(Disclaimer: this article is from 2014. Much has changed about the Pecos League over the years. Read at your own risk… or for a good story!)
The Pecos League is: an independent baseball league with teams in New Mexico, Colorado, and Texas, a show on Fox Sports 1, and about to get exposed.
Hopefully by now, you’ve seen the show or at least read my blog posts concerning the league… You can find those here:
Even though the league was featured in a six-episode “reality” show earlier this year, you are about to read the REAL stories from the Pecos League. For the last few weeks, I have interviewed over a dozen former players and staff from nine different teams who reached out to me in order to have their voices heard. The stories you are about to read are not being told in an attempt to “shut down the league” but to expose the harsh realities that go on within the Pecos League.
The Pecos League is often called the “Wild West” of professional baseball. Teams play 70 games in 72 days while battling rough conditions on and off the field for little (if any) pay.
The reality is that some players didn’t get paid at all. They actually PAID to play in the Pecos League. “Taxi players” pay the league to put them on a team in hopes that they actually get to play and gain some experience and exposure.
“I signed on as a taxi player with Alpine in 2011 straight out of college. It sucked, but I really had no other offers and knew that I wanted to keep playing” one player explained. “I paid the $2,200 just to be on the team the whole season. Pretty much the only thing worse than being in the Pecos, is literally having to pay to be in the league.
“I look back on the Pecos and realize how bad things were. I see how the only way the league runs financially is through the taxi players. A lot of times, I had to have my parents or friends send me money.”
Becoming a taxi player is basically a last ditch effort to keep the baseball dream alive. In addition to paying the league a fee, the player must pay for every expense out of his own pocket: food, housing and travel. Even after all of this, taxi players aren’t guaranteed to play.
“We wouldn’t even get to showcase our talents. As taxi players, we spent more time watching and practicing than actually playing in games… When the team left for away games, the taxis stayed where we trained. We went to the gym two times a day, did field work for two to three hours and ran all around the place trying to keep our sanity. On my journey, I was given about six games worth of appearances in a season that lasted from April to August.
“We as taxi players put in a lot of work, effort, and money to try and make a dream a reality. When players didn’t get paid on time or enough, we didn’t feel for them because we never saw a dime. We truly did this for the love of the game.”
It takes a very determined (some might say crazy) player to join a team on the taxi squad in the Pecos League.
But actually getting paid to play isn’t so great either. The salary of a non-Taxi squad Pecos League player comes to around $50 a week, but only if the player is paid in full that week. Players often found their paychecks to be cut short or completely missing. One player who played with the Ruidosos in 2011 went over two weeks without being paid while the team was on the road.
“The GM of the Osos said he would pay us when we got back into town, but our manager disagreed with that and told him that the players needed to be paid first. An hour later, I received a text from the GM. I was the only one out of a group of four players in our room to get the text. The message said that whoever wants to play can meet at a gas station down the road and get fuel to drive their cars two hours to the ballpark.
“I felt like my job was to listen to my manager, so I forwarded him the text… Our manager drove to the gas station to stick up for us. Then he called the league’s front office. [The league] told our manager if we don’t show up at the ballpark, he would release the whole team, all of the players.”
Other players have also experienced issues surrounding their pay, especially towards the end of their playing time in the Pecos. These players ended up with only half of the money they should have been given. “My first professional paycheck was $55. I only got two of them when I think I was supposed to have gotten four.”
Another player noticed that his pay was short half of the money and tried to find out why. “When I asked my coach about it he said ‘remember when I told you a few games that you weren’t active? That means you didn’t get paid for that game.’ We had 50 players for, I think, 22 spots, so most of us didn’t get paid.”
One player who attempted to expose the team and the poor conditions to the town and to the league ended up never being paid and had his stats taken away from him.
All of this could be because of the lack of contracts within the Pecos League. One player claims that he and his teammates never had a physical contract in front of them to sign.
When players were given paychecks, the money often had to go to housing, travel, and food.
