Sarasota, Fla. — Blaine Knight was skeptical two summers ago when Grayson Rodriguez, his fellow Orioles’ pitching prospect, first brought up the concept.
He remained hesitant that fall when Rodriguez texted him a photo of a gleaming white Heartland Open Range fifth-wheel travel trailer. It was 43 feet long and over 8 feet tall, and contained 430 square feet that the Orioles’ most promising young pitcher calls home.
“I thought he was nuts, honestly,” Knight said, shaded by Rodriguez’s hulking trailer at an RV park up the highway from the Orioles’ minor league complex in Sarasota.
It’s parked across the street from the symbol of his concession that Rodriguez wasn’t crazy after all: Knight’s own camper.
They’re neighbors in a 410-lot motor resort off Interstate 75 home to many more senior citizens than twentysomething ballplayers. If they didn’t leave the game at the ballfields, the two prized right-handers could have a comfortable game of catch between their two front doors.
“I’ve got to give it to him,” Knight said. “He was right. It’s a good idea. It really is.”
Minor league life has come under fire by former players and observers in recent years, with the low wages and long summers in small towns only culminating with a fraction of players achieving their major league dreams.
Many of the Orioles’ 100-plus minor leaguers stay at a hotel in Sarasota. During the season, the fortunate ones live with host families. Others split apartments with teammates, but in-season promotions and the difficulties of short-term leases make housing a hassle.
Rodriguez and Knight, the Orioles’ first- and third-round picks in the 2018 draft, signed for seven-figure bonuses that surely mitigate some of the hardships. The trailers presumably took a chunk out of that, with Rodriguez’s costing over $60,000 and Knight’s retailing new for over $90,000.
But site fees are less expensive than living anywhere else. They appreciate the ability to avoid housing headaches, cook for themselves and create comfortable simulations of home. They’re among several minor leaguers around the country who can haul home around behind their pickup trucks.
Rodriguez, a Nacogdoches, Texas, native, dominated at Low-A Delmarva last year. He got the camper idea while there from family friend Eddy Furniss, an LSU Hall of Famer who played professionally in the Pirates’ system.
“He was always on the move,” Rodriguez said. “Him and his wife were always having to find new apartment leases. It was just a big headache, and he said if he had pulled a fifth-wheel like this, it would have been a lot better.”
Knight grew up in and pitched at Arkansas in college, and spent only a few weeks in Sarasota after signing before going to Short-A Aberdeen. The two say they bonded over the southern in them.
Rodriguez pitched a lifestyle that, with a year of refinement, puts the living situations of other 20-year-olds to shame.
At the back of Rodriguez’s trailer, his combined living room and kitchen area would leave only the most demanding person wanting. The wood-panel is still shining, a year into use, and the earth tones work for a boots-in-the-mud Texan.
There’s a couch and heated massage chairs in front of a flat-screen television, plus a dining room table and a full kitchen — gas range, French door refrigerator, counter space, built-in microwave.
There’s no clutter, and the admitted clean-freak’s Roomba shows why. The game room wasn’t hooked up with his PlayStation yet, but it’s his favorite feature.
The bedroom barely has the clearance to fit his 6-foot-5 frame; the bed is the most comfortable he’s ever had, he said.
“The only downside might be size, but for one person, this is more than enough, and it’s got all the benefits of a house, and you can move it,” Rodriguez said.
He’s decorated with a few photos with his girlfriend, plus his organizational Pitcher of the Month award from May 2019. The best feature, he says, is the privacy, though Knight laments that he sometimes locks his door.
He did the same at the campground he parked at all last year at Low-A Delmarva about 15 minutes from their stadium in Salisbury.
“There were water slides, a pool, all that kind of stuff to play in,” Rodriguez said. “We didn’t play there, sadly.”
They’re about the only ones not at play at their RV park on Florida’s sun coast.
Snowbirds buzz around on golf carts, waving at passing cars. They wade in the pools and play shuffleboard at night. The motorhome of a Neil Diamond tribute band was parked in front of the clubhouse.
The ballplayers wonder if there’s anyone there less than twice their age. They’re sure the neighbors wonder what the young men who are gone all day are doing there for two months, but they haven't told anyone they're ballplayers.
Across the street from Rodriguez is Knight’s new trailer, a Jayco North Point, also white but with brown accents and measuring at almost the same specifications as Rodriguez.
“I’ve got more slide-outs than him, though, so I have that over him,” Knight said. “I’ve got to beat him in every way possible.”
Rodriguez contends that his slideouts — the sections of the trailers that expand out to create more interior space when parked — are bigger. They jab at each other like brothers, on the field and off. Knight had to concede Rodriguez was right about buying the trailers. Rodriguez would prefer not to talk about their most recent golf day.
Another difference is the solitude: Knight married his college sweetheart, Rachel, in the offseason. She and their labs Dozer and Missy came south with them to spring training when the Orioles’ minor league starters reported for early camp.
She works at Lululemon and can transfer freely between stores, so she works as he plays ball. They joke that they’re like the Griswolds of “Christmas Vacation” fame, and proudly display a wedding gift on the stove: tea towels that read, “Home is where you park it.”
Even in a smaller trailer last summer, he lived the benefits of this transient life when he was promoted from Delmarva to Frederick and simply hooked it up to his pickup and drove across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to his new temporary home. The refund he received from the campground would be unheard-of from an apartment complex.
He required more space this year. Rachel, the former Arkansas softball catcher who has caught a few of her husband’s offseason bullpen sessions in a pinch, insisted on bringing everything from their kitchen. She told her husband a washer and dryer were non-negotiable.
While new, theirs is the good kind of lived-in already. It features an elevated living room in the front with deep tan couches around a wall-sized television, that well-stocked kitchen, and enough closet space for two sets of clothes.
Both young ballplayers look at their in-season home as more than just a February-to-September solution. The Knights rented a house in the offseason, put their furniture in storage, and are thinking about living in the camper in the winter if they buy a piece of land to build a house on. If they can manage nine months, what’s three more?
Rodriguez used his this winter for hunting trips across Texas and into the mountains of Oklahoma. He’s already looking ahead to his family using it as his 11-year-old brother Garner grows in his own baseball career.
For now, though, the set-up is all about baseball. Teammates hear about it and ask whether they’re going to park it at the ballpark — they did at Delmarva early last year, they admit, but didn’t sleep in them.
When the doubters see what’s inside the hulking campers, they realize they might be on to something.
Knight said: “They’re actually like, ‘It’s kind of smart. We’re proud of you for being smart about something for once.’ It’s good. My family, they think it’s hilarious. It’s a blast — except having to deal with him across the street from me all the time.”
They were across the campsite from each other last spring, and spent only a few weeks together at the site near Salisbury before Knight moved up last year. But they asked for the proximity this spring before they left for the Eastern Shore, and the RV site obliged.
It could be another neighborly situation back near Frederick along the Potomac River if Knight goes back to the Keys to start the season; Rodriguez already booked the same park on his pal’s recommendation. They’ll figure out where to set up camp at the higher levels as needed.
“Bowie, look around on a map,” Knight said. “Norfolk, look around on a map. Baltimore, we’re out of luck. I don’t think we’re going to find anything in Baltimore. But we’ll figure that out when we get there.”