SARASOTA, FLA. — Before he reached the big leagues last season, Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph spent the previous six years living paycheck to paycheck while in the minors.
The checks he received every two weeks to play minor-league ball were barely enough to scrape by, and even those checks stopped once the offseason hit. So like many minor leaguers clinging to big league dreams, he had to work odd jobs in the offseason to get by.
For three straight offseasons, Joseph worked for a landscaping business in his hometown of Franklin, Tenn., mowing yards, trimming trees and bushes six days a week for $12 an hour. Two offseasons ago, Joseph was looking to make some extra money and delivered packages for UPS for a six-week stretch during the holiday season. He drove a brown electric scooter through subdivisions, leaving packages on doorsteps for $9 an hour.
"It was during Christmas, so I felt like Santa dropping off gifts," Joseph said. "I liked it. ... But there are times when you really start thinking, 'I'm a professional athlete.' It starts raining and you have to continue working and you're pedaling uphill in the rain and its freezing. You're thinking, 'What am I doing?'
"But I always took the approach, and I still will, that I'm never above it. I needed work and I took whatever was available. It worked out. It helped pay the bills. I was willing to flip burgers at McDonald's. I was willing to work at the bowling alley. I was willing to do whatever."
When the Orioles purchased Joseph's contract from Triple-A Norfolk last May to help replace injured All-Star catcher Matt Wieters, he finally became a big leaguer. He stuck with the team the rest of the season, and received a pro-rated salary of last year's major league minimum of $500,000.
That allowed Joseph to make purchases he never had. After years of living in apartments, he bought his first house in the offseason. And it gives Joseph peace of mind that he finally has the ability to support his family, especially with him and his wife, Brooke, expecting their first child — a boy — any day now.
The top draft picks who receive signing bonuses in the millions of dollars draw a lot of attention. But the fact is most players, such as Joseph — who received a $120,000 signing bonus when he was drafted by the Orioles in the seventh round in 2008 — struggle financially throughout their time the minor leagues.
"You can get by (in the minors) if you're single," Joseph said. "But if you're married or have a family it's a challenge. … We were able to buy our first house this year. We had mixed-and-matched furniture and beds. We were able to furnish a place. … Our down payment on our nice little quaint house was four times a salary in the minor leagues.
"Even to be able to write out a check for that amount of money was just a shocking feeling. It's like, 'Oh my gosh.' This is pretty nice to feel like you're actually making a living."
Joseph isn't the only Oriole who had to do odd jobs in the offseason.
After his first professional season, Orioles reliever Darren O'Day made about $8 an hour as a bouncer in a bar in Gainesville, where he attended the University of Florida.
"That minor league paycheck is just not going to support much of a lifestyle." said O'Day, an undrafted free agent who received a modest $20,000 signing bonus. "I wore like five T-shirts so I'd look bigger."
Orioles right-hander Miguel Gonzalez, who the team signed as a minor-league free-agent before the 2012 season, worked in a supermarket for three months. He said his duties included arriving at 4 a.m. to stock shelves and then later bagging groceries.
At the time, Gonzalez was in the Angels' system and coming off knee surgery. He didn't know what his future held and whether he'd ever make it to the major leagues.
"You know what?" Gonzalez said. "When that happened, something just clicked and I probably dedicated myself a little bit toward baseball and it all worked out. You never know where you're going to be at after baseball, so you have to take advantage of every opportunity and do the best you can and enjoy it every day as much as possible."
Joseph said he netted about $750 every two weeks playing in Double-A. He made about $950 every two weeks once he reached Triple-A.
Orioles infielder Ryan Flaherty, who did receive a sizable signing bonus because he was a first-round pick, tells a story about his first full year in pro ball playing for the Chicago Cubs' Class A team in Peoria, Ill. He shared a two-bedroom apartment with five other teammates.
"We had three blowup mattresses in the living room," Flaherty said. "There's so much stuff that people don't see off the field, whether it's guys who weren't fortunate enough to be high picks, they have to get jobs in the offseason. Even guys who you're living with, sometimes they have to wait another week to pay rent. There's all kind of stuff.
"In the minor leagues you try to jam four or five guys in your apartment and then one guy gets moved up and everybody else is stuck paying more. The turnover in the minor leagues is actually higher than in the big leagues."
During O'Day's first year in pro ball playing for the Orem Owls of the Class A Pioneer League in the Angels system, teammates would collect change just to buy a post-game meal.
"We would always order fast food because fast-food restaurants would be the only thing open after the game and guys would stand by the cash register and ask for your change," O'Day said. "You'd give them two dimes and a nickel, whatever you got back, and after we all ordered, they would go to the back of the line and order whatever they could with the change. You don't make a lot of money."
For many, playing winter ball is a preferred alternative in the offseason. Not only does it offer exposure, but the pay is good.
"I went to pitch (winter ball) in Mexico and did really well," Gonzalez said. "But I thought about it twice — if I didn't play baseball, what was I going to do? Baseball is all I know. There's guys who don't have the opportunity to play in Mexico and I was one of the guys who did have the opportunity to show I could still pitch and still play. It took me a while and I'll tell you what, it does pay off."
Orioles minor league catcher Brian Ward said he made $8,000 playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic this past offseason.
"That's still paying for rent right now," Ward said. "Still to this day, my dad's still got to help me out with rent. But it's all worth it in the end if you get there. It's a dream and if you make it there, you can go out, buy Jet Skis and everything you want. But for now, it's paycheck to paycheck to this day."
Ward, who did not receive a signing bonus and is entering his seventh season of pro ball, can look to Joseph for inspiration. The two were teammates for parts of two seasons at Double-A Bowie. Neither was a top-tier prospect, but Joseph has made the jump to the big leagues and Ward is now also getting noticed within the organization.
"You have a tiny window," Ward said. "If Wieters didn't get hurt, who says (Joseph is) going up there? But he did really well. It's good to see that. I'm not going to lie. I'd like to be that guy to go up, but to see that they gave a chance to someone in our minor league system and he did really well. It's a grind, but that why we do this. It's because we love it."
Joseph — who is in a battle for a roster spot this spring — said he hopes to take his career to the next step of financial security. Once players earn three years of major league service time, they become arbitration eligible for the next three years. That's when six-figure salaries go to seven.
"I don't even think it takes getting to arbitration," said O'Day, who is making $4.25 million in 2015. "Your first major league paycheck you realize what you've done. You're first minor league paycheck, you're like 'son of a [gun]!
"Your first major league paycheck, you're excited. … Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed being in the minor leagues. It was tough, but you were going through it with those guys, it's kind of like an initiation to get through those first few levels, you feel like you've done something."
Gonzalez, however, might be the best success story. He will no longer need to bag groceries.
In his first year of arbitration eligibility, Gonzalez will make $3.275 million in 2015, more than five times his 2014 salary of $529,000.
"It does change your life," said Gonzalez, who is married with a young daughter. "And financially, I'll be OK and my family is going to be fine. Hopefully, my mom doesn't need to work anymore. That's my goal. I want my mom to not work and just be home and be a wife. She worked really hard in her younger ages.
"She worked 10 hours a day and now she's not going to do that anymore because I told her not to. That makes me feel good. You appreciate things better when you're one of those guys who played a lot of the minor leagues, didn't make anything and now I can actually take care of my family."