Most independent baseball leagues rely on the generosity of host families to take in players and let them live rent free while they play. The concept is great, however, it is hard to find families willing to open their homes to players in the Pecos League. While the teams search for host families, the majority of the players are stuck paying for their own hotel rooms. One player had to pay for his own hotel stay for the entire first half of the season because no host families were available. Another bounced around between hotels, his coach’s floor, or crowded in with other players.
Most players who found host families talked very highly of the people they stayed with during the season. These families took them in as adopted sons, cooked for them and gave them a safe place to live without having to worry about anything other than playing baseball. Sadly, everyone’s experience wasn’t that great.
“After being in an hotel for two to three weeks, I was finally placed with a host dad and mom. There I experienced walking to the ballpark on game days. I had to leave an hour before warm-ups just so I wouldn’t be late. My host family lived two miles from the field, and they would sometimes just leave me at the house without a spare car while they both went to the casino or out of town.”
Some teams did manage to provide their players with housing, but even that was less than ideal. One team rented only two houses for the 50 players they had on their roster, and another team placed players in, what one player called, a “haunted hotel.”
He described what happened when his new team sent him to their “team house.”
“The team didn’t have a host family for me, so they gave me this address to go to. When I arrived, I was kinda scared. It wasn’t a good neighborhood, and there was just this small building that looked run down. Sure enough, it was a run down mental/drug hospital. I walked in there and saw seven guys already there. I just laughed to myself and thought ‘holy shit.'”
Finding housing isn’t the only questionable thing the players have to go through. Traveling to away games can be an adventure too. While a couple of teams have small vans or a bus to transport players, most players have to provide their own transportation and pay for their own gas on road trips.
“Having to pay and provide our own transportation was uncalled for. The roads in New Mexico are not safe or well lit, and to put the lives of others in the hands of young adults is not right.”
Another player described the rough travel conditions they faced: “We stuck five people in cars and drove sometimes ten hours on game day. Imagine sitting in a car going to Alpine, Texas for ten hours then playing a game; Absolutely brutal.”
Sleeping on the road was just as cramped. Players stayed at Motel 6 hotels sometimes with six guys to a room to save the team money. Money is always a factor, and sometimes there just isn’t enough to cover all the players.
“When I was traded to Raton, I pitched 2/3 of an inning and was released that night because they couldn’t afford to put me up in the motel they were staying at.”
What money the players had left had to be spent on food. The teams rarely provided food before or after games for the players. If the players didn’t have host families to help them out with meals, they were forced to put their money together to buy groceries and cook meals for themselves after games. Even then, it was still hard to gather up money for a healthy meal large enough to fully feed all of the guys.
“The only reason I was able to feed myself in Santa Fe was because we had a little boy take a hat around the bleachers to collect money from fans when we hit home runs.”
Complaining did help one team… for a night.
“We complained about the living situation and no meals on the road, so the GM traded one of our starting pitchers to Alpine for two extra rooms and PB&J sandwiches before the game.”
Just like everything else in the Pecos League, most of the facilities and fields are also inadequate for professional baseball. The amenities are worse than normal American high schools.
“We had a shed for a locker room, metal chairs, no showers, and were forced to wash our own uniforms.”
The actual playing fields aren’t much better. One team played on a high school field that had gopher holes scattered throughout the outfield. Another team wouldn’t allow the players to cut the grass because “they didn’t want the grass to die.”
Other fields were so small that players could stand at home plate and throw balls over the outfield wall. Pitchers had to constantly chase down home runs that flew over the small field and landed in the desert behind the fence during batting practice.
The poor conditions and small dimensions of the parks caused problems to players’ statistics as well.
“The only reason I have an ERA from there is because two runs scored on a fly ball to first base that went over the lights and dropped in.”
Since every park in the Pecos League is a hitter’s park, numbers are extremely inflated and hard to be taken seriously. It makes getting noticed and promoted to a higher league that much harder.
