The road to The Show might start in the Minor Leagues, but the journey to becoming a successful professional athlete starts much earlier.
For Nationals infielder Mike McQuillan and relief pitchers Bryan Harper and Greg Holt, the offseason represents a chance to go back to school.
Though the Major League minimum salary for 2014 is set at a cool $500,000, the Minor League equivalent is $78,250, if a player is on the 40-man roster, and as little as $7,500 per season if not. And players on Minor League contracts do not get paid during the offseason, which lasts almost six months.
Finding a full-time job for a six-month commitment is not easy, but the offseason offers two things that many other careers do not: flexibility and availability. That's where substitute teaching comes in.
"I was at a football game on the sidelines talking with one of the baseball coache, and he was asking what I was doing for money in the offseason," said McQuillan, who is working at Brother Rice High School, an all-boys Catholic school on Chicago's South Side, where he grew up. "I said I was giving lessons but that I was still looking to pick up one more gig and make a few more extra bucks, and he suggested substitute teaching might be a good idea."
Earning a pre-tax paycheck of around $110 a day, the Hagerstown Suns third baseman has been filling in for teachers since late September, handling classes that range from calculus to theology.
"I'm on call every day. If I do get called, I get a call about 6:30 a.m.," said McQuillan, who majored in management at the University of Iowa. "I keep my phone on, and they'll call if they need me.
"It helps out a lot. I'm paying student loans and people don't realize that a baseball scholarship to college isn't a full ride like it is in basketball or football. It's a percentage scholarship and you have to find a way to pay the rest of the tuition. And that usually comes via loans, which I'm paying off every month right now."
Holt, a 24-year-old right-hander who went 9-0 for the Potomac Nationals last season, doesn't have the same level of day-to-day uncertainty with his job. He started as an on-call substitute before taking on a long-term position teaching 10th grade civics and economics at North Forsyth High School, a couple miles north of Winston-Salem, N.C.
The workload has decreased since the Christmas break, but before the New Year he was working every day for almost 10 weeks.
"Both of my parents have been teachers their entire lives. They've been doing it for 28 and 29 years, respectively, so I grew up in an education household," Holt said.
"This offseason, I decided to start getting into it. Once the season ends, your paycheck stops and you have to find ways to make money and keep yourself busy, and I found it natural to go toward substitute teaching. Some students ask why I'm working here when I make hundreds of thousands of dollars, but that's not the case."
Holt, a sports administration major at the University of North Carolina, was earning $73 a day before taxes as an on-call teacher. In the long-term position, he's making a full-time teacher's salary, excluding retirement, health care and insurance benefits.
"I really do understand now why when my parents come home, they eat dinner, then it's bedtime," said Holt, who got engaged this winter. "But it's definitely gratifying to see the kids enjoy me teaching. That's what really keeps me going. I don't want the kids to look at me just as an athlete; I want them to see me as a teacher first, not just a guy filling in who plays professional baseball on the side.
"I enjoy doing it now, but I don't think I could do it long-term. I could see myself going more toward business or marketing, trying to stay in the college athletics department or things like that."
Though it's the first year in the classroom for McQuillan and Holt, Harper is no rookie when it comes to lesson plans and chalkboards. The 24-year-old Las Vegas native has been working across the Clark County school district for three years.
"Vegas is split up into four areas -- you have the outlying areas and then the city is cut up into three equal parts," Harper explained. "Then you have the high school, middle school and elementary schools districts within those three. I'm signed up for my area for high schools and middle schools, and then there are a select few high schools outside that I have on my preferred list. I stay between Las Vegas High School, East Career and Technical Academy and Thurman White Middle School."
Harper uses an app on his cellphone to communicate his availability. He signs up for days he can work, then receives an automated service call between 5-9 p.m. for openings the following morning if a school needs coverage.
Harper, the older brother of Nationals All-Star Bryce Harper, earns between $90-$100 a day, depending on where he teaches.
"Las Vegas High School is in what the school district considers a 'hazard area,'" he said. "It has Section 8 housing and projects in the zoning area, so that's why the pay is a bit more. But it is a good area and I love going there. They have some of the nicest kids in the area."
A sociology major at the University of South Carolina, Harper has taught math, physical education, English and weight training this winter and has spent time working with youngsters with special needs.
"It was awesome for me to have the opportunity to work with the special-ed kids," he said. "It reminds me how blessed I am personally. Seeing these kids that are less fortunate, it gives me the chance to give back to my high school and also to the kids in the area I grew up."
Working in and around their former neighborhoods is a common theme with all three Nationals farmhands. The feeling of giving back to their communities distinguishes the substitute teaching gig from another part-time job.
"[You] see the kids learn and you feel like you're able to help them," Holt said. "I didn't go to school to be a teacher, but growing up in a household with teachers, I really understand how to get a message across to the kids. It's a challenge and it's something I enjoy. ... It's gratifying to see them learn. That's what it's all about."
Added McQuillan: "You get to see things from the coach's side or from the teacher's side and you learn to be a little more patient with the kids. Things don't always come easily to them; they didn't for me, either. You find a way for something to click that works for them."