine what's in store for season three.
Someday baseball might make us millionaires -- but it probably won't. Either way, the minor league ride has taught me to be flexible and truly live one day at a time; skills that will no doubt serve me well for the rest of my life. More importantly, I've realized that playing a supporting role doesn't have to rob me of my identity. One day baseball will be a distant memory, but the foundation it helped build in my most treasured relationship on earth will still be standing strong.