Greg Larson always wanted to be a part of the game. As a baseball crazed kid, he spent hours practicing, hoping one day he could make it off his hometown sandlots. Yet after batting .091 as a high school senior, Larson had to stop pretending his hard work could will himself into a college dugout, let alone a professional one. Looking to hang on by any means necessary, Larson finished school and sought out a clubhouse job at baseball’s lowest rung, short-season A-ball.
With barely a clue of how to manage himself, let alone ballplayers away from home for the first time, Larson managed to land the clubhouse manager position with the Aberdeen IronBirds. For the next two years, he was exposed to the harsh realities both financial and emotional of minor league life that led to his book, Clubbie: A Minor League Baseball Memoir.
“Writing a clubhouse tell all is taboo in baseball and maybe every professional sport,” Larson said during a recent interview. “There are so many guys who talk about it in the clubhouse, even players, even coaches—they said I should write a book about a season. Almost nobody does it. When I would tell guys I was writing a book, I was just another one who was just flapping his gums, but it turned out that I actually did something with it.”
When Larson started his journey in 2012, he encountered a system that stuck players in a state of diminishing returns that only a select few managed to ever break through. Aberdeen pitcher Alex Schmarzo was one of the team’s sage veterans at the ripe age of 23. He dropped this jewel on Larson that resonated with him throughout his tenure.
“He gave me this beautiful metaphor,” Larson said. “It was like scratching lottery tickets being a minor league baseball player; every day you’re paying more money to play, and every day you’re watching somebody else win that lottery and get moved up. You think to yourself, well if they can do it, then so can I, but then what happens is you spend another day and another dollar. You [eventually] realize that you’re broke and out of time.”
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The $1,200 monthly salary often left players wondering if they made the right career choice. Short on the necessary resources to properly fuel a professional sports career, substandard housing and nutrition was the norm around the league. Save for the few high draft picks that had large enough signing bonuses to subsidize their low wages, minor leaguers were going into debt trying to fight off 90 MPH fastballs. As the clubhouse manager, Larson had the conflicting task of collecting $7 daily per player while making triple their salary.
“I think my therapist might tell you this that a big reason I wrote this book is because there’s a certain level of guilt that I felt all those years,” he said. “I felt like I was a part of a system that took advantage of these guys that I considered my friends. Nobody questioned the fact that minor leaguers at Single-A are making about $1,200 a month, and the clubbie is making three times as much as that. None of it made no sense to me.”
While the salary discrepancy didn’t compute with Larson, what did compute was how he could squeeze extra margin from the clubhouse dues. He went as far as recycling leftovers from the previous day’s spread, even if they weren’t in top condition.
“If guys did not eat the turkey slices, I would bring it into the back, re-fold it, put it into the fridge and put it out the next day,” he said. “I knew it had been sitting outside, and if it got like a sort of yellowish tint on the outside, I would just fold it so that the other side of the meat was facing the players on the plate. I was doing that because I wanted to shave a little bit off the top. I wanted to spend less of the dues money to pay me, then I would have a higher profit.”
Seemingly everyone in the organization from management to the players was trying to squeeze six pennies from a nickel. It was a difficult financial environment that eventually caught Larson in its messy tentacles. Away from the field, he was keeping a long-distance relationship going with his college sweetheart. Managing apartments in two cities, Larson did what any sensible twenty-something looking to save money would do, he moved into the clubhouse for his second season.
“I was living with my girlfriend in the off-season in South Carolina and didn’t want to pay for rent in South Carolina and Maryland at the same time,” he said. “I mean, psychologically, that was like my unconscious way of becoming even more entrenched in this world, being so close to baseball now that I’m literally living in the stadium.”
Larson cleaned out his equipment closet to make the couch and microwave work just enough to keep his head above water. In many ways, his incredulous living situation mimicked those of his players, many who survived by sleeping on the living room floor or in the kitchen with multiple roommates. It was part of a complex struggle Larson wrestled with while trying to vicariously live out his dream of being in professional baseball.
Once Larson got past the bleak financials, he focused on documenting the insecurities that exist in minor league clubhouses. A bad outing on the mound, or an 0-4 at the plate easily rattled a nubile minor leaguer on the precarious fringes of professional baseball. Homesick Dominican players experienced cultural struggles, with one fleeing the team in the middle of a game, only to return the next day to try to sneak on the team bus to New York. Most of the players were overlooked to showcase the few the Orioles considered future major leaguers.
“A lot of those guys were just cannon fodder,” he said. “I don’t think the parent club thought that 95% of those guys were going to do anything other than just be career minor leaguers. Quite frankly, I don’t think the parent organization cared.”
Aberdeen’s coaching staff was made up of veterans familiar to most baseball fans who came of age in the 1980s and 90s, grizzled lifers who couldn’t abandon the game behind once they retired. Larson peels back the curtain on these former stars who are living out of a suitcase for months, far removed from their former glories. Some even resorted to joining Larson in the clubhouse, foregoing their hotel room for a night on their office couch.
Seeing the players and coaches at their most vulnerable moments, Larson grew to learn minor league baseball wasn’t the fantasy he imagined as a kid. It was cold and bleak, just like the clubhouse floor he swept nightly. His two years behind the scenes forced Larson to grow up and confront his own truths. It is a vision he hopes is evident when readers sit down with his book.
“When I realized I needed to be the main character, it became a completely different story,” he said. “It became a story about love: love of the game, relationships, and how they get strained in baseball. It’s a story about growing up in a game that wants to keep us all young.”