These are trying times.
Everyone is trying to make ends meet. Trying to stay optimistic about the future. Trying to be grateful for the good things in our lives.
So after last week's Baseball Winter Meetings in Las Vegas, the one place synonymous with lavish excess, it's easy to assume every single guy who plays baseball for a living is raking in a seven-figure salary.
But the majority of pro baseball players are Minor Leaguers who, for the most part, are nowhere near that same economic stratosphere of their big league brethren.
All of them have their eyes on that big prize and those who get to the big leagues, even briefly, will enjoy an outstanding payday.
But in the meantime, there is a reason they call it "the bush leagues." Here are a few things you may not have known about life in the Minors.
Players get paid only for the months they play (the first week of April through the first week of September) and, until they reach the point in their careers where they can command a "split salary" (which assumes they will spend at least some time in the Majors), most Minor Leaguers below Triple-A make in the area of $1,200-$2000 a month, depending on level and tenure. (The Triple-A salary varies more widely because you have more veterans).
Out of that paycheck, they have to pay rent on their summer living quarters, along with utilities, furniture, food, etc. And, of course, some are still paying mortgages or rent on their apartments or houses back home.
When they're on the road, their hotel room is paid for (though it's more likely a Fairfield Inn than the Ritz-Carlton) and they do get meal money, around $25 a day.
But a large chunk of that is required to go to the visiting clubhouse attendant for a dinner "spread" (which, depending on the "clubbie," can range from a nice home-cooked meal, to lukewarm Domino's pizza, to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with tongue depressors as utensils).
But maybe the biggest challenge these young men have is trying to save up some money during the offseason.
Ideally, that job will be flexible enough to let them not only work seasonally, but also have time to work out and stay in shape, imperative if they want to be sharp when camp begins.
Some are fortunate enough to have saved up enough from their bonuses or endorsement deals to allow them to use that time to relax with loved ones for a few months ... but not all are that lucky.
For the rest, the results vary. Some, those who have managed to earn their college degree, find work in their local school system (has your daughter been talking about the good-looking substitute gym teacher lately? Or, perhaps, her witty chess instructor?).
Longtime veteran infielder Gary Burnham, a former Phillies farmhand, has spent his last dozen offseasons as both substitute teacher and personal baseball instructor in the Hartford, Conn., area. Luckily, time management is one of his specialties.
"I schedule every lesson and recruit every player myself," said Burnham, who is as well known in baseball circles for his talent as a portrait artist as his hitting acumen. "It's not easy but I've managed to make it work for the past decade. I always want to close up in mid-February and head to Florida for an early start on Spring Training but it never works out that way because the money is too good during those last couple of weeks."
One common offseason job has players trading in one uniform for another -- donning the famous "brown shorts" to work the Christmas rush for UPS.
Current Oakland Athletics Minor League pitching coach Garvin Alston remembers being one of the Phoenix-area recruits for the company back in the early 1990s, when he was working his way up through the ranks with the Colorado Rockies.
Back home in the cold suburbs of Mount Vernon, N.Y., he got a call from one of his teammates who suggested they head back to Arizona, get into early workout mode and see what they could wrangle up to make some extra money.
Once they got out there, they ran into another teammate, pitcher Marc Kroon, who mentioned that UPS was specifically looking for Minor League ballplayers to be "gift throwers" -- the guys who would stand on the back of the trucks and deliver the packages to the doorsteps.
"I studied really hard for the test but they actually gave us the answers so no one would flunk," Alston said. "We got about three days of training and then we were on the brown vans. They actively recruited us."
Though Alston no longer dons the shorts in the fall, Boston Red Sox pitching prospect T.J. Large is in his third year working for UPS during the Christmas rush. Before this year, he also used to supplement that income as an after-school group leader/school bus driver at his local YMCA.
White Sox catching prospect Cole Armstrong, who was placed on the organization's 40-man roster following the 2007 season, has been able to pay the bills just by giving lessons and running camps, but that wasn't always the case.
The Vancouver, Canada, native, who was acquired by the Sox from Atlanta in the Minor League phase of the 2005 Rule 5 Draft, has had his share of less rewarding offseason jobs, from working at a tree farm to unpacking boxes at Costco.
"You don't really have a choice because you have the credit card bills you racked up during the season, and car payments to make," said Armstrong, who made a good impression recently in the Arizona Fall League. "But during baseball season, if you don't put everything you have into what you're doing it will have some serious effects."
The Costco job entailed taking containers off the ship and unpacking items that ranged from massage tables to Christmas ornaments, itemizing them, and then rewrapping them. But that was child's play compared to the tree farm job.
"We spent eight hours a day outside in Vancouver, barring a blizzard, doing literally nothing more than pulling small trees out of the ground, putting them down beside you, and then going to put them on a tractor," he recalled. "So that was kind of miserable."
Still, even before making the 40-man roster, Armstrong considered himself one of the lucky ones.
"When I go home I can live with my parents, but a lot of guys are married and trying to start a family and that gets really difficult," he said. "I know people who have given themselves up for scientific research for $40-50 a job."
You do, of course, occasionally have the rare breed, the college graduate with a degree in something that enables him to make decent money on an hourly basis, such as Kansas City Royals pitcher Chris Hayes.
A graduate of Northwestern University with a degree in computer science, the sidearming right-hander, who posted a 1.64 ERA this season, returned from the Arizona Fall League around Thanksgiving and has been working on designing and implementing a website for a local Chicago business. That combined with the income derived from his wife's work as a personal trainer, he knows things could be worse.
The non-drafted free agent signee, with no bonus tucked away in a (now admittedly not quite as valuable) savings account, made some money in 2007 with an even more cerebral sideline: A chess instructor in the Chicago city school system.
"I try to get as much nerd out of me as I can in the offseason and make some money doing it," he said. "That way I can go back to the world of baseball and do neither of the two for the summer."
But while Hayes, like so many ballplayers out there, jokes a little ruefully about the economic realities of his current situation, he wouldn't trade it for the world.
"Minor League Baseball certainly creates an environment where guys are playing because they love the game and they have aspirations of getting to the big leagues," he said. "In the meantime, it is a bit of a scramble to make it work. I wouldn't have it any other way, though."