This is Alexis Brudnicki’s first piece as part of her March residency at FanGraphs. Alexis is the Director of Baseball Information for the Great Lake Canadians, an elite amateur baseball program in London, Ontario, Canada. She has written for various publications including Baseball America, Canadian Baseball Network, Sportsnet, The Hardball Times, and Prep Baseball report. She won a 2016 SABR Analytics Conference Research Award for Contemporary Baseball Commentary. She can also be found on Twitter (@baseballexis). She’ll be contributing here this month.
Baseball has a life of its own.
When players are immersed in that life, most often they’re focused on the task at hand, the path ahead, and the game they love. There are some who think beyond the season, or their current contract, and try to make plans for a future without the game. The truth is, though, it can be really hard to think about a life beyond the only one players have ever known.
According to a 10-year-old study from the University of Colorado at Boulder, the average Major League Baseball career lasts 5.6 years, with one in five position players lasting only a single season in the majors. The study also indicated that, at every point of a player’s career, the chance of it ending entirely is at least 11%.
Baseball’s average career length is also the longest among the four major sports, with the average NFL career lasting 3.5 years, an NBA career 4.8 years, and the NHL next-longest at 5.5, according to information obtained by the RAM Financial group a decade ago.
Major League Baseball originally established its College Scholarship Program in the 1960s, and last year made changes during collective bargaining to what is currently called the Continuing Education Program, “to help baseball players prepare for life after baseball.” The alteration to the program represents an attempt to move away from for-profit schools and to allow players to continue education at institutions with more successful graduation rates.
Steve Tolleson is a ballplayer-turned-wealth advisor for Parallel Financial, who got his start in the money game in college. His final research project en route to obtaining his degree revolved around studying professional athletes and what happens to their money both while playing and after leaving the game.
“Most athletes feel like they’re great at their profession, so they’re probably great at managing their life outside of their profession,” Tolleson said. “Those are a lot of the athletes who fall into trouble…
“It’s a special brotherhood we’re all in, and we get a bad rep for managing money and managing lifestyles. It’s the reality. If you have a 25-year-old making $5 million a year, they live in a way they shouldn’t live. It’s not for everybody because some people are going to do what they want to do no matter what you do or no matter how you scare them, but the guys we work with are very much understanding of what life after baseball has to look like.”
Tolleson — whose professional career spanned 12 years, with stretches of four of those in the majors — had an early glimpse of the financial world during college, but the infielder took a real interest in it, and his future, following an extended trip back to Triple-A after some time and success in the big leagues.
“I honestly started getting more serious about it in 2012,” he said. “I played pretty much the full year in the big leagues with Baltimore, I was designated [for assignment], I played with the White Sox, had a great year in Triple-A, and was never given the chance to play in the big leagues for whatever reason that was. That offseason really led me to start thinking, what’s next?”
But what does life after baseball really look like? After years of focusing on throwing a ball or wielding a bat, how do players adapt to preparing for the second stage of life and everything it entails? Some players are ready, some use their baseball network to remain in the game in another capacity, and some find options just fall into their laps. Others, no doubt, just fade from our view.
In this two-part series, several former players discuss how they prepared for civilian life and the challenges they’ve faced since leaving the game. This first part features two players who left the game for a different kind of show business. Meet the entertainers.
Chris Leroux has always lived his life in six-month spurts.
After being drafted out of high school in Mississauga, Ontario, he actually began his professional career after attending Winthrop University, a seventh-round pick of the Florida Marlins in 2005. The right-hander played in the big leagues for the Marlins, Pirates, and Yankees during his 11-year career, also spending time in Japan and splitting winters between the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, before calling it quits and becoming the titular bachelor on The Bachelor Canada last year.
Pitching for what he felt was going to be the last time for Team Canada at the World Baseball Classic in March — he threw one clean inning of relief — Leroux was hoping to leave the game on a good note before venturing into reality television. The Bachelor wasn’t something he had imagined for himself, but it became an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
“I was always focused when I was playing, focused on the big picture,” Leroux said. “I was thinking about what I was going to do when I’m done, so I was always trying to make as much money as possible. I was always playing two months in winter ball and then playing the season, and then I would go play two months in winter ball. So that basically ruined my body, playing almost 10 months out of the year.
“You’re supposed to play five or six months and then take six months off and I never did that. I was always just going because I wanted to bank as much money as possible, so when I retired I wouldn’t have to go work a job I didn’t like or something like that. So that was always my main focus when I was playing, and then when I was done, I was just kind of lost.
“You hear a lot about players when they retire — they don’t know what to do, they’re lost, they need to talk to people about how they’re going to live their lives for the next 40 years, and I was just thrown into that. That’s a real thing, not knowing what you’re going to do and being lost and missing baseball, missing everything you’ve done for the last 30 years of your life. Fortunately, I was thrown into the whole TV thing, and that took my mind off of being bored and missing the game that I loved for a while.”