“It’s known as a hitters league, so hitters need to put up huge numbers to have a shot. Pitchers can get away with a 4-4.5 ERA and still get promoted. Based on my experience, coaches do try hard and fight for their players, but sometimes it is hard for coaches from other leagues to respect the Pecos League stats. Higher level coaches look down upon the league, and although it gives you an opportunity in pro ball, it is difficult to advance.”
Poor fields aren’t the only thing messing up players’ statistics. One player saw his ERA skyrocket after a perfect inning. When he looked for the scorekeeper to ask what had happened, he found an 18 year old girl who didn’t really know how to keep score and “made a mistake.”
Please note that the following statements represented in bold are denied by the Pecos League commissioner, Andrew Dunn.
The league knows exactly what they are doing to these players. They make promises to players that never come true. They stretch the truth about pay and promotion opportunities. As one player put it, “they like to twist stories to trick kids into going into the league. Many had been given false promises. It was just a mess.”
They try to take advantage of players and their dreams, especially with the taxi squad players. Making players pay to play isn’t what “professional” baseball is all about. The league also started taking advantage of players by putting new rules into effect regarding other leagues.
“The league takes advantage of players because they know most guys won’t quit. They have nowhere else to go. They also make them ONLY go to winter or spring leagues run by the Pecos. If they go to the California Winter League, for example, those players cannot be signed. They want all those guys to spend money on THEIR league and nowhere else.”
They also do a good job of stacking some teams with better players and resources. One team was managed by a guy who only had coaching experience in little league.
“He knew nothing on how to coach young and some older men. During spring training, he would leave to watch little league games because he was ‘bored.’ And he was the only one that was a ‘coach’ and supposed to evaluate players.”
Another team’s manager was flat out told not to expect to win more than 13 games all year. Their budget was well below any other teams’ in the league. They had no baseball operations, no marketing and no staff to help the team compete fairly against other teams. The manager compared the Pecos League to the WWE where everything is predetermined in the league’s mind, and if you go against it, you’re gone. The team went on to win 20 games over their “projected” total. The manager and team are both no longer a part of the Pecos League.
Player promotions also seem to be controlled and delayed by the league as they see fit. Players were not traded when they wanted, and some players could guess why.
“Our goal there was to get picked up by better leagues, and rumors circled around that the ownership was dodging calls from teams in other leagues trying to buy our contracts. I was trying to get released so that I could play in the NBC World Series in Wichita, but [the owner] wouldn’t release me from my contract since he had a team playing there too. The team I was going to play with ended up taking his team down, and the next day I had a contract in the Frontier League.”*
(*Note: The Pecos League commissioner, Andrew Dunn, has said that all of these statements printed in bold “are outright false.”)
Most of the players agreed that the competition level isn’t too horrible.
“The level of play was definitely better than most people think. A lot of people think that the competition is poor, but it looks that way because of the league and how they carry themselves.”
However, there are guys who obviously have no business being there. As one player explained, “it’s hard to get people to play for $50 a week while providing their own pants, bats, transportation, and sometimes housing.”
Despite everything: the poor pay, the cost of living, traveling and food, the terrible fields and the unprofessional ownership, there is a silver lining. The players get to play baseball and have a chance to hold onto their dreams just a little while longer. 90% of the players I talked to did find something positive to say about their time in the Pecos League.
One word heard throughout the reality show and throughout my interviews is “brotherhood.” These players became a band of brothers; all playing and fighting for the same goal. To play in the Pecos League, you must truly love the game. They shared each other’s struggles and bonded in ways that others will never understand. Friendships were formed and memories were made that will last a life time.
The players also grew to love the fans as much as the fans loved them. Cities adopted these guys and made the experience worth it. They helped them out when needed and were always there for moral support.
The Pecos League isn’t for everyone, but a player can learn a lot about themselves as a ballplayer and a person.
“Guys just have to look at it as an opportunity. Just a pit stop along the journey. Put up numbers, meet and greet everyone that you can, build up friendships with players and coaches there, and eventually attempt to move up. The Pecos was definitely humbling but made me into a stronger person.”
To each player and staff member that helped me with this post, I thank you. I can only hope that I told your stories well. I have an immense amount of respect for all of you.