— GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Corky Miller arrived in the big leagues in 2001. But in a sense, he never really arrived.
When you look at Miller’s resume, you see he is a 10-year veteran of the major leagues. But as impressive as that sounds, it's wildly misleading.
During the past decade, Miller has played only 199 games in the big leagues — barely more than one full season’s worth. His best season was 2002, when he suited up for a career-high 39 games for the Reds, hitting a respectable .254 with three home runs and 15 RBIs. In 2005-06, though, Miller went hitless over the course of two seasons, playing just five games for the Twins and one for the Red Sox.
It’s not exactly what he envisioned in second grade, when “ballplayer” was his response to the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?”
“At that time I didn’t know anything about the minor leagues. I was just gonna be in the big leagues,” Miller said. “Maybe it was ignorance, I don’t know. That’s what I thought I was gonna do and I put my mind to it.”
And if a well-meaning teacher asked “What if you can’t do it? Do you have a backup plan?” his response was simple:
“Well, I don’t think I can’t.”
And so Corky Miller plays baseball.
Much of it has come in places other than the majors. Miller has played 856 games in the minors, including 550 at Triple-A level since he got that first call-up from the Reds in 2001. He has played for 14 different teams, including five of the big-league variety, in the past 13 seasons.
He’s a true baseball vagabond, and with his thick horseshoe mustache and accompanying soul patch, you could almost picture him riding a Harley from one stop to the next, wandering into a new parking lot each night, offering his services for the game.
Miller is under no illusions that he is a star — the career .188 batting average speaks for itself — but is a hard-working, regular guy who will do whatever he can to play baseball. And he knows that as a catcher, he can do things beyond hitting to find work.
“I’ve got the mentality where I’m going to do what I can do to not necessarily impress, but do good enough stuff to fit in and feel good about it,” Miller said.
That means showcasing his defense and his ability to call games and work with pitchers. He always tries to sign with a team early in the offseason so he can familiarize himself with the pitching staff. Last season, Reds pitchers had their best team ERA when Miller was behind the plate.
“He’s a great guy to work with,” said pitcher Matt Maloney, who played with Miller in Cincinnati and Triple-A Louisville the past two seasons. “He’s helped me out a lot on the mound, thinking of things mentally as opposed to just trying to do things physically, thinking ahead, working the count and just being smart with my pitching.
“I really think he’s helped me get to the big leagues, and I know a lot of guys on our staff in Louisville would say the same thing.”
Miller’s focus on helping his pitchers has come somewhat to his own detriment. He has spent more time scouting batters his pitchers would be facing than the pitchers he would be digging in against. And for a guy who has never spent a full season in the big leagues, it’s been costly.
The minimum salary in the major leagues is $414,000. That sounds like a lot to the average person, and it is. But that number is pro-rated by number of days on a roster. So, if a player spends a month in the majors, he’ll make about $69,000. The minor-league minimum for a player of Miller’s status, on the other hand, is $67,300. When you have a mortgage, plus an apartment near whatever team you’re playing for, plus travel expenses to keep your family close by, $67,000 doesn’t last long.
“That’s why I’m pouring concrete or doing jobs here and there for extra money,” said Miller, whose wife Jenny and sons Caden and Chase stay with his in-laws in Chicago during the season. “If I spend a whole year in the big leagues then, no problem, I’d be good. But I haven’t done that my whole career. I don’t expect that to happen anytime soon.”
Most minor-league players combat the money issue by living off their signing bonus when they are drafted. Bryce Harper, for example, the No. 1 overall pick in 2010, was given a bonus of more than $6 million by the Washington Nationals. Miller, on the other hand, signed as a free agent in 1998 for $1,000, most of which was gone after taxes and a celebratory dinner with his family.
The money could be better. And so could the batting average. But that’s not how Miller defines success. He defines it simply by having the pleasure to put on a uniform. To him, that makes everything worthwhile.
“I’m in 2011, and I’ve still got a job,” Miller said. “I’m still doing what a lot of people I’ve played with wish they could be doing. I’m still enjoying it, and to me that’s successful.”