The payroll of the New York Yankees.
The payroll of the Lake Erie Crushers.
That's the 2013 minimum salary required by Major League Baseball's collective bargaining agreement. The average salary is much higher, of course. The league's top contracts (A-Rod's $29 million-per-year, for instance) belong to that outerspatial stratum of moneymaking that provokes in Midwestern mothers a familiar distress at the state of the world's priorities.
"I don't care who you are," your mom has said. "No one deserves that much money. They're playing a kid's game!"
For absolute clarity, the lowest-paid players in the majors — players so nebbish or obscure that even diehard fantasy commissioners haven't heard of them — make precisely seven times more than the entirety of the Crushers' roster every year.
"There are 25 guys on the team," says Crushers' managing member Steven Edelson. "You do the math."
Don't mind if we do, Steve.
That's the price of your standard ticket for a game at All-Pro Freight Stadium, out in Avon, home of the Crushers since their inaugural season in 2009. That year, the Crushers won the Frontier League Championship and established themselves as a staple of summertime family entertainment in Cleveland's western suburbs.
For only $14, by the way, you're guaranteed a spot in the first two rows. But bear in mind that All-Pro Freight Stadium isn't Progressive Field. Even the worst seat in the house gets what you'd call an intimate view.
You see the lonely red-brick walls to your right as you take I-90 toward the toll road and points west. You see that play-place on the hump of grass beyond the right-field fence that corroborates the franchise's commitment to family friendliness and asserts an almost Wonka-esque architectural ambition. You see the vertical nets most of us associate with driving ranges.
Even if you haven't been to a game, you may have experienced one of those baffling moments when you confuse the merchandise or literature of Cleveland's assorted minor-league clubs — the Lake County Captains, the Lake Erie Monsters, the Lake Erie Crushers — but you probably don't follow the Frontier League, to which it belongs, with anything resembling fanaticism. Once or twice you may have wondered which Major League club the Crushers farm into. Maybe.
That answer: N/A.
The Crushers play independent ball. That means unaffiliated. That means it's not, strictly speaking, a stepping stone. It's a team stocked with boys who didn't get drafted out of college or who got cut from Double-A or Single-A or rookie leagues and were scanning the Corn Belt's horizon for a diamond upon which to land.
So they ended up in Avon, a 'burb that colors and characterizes All-Pro Freight Stadium more than the other way around. Out here, on Cleveland's western frontier, even the athletic facilities sit on cul-de-sacs. The streets are named according to relevant themes.
It's not Carnegie and Ontario, folks. The Crushers' play their brand of professional baseball at the corner of Sports and Recreation.
That'll get you two 12-ounce beers and an all-beef hot dog on Two-fer Tuesday, which it is. The homey concourse is sparse before the first of two evening games, which means the concession lines haven't yet fully resolved into legit lines. The Crushers average nearly 2,400 in nightly attendance (on par with years past), but at 4:30 p.m. the breeze is the only force to be reckoned with up here.
"Ill Be Watching You" is pumping over the speakers, and this feels appropriate, but the groggy-eyed Crushers down on the field appear anything but surveilled. They're trundling in and out of the dugout, trying to make up their minds about warming up.
"We got in at 7 this morning," reports bleary infielder Andrew Davis a few minutes later as he thumbs a knife open and closed — where'd he get a knife? — near the dugout's steps. "We were driving all night."
The organization seems especially fond of these late-night return treks. Last week, when a Friday night game against the Florence Freedom was bumped to Thursday because of a conflicting Styx concert, the team played a double-header and then boarded their bus back to Cleveland for a five-hour ride through the night.
That's the baseline rate for a room with two double beds at the Quality Inn in Florence, Kentucky, where the Crushers stay on their Freedom trips. Skipping a night at the hotel is money saved for Edelson and the front office.
For which the front office can't exactly be blamed. They're trying to run an efficient business, after all. And look, it's not like the schedule's weekly mutations or the late-night bus trips are having any adverse effects on the Crushers' play. They're about as hot as teams get right now, coming off a sweep of the bloodless Joliet Slammers (run differentials of +1, +6 and +10) and a scorching 10-1 record during the month of August.
(Update: On Aug. 18, the Crushers won their 11th straight — a franchise record — moving to 50-31 on the season, and a torrid 24-6 since the All-Star break. The Crushers have played 95 or 96 games in each of their previous four seasons and have been a 50-win club every campaign. Certainly looks like the winning mentality isn't going anywhere. They're on pace to break the 57-win record they set in 2009.)
