Josh Holliday calmly opened the charcoal-gray suitcase stuffed with stacks of fake $100 bills.
“Here’s a million bucks,” Holliday said. “Do you think that’s life-changing money?”
The response he receives is always a predictable yes, he said. Although the thin green pieces of paper are useless as currency, they have value to Holliday, the Oklahoma State baseball coach, when he uses them as a concrete representation of a Minor League Baseball player’s financial future.
In his Allie P. Reynolds Stadium office, Holliday demonstrated the presentation he typically gives to high school recruits trying to decide whether to sign with a professional team or go to college. Instead of persistently urging them to choose OSU, he tells them about reality.
“Providing a little bit of a big-picture life view to an 18-year-old who’s trying to make a really important decision is tough, especially when that decision hinges on a dream,” Holliday said.
He doesn’t try to convince wide-eyed students to throw away the dreams they have chased since they waddled across T-ball fields. Many of them strive to ascend to Major League Baseball, and Holliday actively encourages that. He also reveals the ways a college education can prepare someone for a major league career.
Holliday’s presentation started with the bills, which symbolize a minor league player’s signing bonus. He matter-of-factly placed the suitcase on the table and unzipped it, showcasing the bundles of Benjamins.
When he talks to recruits and their families, he casually sets stacks of bills aside, often discarding them in a trash can for emphasis. Soon, a huge chunk of a $1 million signing bonus has disappeared.
“Your first thing you have to do when trying to communicate with a young person about this is dispel the myth that this $1 million suitcase would last you forever because it won’t,” Holliday said.
Jon Littell, a former Cowboy outfielder who is in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, said he always envisioned himself as a professional baseball player. The Washington Nationals drafted Littell out of Stillwater High School, but he played at OSU for four seasons. Littell said Holliday presented the information and the “cash”-filled suitcase to him.
“I was a little caught off guard,” Littell said. “But he really put things into perspective.”
Holliday said he shares numbers that have been gathered from case studies of minor league players. As soon as they sign, they pay about $490,000 in taxes, and nearly half of the bonus is gone, he said. Next, they pay their agents $50,000.
Many players buy new vehicles for about $75,000, and living expenses such as rent, bills and food can add up to $180,000 through six years, Holliday said. If $20,000 for other expenses such as insurance, vacations and a cellphone are included, $185,000 of the signing bonus is left.
“Here we are at the end of a six-year minor league career where we don’t make it, and we’ve got this little startup kit of money, but we don’t have this lifelong supply,” Holliday said.
Suddenly, $1 million didn’t seem like much, but Holliday’s spiel didn’t end on a sour note. Along with the suitcase, Holliday brought a binder filled with stories of baseball players, some who signed with professional teams immediately after high school and others who went to college first. He discussed the earning power a degree holds and the ways college baseball equips athletes for the future. College prepares them for playing in the major league, and a degree is the ticket for another career path in case baseball doesn’t work.
“Instead of one bucket being full, the baseball bucket, you’re gonna fill up both your buckets,” Holliday said. “You’re gonna fill up your baseball bucket, and you’re gonna fill up an educational bucket.”
Holliday, a former recruiting coordinator and assistant coach at Vanderbilt, has had time to polish his strategy. In 2011 at Vanderbilt, he assembled the No. 1 recruiting class in the country. He said he has used his presentation for nearly two decades, but the idea took root before his coaching days.
At 18, Holliday wrestled with options. The Minnesota Twins selected him in the 14th round of the 1995 MLB Draft, but he chose to play at OSU. Although Holliday said he had the resources and people to help him make an informed decision, he met others who weren’t as lucky.
“It made me think, and I didn’t want to make any life decisions that I would ultimately wake up with each day without having information,” Holliday said. “I thought information became a powerful thing.”
Holliday said when he started coaching, he valued sharing his knowledge with recruits.
Early in his presentation, Holliday explained what a signing bonus is. He described it as a safety net if it doesn’t work to play professional baseball and a subsidy many minor league players use because their salaries often aren’t enough to cover expenses.
Cade Cabbiness, a Cowboy junior outfielder, said Holliday doesn’t overlook the draft’s importance but makes sure athletes understand they usually won’t earn much money if they sign out of high school.
“It’s pretty much unlivable,” Cabbiness said. “So you live off of your signing bonus, and that’s something that I didn’t hear just from him but I heard from other people.”
Cabbiness said the information influenced his decision to play at OSU instead of signing with the St. Louis Cardinals, the team that picked him in the 21st round of the 2016 MLB Draft. Although Cabbiness said he intends to pursue a baseball career, he is studying business finance with a sports management minor. Holliday emphasizes classroom education and the life lessons the Cowboys learn in college.
“The root of my passion in this presentation was in what I thought college did for you as a human,” Holliday said.
Holliday recognized going to college can be stressful, but he said he has never heard a player say he regrets it.
“I look back at it, and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” Littell said.
Although college comes with expenses, including tuition and fees, Holliday said he can’t put a price on the connections his players establish. He points out to recruits they don’t pick teams to draft them, but they choose a university. When they make that decision, they are selecting their strength coach, academic advisers and teammates, Holliday said. Instead of wondering where professional teams will send them to play, they have constants in their lives as they develop their skills.
“If you’re meant to make it as a professional athlete because you have the God-given ability, that’s great,” Holliday said. “But if you can match the God-given ability with a very developed mind and a very sound soul, you might make better decisions as a professional that will allow you to do it for a longer period of time.”
Hueston Morrill, a freshman starting second baseman from Live Oak, Florida, chose to play at OSU, though the Los Angeles Angels picked him in the 2018 MLB Draft. Morrill said Holliday discussed the draft with him and told him why he would benefit from going to college first.
“It was kind of a big plan,” Morrill said. “We wanted to get out here, get bigger.”
Many young players share Morrill’s perspective, but there are outliers. Holliday’s pitch can’t persuade all recruits to play college baseball, and he recognizes his financial statistics for average minor league players don’t apply to everyone, particularly standout early draft picks.
Regardless of college experience, some, including his brother, Matt Holliday, can sign after high school and rise through the minors to major league clubs. After earning a 2011 World Series victory with the St. Louis Cardinals and four Silver Slugger Awards, Matt Holliday returned to Stillwater, providing the Cowboys with another mentor as they prepare to play professionally.
“We have everything we could possibly want or need to help us develop our game and get better,” Cabbiness said.
Holliday said the decision becomes different for players when they are trying to choose whether to leave OSU early for the draft. He doesn’t have to tell them about the benefits of college because they know, and he fosters a welcoming environment that makes players, including Colin Simpson, a senior catcher/outfielder, want to stay for four years and earn a degree.
“I just really love the relationships I’ve built here, and this place feels like family,” Simpson said. “And I just wanted one more last ride with them.”
When O’Brate Stadium, the Cowboys’ new venue, opens in 2020, OSU will have upgraded amenities that could attract more high-level recruits. Holliday said this makes his presentation more important. When he opens the suitcase filled with green paper, he opens recruits’ minds as he offers information they might have never considered. Although Holliday has traded his professional baseball aspirations for coaching, he has found fulfillment in preparing student-athletes for their futures, whether in the major league or elsewhere in the workforce.
“(People) say, ‘You can’t have your cake and eat it, too,’” Holliday said. “I think you can. I think you can have your college experience and your development and also play in the major leagues, and I think the facts show that.”