EDITOR’S NOTE: When the Cardinals’ pitchers and catchers go through their first official workout of spring training on Wednesday, Trey Nielsen will be at home in Utah. A non-roster invitee to the camp the last two years, Nielsen has made the decision to retire from baseball, primarily because of the economic realities of being a minor-leaguer. A 30th-round selection in the 2013 draft out of the University of Utah, Nielsen – the son of former major-league pitcher Scott Nielsen – split last season between Triple A Memphis and Double A Springfield but now, at 26, has decided to walk away from the game he loves. In his own words, here are the reasons why.
By Trey Nielsen, Special to STLSportsPage.com
It has been a very different experience looking from the outside in as I watch all of the guys reporting to spring training. Especially considering I spent the last two springs in major league camp, and in the opinion of many was knocking on the door of the big leagues. When you look at it that way, you might think I’m crazy to walk away from the game at this time. Let me explain.
Life is so unpredictable, and it tends to play itself out the way it will for everyone, one way or another. That is ultimately what it came down to for me. The time just felt right. Making this decision was not easy by any means and it took a lot of time and conversation with those closest to me, inside and outside of the game.
My wife Brykelle and I prolonged this decision for months, making sure that we put in the necessary thought to make a decision like this. It ultimately came down to analyzing where we currently are in life, and where we want to go. I am so fortunate to have a wife that supports everything I do and allows me to chase a dream that involves a very unstable lifestyle and a lot of uncertainty. It helps walking away from something you’ve worked towards your entire life when you have a team like ours. Brykelle is such an amazing person to me and I am so fortunate to have a partner in this life that not only supports everything I do, but shares the same vision of what we want out of this life.
We now spend our time in Salt Lake City with our two incredible pups Molly (maltipoo) and Myah (aussiedoodle), while Brykelle builds her business in the cosmetics industry as a presenter for the makeup line Younique. I have an opportunity to take on a leadership role at a big-data software company, which is an incredible opportunity for me. I am very excited about. I have worked very hard to set myself up for life after baseball, to make sure I was prepared for this moment, and here it is.
There were multiple variables that led to my decision to retire, but there are a couple that weighed heavier than others. I am comfortable telling my story, because I know there are a lot of current, and ex-players, out there that can relate to what I’m about to tell you.
I would first like to thank the Cardinals organization for giving me the incredible opportunity to cross the chalk and toe the rubber on a daily basis. There are many people in the organization that contributed to the success I had as a player and the man I have become today. I met so many incredible people on this journey and was able to travel all over the country with many of my great friends. Not too many people get to say they walked in the same halls as Lou Brock, Ozzie “The Wizard” Smith, Bob Gibson, Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina to name a few. When I look at it from that point of view, I did live out my dream and these are experiences I will cherish until my last day without question. However, the game started to change.
For those who don’t know my story, I was primarily a third baseman in college when I was drafted by the Cardinals as a pitcher. I had a torn UCL, which ultimately led to Tommy John surgery before I ever threw a professional pitch. Needless to say, I knew then my career was starting off as an uphill battle. Only those closest to me know that I was flirting with the idea of retiring during last spring training, in 2017, which always seems to surprise people when I tell them. Many couldn’t understand my thoughts and feelings because at the time I was in the big-league camp and was set to compete in the World Baseball Classic with team Italy. I know people would kill for those opportunities. I get it; but I never wanted baseball to define my life.
For those that have gone through this, one of the toughest parts about making this decision is knowing that you are letting others down. In many ways, I felt like everyone around me wanted me to make it more than I did. I kept hearing so many people give me their two cents as to why I should keep playing but they never once considered how the lifestyle was affecting my overall wellbeing and happiness. I struggled to find the drive to keep going and it was Brykelle that talked me into giving it one more year to see what I could do; just one more reason why she is my rock.
I geared up and went to work. I spent the majority of the 2017 season in Triple-A, posting some of the best numbers I ever had in my career. However, putting up good numbers is never a guarantee to getting the call up and this time resulted in me going in the opposite direction. I was frustrated, but I understood that side of the business. That section of time was particularly tough for me because two days prior to being sent down to Springfield, I had something very serious come up with my brother, who has battled a mental disorder and drug-addiction for the past 17 years.