Fifteen minutes from now, they'll resume a game they started earlier in the month against the Washington Wild Things — Washington, Pa., not the Capital — and if the Crushers win the first of their doubleheader, they will have technically completed two sweeps in less than 24 hours.
Even with such extravagant success, Frontier League ball is still more community chatter than front-page regional news. The team gets regular coverage from the Morning Journal and the Chronicle-Telegram, but other than that, the only media credential disbursed regularly is to an intern with Baseball Insider.
That's the monthly haul, before taxes, that first-year players like Seth Granger take home for these labors of love. Granger's from south-central Louisiana — not in a bayou, per se, but you get the idea — so it's pronounced gron-ZHAY.
At least that's what Crushers' usher Don Schiffbauer swears. He's bouncing to easy-listening standards in his New Balance 609s and shouts into the dugout Parlez-vous francais? — in the oblong, playful way of someone who knows maybe three total phrases in French — at least twice before a distant Crusher has the wherewithal to say, "No, thanks."
Granger's carrying a bucket of balls after a boilerplate stretch and sprint. He's got a smile on his face, even after what was surely an unfulfilling afternoon nap. It's reassuring (journalistically) to see that he looks just as excited to play baseball as he was to talk about it last week, on a rare Crushers' off day.
That's the cost of a Chipotle burrito, which isn't bad as far as lunch is concerned, unless you're counting pennies like Granger and his teammates. Granger's in the sort of financial position where getting to see Pacific Rim in 3-D without having to pay the surcharge was one of the summer's mentionable social highlights.
Like most of his teammates, Granger was a Little League standout, a shortstop from the reported age of 3. He's humble enough to mention his high school all-state status only in passing, but self aware enough to agree that playing shortstop was a special recognition (or coronation) of superior talent, not unlike the number 23 in youth basketball.
As an athlete of noteworthy brawn and tremendous speed, Granger was a forbidding high-school linebacker as well. But he opted for baseball at Louisiana State University-Eunice, about 20 miles from where he grew up. He played well enough there in his first year to warrant some attention from the Brewers' franchise. When he didn't get drafted, he jumped ship to McNeese State (over in Lake Charles, La.) where he played for three more years, becoming an outfielder in the process, using his terrific legs to flag down fly balls in center. He almost had a chance with the Brewers again.
"But it just didn't work out," says Granger.
He returned home, got a part-time job at a casino and started the agonizing business of mulling over his future. He'd studied education when he wasn't playing ball, and planned to teach and coach somewhere near home.
When he got a call in February from an old coach saying there was a possible roster spot for him in the Frontier League, he was interested — not overjoyed, mind you, but interested. Crushers' manager Jeff Isom (a former personality in the Brewers' minor-league system) talked him into signing what passed for a contract the next day.
"You gotta love it," says Granger. "You gotta want that chance."
It would seem the Crushers certainly do. There are a few sons of Ohio — Shaker Heights, Chilicothe, Fostoria, Cincinnati — but sons of elsewhere, too: Texas, Louisiana, Kansas, Nevada, Alabama, Hawaii. There are even two former aspirant Twins from Venezuela.
Assuming he doesn't get drafted, Granger doesn't know how many seasons he'll play in the Frontier League before he hangs up his cleats. "Maybe one or two more," he speculates, "but my girlfriend might have something to say about it" -- before he hangs up his cleats. That's why he's staying focused on baseball.
"Some of the guys go out to Bar Louie at Crocker Park or some bars in Avon, but I don't do too much," says Granger, who admits that Xbox and the cineplex are his two major daytime vices. "But what it all comes to is baseball. You're here to have a good time, but if you're out wasting time, you might miss your opportunity to get picked up."
That's the cheapest available monthly payment (via Craiglist) for a house or apartment in Avon, Avon Lake, Sheffield or North Ridgeville.
"This setting is ideal for a couple or single person to enjoy natural surroundings," reads the post for the one-bedroom unit on Center Ridge Road. Look, moving up to Northeast Ohio to play independent ball just wouldn't be feasible if they had to survive on their itty-bitty salaries. Even if two players roomed together in the aforementioned bachelor pad, they'd each be coughing up nearly half of their paycheck to cover rent alone — never mind utilities, cell phone bills, the occasional grocery.
The Crushers' organization understands the unique fiscal plight of their players, which is why they provide host families for almost every member of the team.