Ending up right back where he started after The Bachelor Canada’s televised finale in December, Leroux’s latest six-month career spurt came to an end, and he once again had to focus on a future away from the mound. After heading home to renovate a house he recently purchased, the former hurler can currently be found on the Sportsnet airwaves, broadcasting Blue Jays spring-training games as the network searches for a fit for its radio color commentary.
“The last year has been weird,” Leroux said. “I’ve always been interested in doing television for sports… I feel like I would be good at analyzing players just because I’ve been through everything. There’s not one thing I haven’t done, besides win a World Series. But I don’t know what’s next. I really don’t.”
And it’s that sense of unknowing that instills fear into players beyond their intended career paths.
“I would be lying if I told you it didn’t scare me,” he said. “I just bought a house and I’m renovating that, and that’s kind of my thing right now. But when that’s done, what am I going to do after that? And that’s life right? You just keep finding things to keep you going. My house is right now, but what I’m going to do when my house is ready and renovated, I have no idea.”
Just months ago, Leroux made an attempt at reviving his winter-ball career, quickly realizing that taking a season off may be just as hard on his body as working through the majority of the year.
“I went to Venezuela,” he said. “I thought I was ready to play, but then they threw me into a scrimmage game before the season started… I just wasn’t ready. My arm was kind of like, ‘Whoa, what are you doing? I thought you were retired.’ Then three days later, I came back, and I haven’t touched a baseball since.”
That experience still hasn’t made it simple for Leroux to make a final decision on playing the game he loves.
“I still don’t know if I’m done with baseball,” he said. “I don’t know. I mean, am I ever going to play in the big leagues again? Probably not. But do I want to go play in Dominican or Venezuela or wherever? Yeah, I love baseball. I love competing. I don’t know if my Monday night men’s basketball league is going to do that for me.”
Faced with decisions about what’s next and where life might be going, Leroux admires the players he met along the way who knew what they were doing and where they were headed, and those who understood that baseball can’t last forever.
“I really love when guys have their life in order, even when they’re playing,” Leroux said. “So they’ve gone to college, they’ve graduated, they have money in the bank, regardless of whether you’re successful in baseball or not. The guys who kind of take it for granted and think that baseball is going to last forever, I feel sorry for them.
“I was kind of in the middle. I was always a guy who education didn’t matter to, and I wasn’t spending everything I had, but I’m enjoying life. But I’m a big college guy now. If you have the opportunity to go to college, then go to college. Being 17 years old and getting thrown into professional baseball is mind-boggling to me. If I was 17 and playing in Greensboro, I would have been lost. I don’t think I ever would have made the big leagues, because I just would have been partying all night and not knowing what to do with myself.”
And maybe that’s extended to still not knowing what to do with himself.
During the days that highlighted Scott Richmond’s career, which has so far spanned 13 seasons — with parts of four in the majors with the Blue Jays, and stints in independent leagues and overseas — he didn’t try to look far into his future.
But when the right-hander retired, for a brief stretch, he was forced to figure out what was next. Before returning to the game so that he could join Team Canada at the 2015 Pan Am Games — where the squad won gold on home soil — Richmond pursued residential real estate and quickly learned it wasn’t for him.
“When I was playing, during the prime of my career, I never thought about what I was going to do afterwards,” Richmond said. “I was so focused on the now and how to stay at the top — a feat in itself. I had no idea what I wanted to do after my career was over. Obviously, my knowledge is in baseball so [I’ve thought about] anything associated with the game: scouting, coaching, broadcasting…
“Being away from the game for that short time showed me that I still loved it and could still compete at a high level, so I got back in. Coming back to the game opened up the Pan Am Games in Toronto, Premier 12 in Taiwan, and then the next two years playing abroad in Taiwan. My family and I have enjoyed our decision immensely.”
Early this spring, Richmond had a chance to get his first taste of life in the game beyond playing, when Sportsnet tried him out as a colour analyst on the Blue Jays radio broadcast team. Aiming to remain with Team Canada in pursuit of baseball’s return to the 2020 Olympics, Richmond has decided to head to Italy this summer to keep playing, but it has given him a glimpse of what the future could look like.
“I really enjoyed a brief colour-analyst tryout with The FAN590 this spring,” he said. “I went down for the first five games of spring training and worked alongside [play-by-play voice] Mike Wilner, which was an excellent experience. I’m going to continue to try to get some more practice at that. It’s something I could really see myself doing.”
And when the time comes for Richmond to host another retirement party, he feels better prepared for what might come next and knows that he wants to stay in the game in some capacity. His perspective on life after baseball has evolved, with a belief that his experiences in the game can help him beyond the diamond.
“I’m not nervous or scared about the transition to the ‘real world’ after my career is over, because I’ve made so many connections through the game that I could make some calls and see what opportunities there may be,” Richmond said.
“While playing, I’d guess the split between guys who had a career planned out after baseball was 20% planned, 80% unplanned. I feel like people are absolutely nervous about life after baseball because it’s the unknown. But so is a baseball career.”