PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. (AP) — Grueling, late-night road trips are a loathed hallmark of minor league baseball, and most ballplayers can't wait to leave bus life behind.
Jack Labosky is traveling in a different lane. A relief pitcher in the Tampa Bay Rays organization, Labosky used his $3,000 signing bonus to purchase a school bus, and he and girlfriend Madi Hiatt plan to live out of the renovated "skoolie" during the 2019 season. A healthy dose of whimsy went into that decision, to be sure, but it's also a creative way for the couple to stretch Labosky's meager minor league salary.
"It's kind of the one time in my life I feel like I'm able to do something like it," Labosky said.
The Rays selected Labosky, a two-way player at Duke, in the 22nd round of the draft last June. He quickly accepted the signing bonus — trivial compared to the millions earned by most first-round picks, but for Labosky, "$3,000 was hard to come by as a college student, so that was great to me." He played the final 2 months of the season with Single-A Hudson Valley in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., living with a host family to stretch his $1,100-per-month salary while Hiatt, his high school sweetheart, went home to California.
The stint at Hudson Valley was a test run in minor league life for Labosky, who is hoping to be assigned to Single-A Bowling Green in Kentucky for opening day. After a few months apart, he and Hiatt determined that in future seasons, wherever Labosky goes, Hiatt will, too.
The problem: Labosky made only about $5,000 during his first season, including the signing bonus, and is not expecting much of a raise in 2019. With Hiatt focused on getting a master's degree in educational psychology from Purdue University Online, there isn't much room in the budget for rent.
"Around the first offseason is when I realized, 'Hey man, I'm pretty broke,'" Labosky said.
Their first thought was to get an RV. Parking figured to be cheaper than rent, and a mobile home could move with the couple as Labosky hopefully climbed the minor league ladder. But RVs and fifth-wheel trailers cost at least tens of thousands of dollars.
The internet led them to a thriftier option: renovated school buses, or "skoolies."
"It's a little hippie," Labosky said with a laugh. "Personally, I don't consider myself, like my grandma says, the flower children of the '60s, living in buses, stuff like that. I don't really consider myself on that level. I'm doing it more for, I'm 22, turning 23 this summer, I don't really have much responsibility outside of baseball."
"We just decided, 'Why not?'" Hiatt said. "Why not just take a leap?"
They bought a 1999 Blue Bird International for $4,000 from a private Christian school in Lynchburg, Va. Labosky drove it back to Durham, N.C., to begin the renovation process.
"It had crayons and candy wrappers and homework under the seats," Labosky said. "It was kind of crazy driving it home."
Their approach to the makeover mirrored that of HGTV's Joanna and Chip Gaines — Hiatt took charge of design, Labosky handled construction. To save money, they did nearly everything themselves. They ripped out seats, insulated the walls and installed electrical wiring, water pipes, heating, air conditioning, a stovetop and more. They have a full-sized bed, a toilet and a shower. The floors are dark, the walls are tan and the cabinets are white — basic, but an impressive use of 172.5 square feet.
"People say it's modern," Hiatt said of the aesthetic. "There is nothing real special about it, to be honest."
They painted the exterior white because white paint was the cheapest. Aside from a few small details — like the curtains sewn by Hiatt's grandmother — the bus was ready to go by the time Labosky left for spring training in late February. Total cost, including purchase price: around $13,000.
The skoolie is staying behind until Labosky learns where he'll be on opening day. The right-hander had a 2.63 ERA with Hudson Valley last season and seems a good bet for a promotion to Bowling Green, but it's possible Tampa Bay holds him in extended spring training in Port Charlotte. He's hoping for the former, since players don't get paid in extended and trailer parks are cheaper in Kentucky than Florida.
Once Labosky has his assignment, Hiatt's dad will help her move the bus because Hiatt hasn't learned to drive her house yet, and a long road trip isn't the best time for a crash course.
And then the adventure is on. The couple started an Instagram account, The Grand Bus Adventure, to document the journey. Hiatt might follow Labosky and the team bus on the road once or twice during the season, but the plan is for her to stick around Port Charlotte or Bowling Green, find part-time work, study for her master's and keep up with her own athletic training — she's a collegiate runner-turned-marathoner who is preparing to run the Boston Marathon on April 15.
Labosky has gotten some ribbing from past and current teammates about the bus, but mostly they're impressed by the final result.
"Once people see the finished product and they realize, 'Oh, it's a motorhome, it's pretty normal,' they're a lot more positive toward it as opposed to being like, 'Hey, I live in a school bus.' That just sounds crazy," Labosky said.
Crazy, but certainly creative. And easing the anxiety of planning a life around Labosky's pursuit of big league dreams.
"I've learned throughout the process when Jack did get drafted and went to New York that this lifestyle requires no planning," Hiatt said. "Now I'm not that stressed out, because we have a house on wheels. Now, everything I own literally comes with us."