"Opening your home to a professional baseball player, as well as to the daily grind and lifestyle of an elite athlete, is an experience that few people have the opportunity to enjoy," says the Crushers' Host Family page. "The Frontier League is often the last effort a hard working, highly motivated player will make in attaining his ultimate goal: playing in the Major Leagues. These players bring their talents and skills to the Frontier League despite making meager wages, which makes the need for host families extremely important. Becoming a host family truly allows a household to join the Lake Erie Crushers family."
Steve Edelson describes it as a competitive process.
"A lot of people want to [become host families]," he says, while actively fending off secretaries during a phone interview. "For us, it's about finding a good fit, a perfect fit. We want responsible families, you know, with a good family makeup. They've got to be comfortable with players who come and go as they please. It's like having a 20-some-odd-year-old kid who lives with you."
It's exactly like that, yes. Granger is 23. The oldest and longest tenured player on the Crushers — Andrews Davis, who's been a member of the team since its inception — is 29. The youngest, Granger's housemate Kevin Berard, is 21.
The Frontier League is unique in that it enforces an age cap at 30, and Granger considers that a perk.
"Everyone I've met has the same goal," he says. "To one day play affiliated baseball and make it to the majors."
There are no washed-up MLB pros taking batting practice out in Avon. This is a squad of twentysomethings with their eyes on the exact same prize.
Mary Jane Edgar and her husband Don have been host parents for each of the past five years. To hear her rhapsodize about baseball, you intuit quickly that the decision to host players wasn't much of a decision at all.
"I love baseball," Edgar says. Right now, she's tweeting the Crushers' latest victory to the community of boosters, of which she is an avid member. "I come to all the games. And my kids have all gone to college, so I've got empty beds."
Edgar currently hosts two Crushers infielders — Juan Sanchez and Anderson Hidalgo — from the same town in Venezuela. Edgar herself doesn't speak Spanish, but she still feels a maternal connection to her boys.
"My Juan hit a home run last night," she says with pride. She sits in a section with other host parents, adjacent to the Crushers' dugout on the third base side, and it's a festival of cowbells and kazoos over here. These folks are into the Crushers. The men say, "Good eye, son," without irony or humor. After victories, they scramble to the edge of the field to distribute hugs.
What's most touching is that the Crushers don't seem at all embarrassed or even miffed by the affection. They hug right back.
It turns out the "family" talk -- "the memories you make with your host son will last a lifetime," etc. -- is more than just rhetoric, for Edgar and for others.
Seth Granger's host parents, Herb and Carla Sill, lost their son in a tragic accident last summer. Warren Sill was filming a documentary about bears in the Canadian wilderness and went missing in July, 2012. His body was recovered just before Thanksgiving.
Granger and his roommate Kevin Berard have embraced their roles as surrogate sons.
"He was a year or two older than us," says Granger of Warren Sill. "And I know [Herb and Carla] really appreciate having us there. A lot of people think it might be weird, but it's like having a second family, and it's really nice."
Granger says that Herb's the real baseball fan between the two parents, "but Ms. Carla, she likes it okay too. They'd been trying to get a player for a couple years, but I think they were too far from the stadium."
Edelson says he tries to keep host families within 15 minutes of the ballpark.
"But this year, it finally worked out," Granger says.
That's the lavish per diem each Crusher player receives on road trips. When Mary Bilancini, president of the Crushers' Boosters, discovered that these boys were spending what little they had on Gatorade, she took matters into her own hands.
"We provide them with additional drinks (bottled water, sports drinks) and snacks. That way, they can use their $20 on meals and not have to worry about buying Gatorade or snacks for the bus or in the hotels," she wrote in an email. "We can't ever give them cash because it would go towards their salary cap."
They learned about the salary cap technicalities the frustrating way. Back in the first season, the Crushers would pass around around a hat or bucket each time a player hit a home run, a fun little bonus that seemed in keeping with the organization's attempts to do right by the team. But when the league got wind of the bonuses, they forbade the practice.
"The following year, when the bucket was passed, the money was supposed to go to the team as a whole, to buy something for the clubhouse," wrote Bilancini. "It didn't seem like they received anything from the collected money, so many people stopped contributing, and eventually the buckets stopped circulating."
That doesn't stop the Crushers' most loyal fans from giving back though.
Mary Jane Edgar says that the boosters got started because during the first season, the father of one of the players passed away, and the poor kid couldn't come up with the money to buy a plane ticket home for the funeral. A group of host families and fans rallied together to raise what he needed. They've been supplementing the players in whatever ways they can ever since.
"We just want to help out," says Edgar.
