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Paycheck to paycheck: A lonely road to a dream

Cory Patton dreams of playing under the bright lights of Major League Baseball. But the chase comes with great sacrifice.

By JOHN PENDYGRAFT, Times Staff Writer
Published September 15, 2007


All in all, Cory Patton would rather be thinking about batting practice at the Blue Jays minor league field in Dunedin than a broken-down car in Tulsa, Okla.

Standing with his cell phone pressed to his ear in a locker that smells of sweat and leather, his heart is at a familiar crossroads. One road runs through the phone and across state lines to Bobbie, his wife and soul mate back home in Tulsa. The other leads just outside to the smell of ballpark grass and the kid's game he loves more than he can say.

His wife is upset about the car, and his teammates are outside stretching for the game.

Last year, the couple spent the season together, traveling game to game with the team. But the Pattons learned the $1,500 a month Cory earns playing Class A ball can't float the dream for both of them. So this year she stayed home with a day job.

"We've lived on a whole lotta nothin'" he explains, "This year has been a lot more difficult than we both anticipated. It's hard, her not being here. I haven't seen her in nine weeks."

At 25, this is his third year in the minors.

Patton describes baseball as an exercise in learning how to cope with failure. If he gets a hit just 30 percent of the time, he earns a .300 batting average and stands to live his dream of making millions in the major leagues. That means he'd fail 70 percent of the time.

He knows his young marriage is not a game of failure. Batting .300 with your wife lands a fellow an all-star spot sleeping on the couch.

Standing in his locker, he's practicing the skill he believes he needs to be successful in both arenas: consistency.

He believes a minor-league ballplayer makes the majors when he can play his best game consistently. A good husband loves consistently.

So he and Bobbie talk three times every day -- she from Tulsa after clocking out of her job at a local bank, he at the most inconvenient time, in the hours just before the game. It's hard to find a window for a 20-minute conversation. She starts her day at 5:30 a.m. and is in bed by 10:00 p.m. He works nights at the ballpark, playing 7:30 p.m. games that end after her bedtime.

The dream: Patton makes the majors, and money is never an issue again and Bobbie travels with him everywhere he goes. But the real odds of making The Show are a harsh reality.

"Well, I'm not too good at math, but I know not very many of us are going to make it," he says. "On any given team, there may be one, maybe two who make the big leagues."

For Cory, and every other player on his team, love of baseball bridges the gap between the statistics and the dream.

"I still feel like a kid out here. ... There's nothing I'd rather be doing. The first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning, other than my wife, is baseball. How I'm ready to get out there and do better than I did yesterday. I'm always thinking about it. Even at home lying in bed, I'm still thinking about my game and what I'm going to do the next day," Patton says.

For better and worse, the Dunedin Blue Jays fell just short of making the playoffs, and Cory is free to go home to Bobbie. In the offseason he plans to substitute teach, put on a hitting clinic for local high school kids and maybe pick up some work at his uncle's concrete business.

He will finally get to curl up at night with his wife in his arms and feel a sense of peace he lived without during the baseball season. And as he falls asleep, neither has any doubt what he'll be dreaming about.

 

About this feature
Two-thirds of families in the United States say they live paycheck to paycheck. American savings are in the negative, the lowest level since the Great Depression. In the Tampa Bay area, average wages are lower than comparable Sun Belt cities, and median home prices have doubled in a decade. Add a related surge in property taxes and insurance bills (not to mention higher gas prices) and the challenge to make ends meet is quickly becoming pervasive. It's not a fringe problem. It's your neighbor; it's us. Times photographer John Pendygraft is seeking stories that put a face behind the phenomenon.