SARASOTA, FLA. — Two offseasons ago, Orioles right-hander Joe Gunkel needed to find a job. Like most minor league players making their way up through organizations clinging to a big league dream, it was important to land a gig that could not just help him make ends meet, but also be flexible enough to not interrupt his preparation for the upcoming season.
Gunkel landed in a place much different than the minor league ballparks frequented during the season, spending the past two offseasons inside high school classrooms working as a substitute teacher in the Lenape School District in central New Jersey.
It's just one example of the jobs minor league players often must work to supplement their incomes in the offseason while continuing to grind through their baseball career. And getting a job isn't always easy. Many players, like Gunkel, left college early to start their professional careers, so they're pursuing work without their college degrees.
Gunkel was drafted in the 18th round four years ago after his junior year at West Chester University — a Division II school in eastern Pennsylvania — by the Boston Red Sox. Because he was one year shy of getting his bachelor's degree in business, they promised to pay for the rest of his schooling, a deal that remained when they traded him to the Orioles two years ago for outfielder Alejandro De Aza.
But minor league baseball players make very little, and when the offseason comes around, the focus is on making money while training for the next season. So when Gunkel needed offseason work, his girlfriend, Megan Szelc, who is a middle school teacher, suggested he apply to be a substitute teacher.
"People don't realize that in the minor leagues they're not making much money," Szelc said. "He was trying to think of a part-time job where there could be flexible hours for him because he is so dedicated to baseball in the offseason. He wanted to make that his No. 1 focus, but at the same time he needed to make some money."
The 25-year-old Gunkel is as low-key as they come. When he would come in to teach three to five times a week, he didn't advertise that he was a professional baseball player. But it wasn't long before he wrote his name on a chalkboard that students found out who he was.
"I kept it a pretty good secret, but with cell phones these days, all they need to do is see a last name and they can figure out who you are," Gunkel said. "So a lot of times, I would get, 'Are you a baseball player?' during the class and I'd be, 'Yeah, yeah' and we'd get sidetracked and talk about it a bit. But for the most part I would keep it under wraps, but it got out sometimes."
Gunkel, who was paid less than $100 a day, filled in with a variety of classes, though he found himself in phys ed classes often, which was a natural fit. But there were times when Gunkel was out of his comfort zone teaching.
"I did do a health class where they were doing some sex ed stuff," Gunkel said. "And the kids are asking questions about what things were and I was just kind of like, 'I'm not a real teacher. I'm not here to answer those questions. You guys can look in the book for those answers.'"
Gunkel's roller coaster baseball career has reached its most promising spot. After a strong season between Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk that saw him go a combined 8-14 with a 4.02 ERA in 28 starts, Gunkel was placed on the Orioles' 40-man organizational roster early this offseason to protect him from being selected in December's Rule 5 draft.
He's now in his first big league camp and will make his second exhibition appearance of the spring on Tuesday against the Dominican Republic World Baseball Classic team after a rocky debut in last Thursday's road split-squad game against the New York Yankees. Gunkel allowed three runs on three hits over two innings against the Yankees.
"He's a guy who depends on command, late sink, and the ability to throw all his pitches in the strike zone," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "So that's something he's going to have to do. Sometimes that's not sharp early in the spring when you've been off for three or four months, so I try to give him that leverage. … He's a guy who is going to give up hits. His hits to innings have always been [high], but his walks are low and he doesn't strike out a lot of guys. It's a combination that requires his command to be there and be down in the zone, which he wasn't [in his first outing]."
The Orioles like what they've seen of Gunkel enough to protect him from the Rule 5 draft, and in part it's because of the development they've seen since the June 3, 2015, trade that brought him to the organization.
When he arrived, Gunkel had just four professional games above the Class-A level and moved back and forth between a starter and relief role. But once he joined the Orioles, they placed him into the starting rotation at Double-A Bowie, and he went 8-4 with a 2.59 ERA in 17 starts there.
Now, he's attempting to show the Orioles that he's capable of being on the short list of spot starters/long relievers the team can summon from Triple-A Norfolk when the need arises.
A huge reward came when Gunkel was placed on the 40-man roster, not just for his career, but also financially. A minor-league player on the 40-man roster made $41,400 last year, compared to the roughly $2,400 a month (with no offseason pay) for a player entering his second season at the Triple-A level who is not on the 40-man.
"I kind of had a good idea they were going to do it," Gunkel said about being placed on the 40-man, "so I was kind of waiting around for a phone call that day and then [player development director Brian Graham] finally called me. And I had to take a step back and take a breath and reflect on what you did the last three or four years and how much work you put in and know that you're starting to get the rewards for it. ... You know you're going to be in big league camp for a good amount of the time and get a chance to compete for a job and that's all anyone could ask for."