That's what it might cost to buy pizza for the team after a game, speculates former VP of Crushers' operations Dan Helm. And he says it's worth every penny.
"That's a cost that some teams may just say, 'It's black and white, let's just cut that number,' instead of, 'What happens if we spend the money on pizza and they're happy because we fed them?'" Helm says in an interview. "Then, the players are happy when they go out into the community. They're happier to sign autographs. They're happier to represent your brand."
Helm says that, compared to other Minor League teams he's worked with — he's now a consultant for new Minor-League teams' front offices — the Crushers treat their players extremely well. Things like facilitating the host families and taking care of the majority of expenses goes a long way. Helm also feels that the players are qualitatively different in independent ball.
"You get two types of guys," Helm says. "Those who are still trying to make it or those who were released from an affiliate and are just trying to hang on to the dream. So they're all a little more humble, because they've probably all been cut, released, or told no at some point, and that makes them want to be there.
"The cool thing is that they kind of cherish each moment a little bit more, which leads to them enjoying playing on the field, enjoying activities off the field a little bit more. You'll see a lot more guys signing autographs, because this could be the last season, or it could be gone quicker than they ever thought it would be."
But it also really could be the doorway to baseball's more recognizable tiers. Helm estimates that 15 to 20 guys from the Frontier League get picked up each year.
"That ends up being about one guy per team," says Helm, "and that's a pretty good number." He says that at least five former Crushers went on to single-A or double-A ball, most of them pitchers. "So there are pretty good shots to be had, if they go out and perform. The dream is alive."
aka, minimum wage. That's what Don Schiffbauer makes every hour guiding people to their seats, showing folks to the restroom and having answers locked and loaded for any Crushers' related question you may have. He says he'd watch the Crushers for free.
"I'd watch them just as good as I'd watch the Cleveland Indians," he says.
He's a retired postal carrier, and he values the three years he's spent at All-Pro Freight stadium. He thinks the people in charge walk the talk.
"We don't take no bull here," Schiffbauer says, "There's no foul language. If there's an incident, I deal with it. If I can't, my boss will. If he can't, well, then we've got the boys in blue," Schiffbauer smiles. "But we never have incidents."
He dashes up the stairs, off to rag another regular, and suddenly there's a game on. When the Wild Things come to the plate, All-Pro Freight Stadium explodes with sugary pop anthems: Hanson's "MMMBop," TLC's "Waterfalls," Britney Spears' "Hit Me Baby One More Time." These are all incredible, but Celine Dion's "I'm Your Lady" — now that's comedy of a high order.
The stands are filling in with families and young boys still in uniform and lawyers in suits. Today is Law Firm Appreciation Night, after all. The sun descends slowly somewhere out of sight and the attorneys enjoy the same $2 beers as truckers and the retirees and the writers.
Parents read to their children from picture books. Pizza Hut shoves free wings into the hands of anyone who'll relieve them of their promotional flyers on the concourse. The Crushers, sporting the low-frequency mohawks currently in vogue, are rubbing their eyes and playing catch and preparing mentally for the night's ongoing battles. Money is the furthest thing from anyone's mind.
That's the cost of a T-shirt in the Crushers' team shop. It's cheaper than the Indians' tee it resembles, but an autograph on it is no less valuable, at least for the little boy making his way down the steps toward the Crushers' dugout, holding his grandma's hand. They've spotted Andrew Davis.
"Would you sign it for him," the grandma asks Davis. "You've got the same number."
Davis takes a Sharpie and scrawls his signature over the yellow dugout bar, stabilizing the boy as he presses the marker into the fabric near his neck.
"There ya go, kid," he says with a not-quite smile.
There's something almost mythic about the stoicism of professional athletes. It's like their words are sanctified by their scarcity. Davis is one of them. He's not much of a talker, but he loves baseball as much as anyone who's ever played.
In the offseason, back home in Chillicothe, he delivers packages for FedEx and landscapes for his cousins and does his best to assemble enough odd jobs to pay the bills. He knows that he's only got a year left in the Frontier League — the age cap looms — but he still wants to play for another year or two, and he's not sure if he'll ever really hang up his cleats. For now, he says, he's just living day to day.
The boy, squirming in what looks like a nightshirt on his larval frame, grabs his grandma's hand and starts walking back up to the concourse. He's got a dual expression on his face. First, the terror and uncertainty of having just interacted with a stranger. Second, the thrill of having just interacted with a celebrity.
His eyes look up at his grandma as if to brag: "I was just touched by the magic, mighty hand of a professional baseball player. "
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.