As Minor Leaguers Try to Keep Their Careers Alive, Some of Their Neighbors Are Not
OLD FORGE, Pa. — The most notorious residence in the Yankees’ minor-league system comes with a furnished bedroom, a cozy porch, ample street parking and a handy private side entrance.
One downside: the bodies housed underneath the apartment.
“I’ve seen people getting wheeled in and out a few times, which was a little — different,” said Yankees relief pitcher Chad Green, who lived in the apartment here in early 2017. “The place was nice. As soon as you got over the fact you’re staying in a funeral home, it was fine.”
Many ballplayers describe getting called up to the majors as a dream come true, but for some Yankees, their last stop before reaching the Bronx is a setting more fit for nightmares: an apartment above a funeral parlor on a sleepy corner of this city of about 8,000 people.
Less-than-desirable living situations aren’t uncommon for the many minor leaguers living on painfully tight budgets, but few are as eerie as the apartment where several Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders have ended up while playing in one of the smallest markets to host a Class AAA team.
When Clint Frazier was traded to the Yankees’ organization in July 2016, he moved in above the funeral home with two teammates at the time, Ben Gamel and Cito Culver. Frazier was mired in a slump, and since his new roommates were thriving at the plate, he figured living among the bottles of embalming fluid and caskets might prove to be a talisman.
“It didn’t save my season,” Frazier said.
He lasted about one month before moving into a hotel. The breaking point came one Saturday morning when he awoke to the sounds of a funeral service taking place downstairs.
“That’s when I was like, ‘I’ve got to get out of this place,’” Frazier said. “It’s nice on the inside, but it’s a very eerie feeling. I could hear the stuff going on in the basement. That’s not cool, man. I would never in a million years go back.”
Frazier, somewhat surprisingly, is an outlier in his feelings toward rooming with the dead. Many players are comfortable surrounded by the macabre, and even recommend the experience; the apartment has a reputation in the RailRiders clubhouse as one of the lusher accommodations available in the area.
As Gamel points out, when it comes to minor-league living, it can get much worse than staying above a funeral home. “It’s not the dead you’ve got to worry about,” said Gamel, now an outfielder with the Milwaukee Brewers.
The home in Old Forge, Pa., about five miles from the RailRiders’ ballpark in Moosic, belongs to Bob Gillette, whose family has operated Ferri & Gillette Funeral Services for 78 years.
About eight years ago, after his grandmother died, Gillette renovated the space on the top floor of the building where she had lived to make two apartments. Pat Rovello, Gillette’s neighbor who had been renting out properties to ballplayers since the early 2000s — including above a pizzeria he owns — suggested offering the apartments to RailRiders.
Currently, pitcher David Hale resides in the smaller of the two spaces. Gillette listed Scott Sizemore, John Ryan Murphy and Shane Greene as former tenants. The larger apartment goes for $1,200 a month, with the smaller space renting for $800. All utilities are included, and sometimes two or three players live in one apartment to save money.
“We’re big Yankees fans,” Gillette said. “The guys, they’ve been so great. They see my kids in the yard, and they taught my son to throw the proper way.”
Gillette did not recall ever hosting an unruly tenant. There are moments, though, that have made lodgers feel uneasy.
One night when Gamel and Tyler Austin were living at the funeral parlor, smoke from the basement furnaces triggered the building’s fire alarms. But with no smoke visible in the players’ rooms, the players immediately suspected mystic forces at play. Austin asked if he could spend the night with Gamel.
“Tyler used to sleep on the ground in my room,” Gamel said. “Nights where he’s feeling a little sketchy. I was used to it.”
Austin, now with the San Francisco Giants, called the apartment a “relatively nice place,” but said he had to be extra careful on certain days.
“The thing that was kind of weird was some mornings we’d wake up and there was a service going on downstairs,” he said. “I’d have to be really be quiet because I don’t want them hearing me walk around up top as they’re going through their service.”
Gamel added that the funeral home was quite serene compared with other minor league dwellings. Minor-league salaries vary widely depending on signing bonuses and service time, but players in Class AAA can make as little as $2,150 a month before dues and taxes, and only during the season, making it hard to find optimal living spaces.
RailRiders second baseman Gosuke Katoh lived with six other players in a two-bedroom apartment in Bensalem, Pa., when he played for the Class AA Trenton Thunder last year. He recalled two murders in the neighborhood while he lived there.
“We definitely don’t live in the best neighborhoods,” Katoh said. “The places we do live, the team apartments, I mean it’s nice that they let us stay there. It’s whatever we can get.”
To make sure his players don’t have similar experiences while with his club, Josh Olerud, the RailRiders’ team president and general manager, tacks on broker duties to his daily responsibilities. In recent years, he has built a catalog of available properties and personally inspects sites before a player moves in.
“I check out every single home,” Olerud said. “You don’t want to send someone somewhere that’s not going to be livable.”
The team pays for a three-night hotel stay for players upon their arrival, and some newcomers choose extended hotel stays if they can negotiate a reasonable rate. When players choose to search on their own, unexpected challenges can arise.
During spring training, pitchers David Sosebee and Cale Coshow could not find anything to their liking on websites like Craigslist or Zillow, but their teammate Danny Coulombe met a woman on his flight to Scranton who mentioned she lived in a duplex with a vacant apartment.
When Sosebee and Coshnow arrived the morning before their first home game to move in, they figured they must have gotten lost.
“We pulled up and I was like, ‘This has got to be the wrong place,’” Sosebee said. “It’s kind of like an auto body, slash junkyard, slash I think the guy sells cars out of there, too. There’s a bunch of cars in the back, mechanics everywhere. That’s our house.” All in all, though, he sounded satisfied with his new home.
Among those who stick to Olerud’s tips, players recognized a sense of civic pride from their landlords. Some proprietors forgo broker’s fees or security deposits and offer month-to-month or six-month leases, which helps minor leaguers facing unpredictable seasons. Gleyber Torres, who went on to finish third in the 2018 American League Rookie of the Year Award vote, spent the beginning of last season in an apartment that included access to a personal man cave, complete with a gym and golf simulators.
“Peace of mind,” said Olerud, sounding almost like a funeral director himself, “is a big thing.”
James Wagner contributed reporting from San Francisco.
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