I’m not positioning myself as a victim here, because I’m not one. I’m also not asking for anyone to feel sorry for me because there are a lot of people out there who have it a lot worse than me. I’m simply outlining that no one, I repeat no one, is exempt from real life situations. Sometimes you have to take a step back and realize there are a lot bigger things in this life than baseball and that is family to me.
One thing I was always told to do was to separate the outside world from the baseball field but that’s a lot easier said than done. Everyone internalizes those situations differently. I understood what they were saying but at the same time my family always comes first no matter what. I didn’t mean to get off subject, but I felt it’s important to touch on this subject because I know there are a lot of people out there that can relate to this and I want them to know that I get it. I know how hard it is to see your loved ones suffer, and I know how hard it is to carry on your everyday routine with sadness and anger. For those struggling with a similar situation, understand that drug addiction is a disease. Even though you feel the heavy emotions around their situation, know that they are suffering even more. Mental illness and drug addiction are all too common in America today, and I think our leaders need to step up and provide proper assessment and treatment for our suffering citizens.
It all boiled down to this: I never played the game of baseball to walk in my father’s cleats. I played because I fell in love with the game at an early age. The first three-and-a-half years of my professional career were absolutely incredible. I had so much fun playing and had such a high appreciation for the game. Don’t get me wrong, I will always appreciate the game but the business … that’s where my hang-up was.
I am a very business-oriented individual but the business of baseball is, for lack of a better word, ugly. The business itself is very unethical and completely broken in my eyes. The constant movement from level to level is not what I am talking about here. That can be a headache at times, having to break leases and find a new living arrangement within 72 hours, but I’ll touch on that a bit next. My number one reason to walk away from the game was that the life became unrealistic financially. Unless you have a hefty bonus to fall back on, or have financial support from another source, the minor league lifestyle is nearly impossible to sustain over a long period of time.
I’m not being sour towards “bonus babies.” I was one, not a big one, but I was definitely fortunate to have been given what I was given. For those that have a wife, or a wife and kids, it becomes even harder. Life doesn’t slow down for anyone and it seems to go into warp-speed when you live the baseball life. I remember living in the hotel (which we are required to pay for) during my Tommy John rehabilitation, receiving a check for $124 every two weeks. After my hotel cost was accounted for that was all that I had left. I would have lived outside of the hotel but when you’re a first-year player you don’t have that choice. That’s not to mention I was living in a very high-end place – Jupiter, Fla. Over time, my bank account started to decline rapidly, and reality started to set in that I had to get another job.
Yes, I worked in the offseason but I also had to carry a job into the season just to get by financially. Here I was trying to chase my dream of become a big-leaguer and yet I could not even provide for my family during the chase. I don’t want to hear people say, “Just be grateful you got the opportunity.” I am grateful, very grateful. But those people say that because they fell in love with “the game,” not the business, just like I did. At the end of the day, they turned a game into a business.
Trust me, I would not complain one bit to be making north of half-a-million dollars disrupting a hitter’s timing for a living, but the process of getting there needs improvement. The business swallows the game itself unless you’ve made enough money to call the shots on your own or you’re protected by the Player’s Association. For the rest of us, it’s a free-for-all and we are the lab rats.
This next part is particularly interesting to me, especially when I break it down.
The off-season is everyone’s favorite time of the year unless you’re living the dream, chasing October baseball. This is where the real money is made if you’re a minor leaguer. I made more money in three months than I did in an entire season. Once the offseason honeymoon stage is over, it’s time to get back to work. This means going to the gym, running, stretching, dieting, throwing, hitting, etc. Keep in mind you have to fit this into your daily work schedule, and depending where you live, facilities and training partners can be hard to come by; not to mention that you generally have to be reporting your progress to your organization on a consistent basis. For those who don’t know, minor league players don’t get paid during the offseason, yet there is a high-demand for performance.
