An Alternative Path to Professional Baseball Success
In the 145 years since the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first publicly proclaimed all-professional baseball team, the professional game has more than once provided ways for players with the requisite talent (and at least a modicum of temperance, common sense and luck) to make successful careers from the game through other than the traditional means of being discovered by a major league team.
From roughly the late 1870’s through 1955, players who had something, but not quite enough for major league success, or simply bad luck, could latch on to good minor league teams in the higher minor leagues and make a successful living, both while they played and afterwards by getting jobs within the game (management, managers, coaches or scouts) or by developing good will through their on-field exploits to create business opportunities in the cities in which they had starred.
The domination of the minor leagues by Major League Baseball, which became absolute by about 1956, temporarily killed any chance of professional baseball success for North American players outside the path of rising through an MLB organization’s farm system and succeeding at the major league level or at least spending a career working for an MLB organization.
This changed in 1993, when the Northern League was created as the first successful independent baseball minor league since the 1950’s. The Northern League proved that minor leagues could succeed in the post-television era without heavy subsidies from MLB. Numerous Independent-A leagues have been created since, most failing, but a few surviving and thriving, most notably the Frontier League, the new American Association (the successor of the Northern League) and the Atlantic League.
These leagues made it because Americans still want to see professional baseball (with a little minor league razzle-dazzle and showmanship) at affordable prices. These leagues also made it thanks to the hundreds and hundreds of very good, but not great, baseball players willing to play for peanuts, either simply to keep playing a game they love and/or because of their dreams of eventually playing in the majors.
The Independent-A Leagues and the explosion of baseball abroad in the last 20 or so years have created a whole new path for at least a few baseball players to live out their professional dreams and be remunerated accordingly. Yes, almost every professional baseball player’s goal is to play in the Show, because the largest number of professional baseball players are Americans, its the best baseball on the planet, and/or the money and fame that come with MLB success are unrivaled.
However, many players, after years and years of playing professional baseball, most of them for the aforementioned peanuts, are willing to consider other definitions of success. It is now at least theoretically possible for a player to earn great riches and fame (at least in the country in which they’re playing) without ever playing in the MLB system of professional baseball.
As a practical matter, this almost never happens. With the notable exception of Cubans unwilling to defect, almost every player with the wherewithall to make the (relatively) big money in Taiwan, South Korea or Japan, has played at least at little bit for an MLB organization.
Still, the Independent A leagues, with their hierarchy of Frontier League/Fly-By-Night Indy-A League, American Association and top-of-the-Indy-A-heap Atlantic League (where max salaries are capped at around $3,000/month), and then the Mexican (summer) League (max salary $8,000/month) have created a step ladder to Asia, where the leagues pay good money by anyone’s standard. The opportunities for foreigners in Asia are limited, but for those who make it, the rewards are great.
As I understand it, the four teams in Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League (“CPBL”) can have as many as three foreign players per team team (s0 12 overall), but only two on the field at any one time (meaning that eight to ten foreign players are in the league at any one time). Foreign players typically make as little as $10,000 or $11,000 a month up to a maximum of around $150,000 a season. These relatively small number of jobs are split between players from the Americas, Australians who have played in the U.S., and Japanese NPB minor leaguers.
South Korea’s KBO this year allows its nine teams to have a total of 28 foreigners (all of these roster spots are filled), and, with the addition of the expansion KT Wiz next season, at least 31 foreign players in 2015. These players, mostly former U.S. 4-A guys, are making from about $250,000 to about $900,000 a year. Additionally, the Futures League, KBO’s minor league, has at least three foreign players playing in it this season (former CPBL stars Mike Loree and Andy Sisco and former NPB player Maximo Nelson [who also once played professionally in Israel]). I assume that foreign Futures League players make somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000 a season.
Japan’s NPB is the golden grail of foreign baseball success. It’s twelve teams can have four players each on their major league rosters (so, 48 total), and many teams, particularly the three or four wealthiest, now each have multiple foreign players stashed on their minor league squads in case somebody stumbles or gets hurt on the major league club. Salaries for foreign players in NPB major league start around $125,000 (but as little as $24,000 for under-age-25 foreign players expected to play in the minor leagues) up to about $5 million (depending on exchange rates) for the very best, longest lasting foreign players.
It’s worth noting that no foreign player has ever received a base salary of 500 million yen ($4.91 million at current exchange rates), at least as far as has been widely reported, although Dae-ho “Big Boy” Lee could potentially top the 500 million yen mark by a wide margin if he meets all the incentives in his current three-year deal with the Softbank Hawks. Also, Patrick Newman of NPB Tracker says that Roberto Petagine and Tony Bautista both made around 700 million yen (probably in 2003 and 2005, respectively) including all signing and performance bonuses.
It’s also worth noting that Korean-born NPB stars generally receive better contracts than comparable foreign-born stars from the Americas, almost certainly because the best free agent KBO players like Seung-yeop Lee, Dae-ho Lee and Chang-yong Lim, can now make over a million dollars a year playing in South Korea’s KBO, while American 4-A players rarely make more than about $150,000 per season at most for time spent playing in the AAA Pacific Coast or International Leagues.