This is where the concept of baseball players being “seasonal employees” is absolutely outrageous to me. We are constantly working (season and offseason) to improve our game, live out our dream, and benefit the organizations we play for. Yet for some reason, Major League Baseball has decided we only hold value during the season and that value can be seen in my most recent W2 where I netted a whopping $7,995.82 after taxes. Yup, it’s true, we’re not all millionaires; in fact, many working high-school students make more money than the standard minor leaguer.
I would say baseball players work 10 to 11 full months out of the year. Based on my numbers, if this were measured annually, I would make $666.32 a month. Let’s break it down even further. This is completely individual based, because every player’s daily routine is different, but let’s keep using my numbers. Considering I show up to the field at 1 p.m. and don’t leave until 11 p.m. (with a 7 p.m. game time), I put in roughly 10-hour days at the ballpark. That’s 10-hour days, occurring 26 to 29 days out of the respective month, taking the few off days each month into account. Granted not all of our time is spent playing or training, but we still have a schedule to follow from our organization which follows the regulations set in place by Major League Baseball.
Take a second to digest that and compare it to a traditional 9-to-5 job with consistent pay on an annual basis. If I worked 10-hour days, 29 days out of a month, at the minimum wage rate ($7.25), that would constitute to $24,360 annually before taxes, which makes me wonder if McDonalds is hiring. I’m not done though. Keep in mind these are rough estimates but I will adjust the numbers based on the max amount of days per month that I worked (29), involving 10-hour days. That works out to $22.98 a day, or roughly $2.30 an hour. Again, these are rough estimates and there are exceptions that come into play but hopefully this puts the financial situation into better focus.
Circling back to the living scenario of minor league baseball, anyone who is aware of the many transactions (movement of players) that takes place in a baseball season needs to understand the struggle of living arrangement in the game. In essence, it is supposed to be a plug-and-play system, where one guy gets moved and the next guy fills his spot. However, that is not always the case, especially for those who have a wife, or a wife and kids.
You generally have three days in the hotel (paid for by the organization) until you have to find a new place to live. If you don’t fit into the plug-and-play system, this situation becomes more difficult. Now you have a lease in a complete different city with no guarantee of filling that spot, and only 72 hours to find a new place in your new city. It definitely helps when organizations take the time and consideration to build relationships with apartment complexes to help the players out, but good luck finding that everywhere. Not to mention your new lease is month-to-month, if you can find that option, which is dramatically more expensive.
The plug-and-play system has its faults as well. For example, if your roommate(s) get moved, and the new guys prefer sleeping on a couch for $150 a month, rather than paying a higher rate at an apartment, you have to cover the difference. It’s an awesome thing to see your teammates get called up … but then reality sinks in that your $500 a month rent payment just went to $1,500 a month when you’re making $1,600 before taxes if you are in Double A.
It amazes me that there isn’t a system in place to help minor leaguers cover the difference of rent yet big-leaguers with astronomical amounts of money in their bank accounts get paid a very reasonable salary if a strike were to ever occur. I know that salary is provided by the players via the player’s union but think about that for a second. If a player can’t find a roommate to fill in, it is up to that player to stressfully cover that difference. I’m not blaming anyone; I’m just asking the question as to why this is happening.
We are talking about billion dollar franchises being unwilling to put a system in place that provides financial comfort, at dollar amounts they would consider chump change. It’s not like they would just be giving these players money in these situations. They would be helping their employees, who they see as the future of their organization, survive.
So where can we cover these margins? There are multiple opinions out there, and there a lot of good solutions not put into action. I think it’s time they seriously take these opinions into consideration, and look at the big picture. This game will be here long after we are, so why would you not want to protect its integrity. This is a business, like any, driven by revenue. I’m completely OK with that because it’s great for our economy. What really bothers me is seeing money-hungry business organizations throw their humility out the window just to save an extra buck. I was always told as an athlete, that in order to be the best you need to fail fast and adjust quickly. I think Major League Baseball has failed long enough, and it’s time for a fast adjustment.
Let’s consider lowering signing bonuses, and using that money to increase the minor league salaries. I think kids are getting paid way too much out of the draft with too much uncertainty in the game of baseball. I’ve seen guys who were paid a lot of money with a lot of expectations never make it and a 40th rounder, who the organization is just waiting for to fail so they can thin the heard, make it instead. Why not let the performance of the players do the talking? Talent is a huge part of success in the game, I get it, and talent is the main indicator of how the decision-makers place a dollar value on players. However, talent isn’t just physical; it’s mental as well. A player should not be assigned a dollar value based on talent, when talent is relative to an extent.
I guarantee many of you reading this know of someone who was the most incredible athlete you’ve ever seen, never fulfill their dream of competing at the highest level. How could this happen you might ask. Once again, talent is relative. Keep in mind there are also kids who get a large check because of their connections in the game instead of their level of talent. I’m serious, it happens. On top of that, we have organizations drafting athletes in other sports as publicity stunts. I hope it’s worth it to them, because they just closed the door on some kids dream who could’ve been a key factor in your organizations success. You just never know. Players should not only be measured by talent but by their abilities to see the game ahead of time, read hitters, read pitchers, understand sequences, and on the other side, treat others with respect, give back to the community, and hold high-value in being an accountable and responsible person.
No matter what, the players who make it to the majors were meant to make it. It doesn’t matter if you’re a first-rounder or the legend of all late rounder’s, Mike Piazza, a 62nd rounder. You will find your way if it’s in your cards. So, level the playing field of prospects and create a higher level of quality life for the minor league players because the term prospect is also relative.
I was a prospect for years, and look at me now. Don’t let the current business model of baseball eliminate talent that is meant to be the future of the game. Whether I could have made it or not, I will never know, and I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that because I worked tirelessly to set my life up after baseball, and that moment is here, and I’m ready. I feel that people get blinded by the circus effect that has been created by the business within the game aand forget that there is a lot more to this life than just baseball.
Over time my viewpoint of professional baseball became foggy, which only made my direction in life clearer. I was struggling to find my heart wanting to continue playing baseball, even during the 2017 spring training. This next part might seem petty, but I feel it necessary to mention. I was expected to begin the year in Triple A, but a minor neck strain held me back for a couple of weeks. Once I finally got cleared, I was sent to Double A instead. This is a level where I spent 99 percent of the previous year, so I had a good feel of where I was going and what to expect. During the first road trip, I learned clubhouse dues had been increased from $12 to $15. That’s significant, because that is the same amount required to pay at the Triple A level. I was very confused, because it’s not like our salaries had increased. Here we were, struggling to get by, and the league decides to raise clubhouse dues, with no increase in salary or quality of food.
My point is that the business is a waterfall effect from Major League Baseball all the way down to rookie ball. Keep in mind, not every affiliate team is owned by their franchise. There is a lot of individual owners at the minor league level which means those owners have influence on league decisions, so this doesn’t necessarily fall back on the organizations themselves. However, not only are the players being taken advantage of, they also require a high-volume of guest appearances and autograph signings, only to use the players to benefit their brand. Don’t get me wrong, we do it for the incredible fans that fill the seats every night, full of support, and make the game experience what it is … but when you outline it, it doesn’t seem right.
In all honesty, the business ethics, or lack of, within baseball really began to bother me. As I said before, there were multiple variables that led to my decision but these weighed the heaviest. I will never deny that I enjoyed my experience of playing, good and bad. I have always viewed failure as the most positive thing in this life because without failure we would never know success. My experience taught me to grow up and how to grind it out when it almost seemed impossible to continue. Those are valuable traits I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
This is not about my experience with the Cardinals as I have great relationships with their staff and am so appreciative of everything they have done for me. This has everything to do with my experience in professional baseball and its puppet handler. I truly do believe I could have pitched in the major leagues and had a lot of success. I will also speak confidently for others, saying they think the same thing. But when the baseball life becomes as unrealistic as it did, I had no other choice. I just simply didn’t agree with what was going on, and couldn’t financially support another season.
It was tough for me to walk away from the game, there’s no doubt about that, but I walked away in confidence knowing I did so under my own power and made my decision based on what I believe is right. Understand that the players should feel grateful to have the opportunity to chase their dream of becoming a big-leaguer but also understand that without the minor league players, the game doesn’t continue. They should be treated better.