PHOENIX – The default ringtone on Andrew Saalfrank’s iPhone began to chime just as he was in the middle of making a deli sandwich. On the other end of the call was Blake Lalli, manager for the Reno Aces, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Triple-A affiliate.
“Oh, no,” Saalfrank said.
He answered the phone and walked away.
“I thought to myself this is really bad news or really good news,” said Madisyn Stauffer, Saalfrank’s girlfriend, recalling that Sept. 3 phone call.
But when Saalfrank walked back into the kitchen with his eyes slightly gleaming, Stauffer got chills.
Turns out, Lalli had called to let Saalfrank, a relief pitcher, know he was moving up to the big leagues and joining the Diamondbacks as they embarked on a push for the postseason.
But supporting a partner through a World Series run is not always glitz and glamor. Saalfrank’s bump to the major leagues meant Stauffer had to become quickly acquainted with the 12-hour drive from Reno, Nevada, to Phoenix.
A long road to the big leagues
Long drives are not abnormal for Stauffer. Saalfrank underwent Tommy John surgery in 2021, causing him to miss the entire season and prompting Stauffer to begin traveling with him full time once he was healthy.
“I’ll do anything for him to live his dream and I will always stand by that,” Stauffer said.
After Saalfrank and Stauffer’s first full year traveling together, Saalfrank was promoted in 2022 from the Hillsboro Hops in Hillsboro, Oregon, to Amarillo, Texas, to begin playing for the Sod Poodles, Arizona’s Double-A affiliate.
Because the couple has two cars, Stauffer had to drive one vehicle 24 hours with a stop in Salt Lake City at the 12-hour mark. She had breakfast with Saalfrank, flew back to Oregon to get the second car and their dog, then made the same 24-hour voyage back to Texas.
It was all in a day’s work for the other half of this team. While the athletes get the fame and glory, along with the criticism and injuries, it’s often their partners and families doing the gritty work away from the limelight.
“It was really exhausting because it was 48 hours of driving in a span of four to five days, and you’re doing it all alone and you’re staying in a hotel alone,” Stauffer said.
After Saalfrank’s promotion from Texas to the Reno Aces, Stauffer packed her bags again and drove 18 hours to Nevada.
“It’s hard because you’re seeing your person live their dream, and you’re doing the behind-the-scenes work,” Stauffer said. “They don’t have to drive the car or they don’t have to make sure the dog gets to the sitter. They don’t have to make sure I’m on call for my remote job at the time for a meeting and have to stop the car while I’m driving.”
Similar battles across leagues
Courtney Robinson, the girlfriend of Cleveland Guardians outfielder Pres Cavenaugh, echoes Stauffer’s sentiments, especially when it comes to the abrupt travel arrangements that put a stop to long-term planning. Cavenaugh completed his first year of major league spring training before the 2023 season started, one full minor league season and is currently in his second fall camp.
“With spring training, (Cavenaugh) found out 24 hours before it was time to go where exactly he was going to be going,” Robinson said. “The entirety of spring training I was trying to book flights to see him play and I am a person that likes to plan, and all he could tell me is he does not know and it was the truth.”
Social media, Stauffer said, is a highlight reel designed to showcase the appeal of life as a professional athlete. Outsiders looking in see the matching team apparel, with graphic T-shirts with their loved one’s face and Diamondbacks in big bedazzled letters. But she says most observers do not know “the life” that comes with being in a relationship with a baseball player unless they inquire.
During the current World Series between Arizona and Texas, Rangers shortstop Josh Smith and his wife Claire Couvsmith have been candid on social media about their experience. As Couvsmith increases her transparency about her life, she has even garnered more social media followers than Smith.
Couvsmith has 66,500 followers on Instagram and averages thousands of views on her content.
Stauffer ensures under no circumstances would she want a pity party or to trade her current lifestyle for anything. But similar to anything else, it comes with highs and lows.
Despite the Rangers winning in the World Series, 4-1, the days and nights leading up to Wednesday’s ending of the season certainly qualified as a high.
“I can be in the background and see his dreams unfolding and see how special the moment is for him,” Stauffer said. “He’s a very low-key person and does not show emotion too much but seeing him flourish in this new environment has been really exciting.
“They know and appreciate you doing the work but sometimes they don’t know how mentally hard it is on you.”
Different forms of companions
Stauffer and Robinson explained fostering healthy relationships with other women in the organization is the key to feeling supported. Cavenaugh’s roommate, Guardians outfielder Guy Lipscomb, and his girlfriend Natalie Young, for example, recently left the Valley after visiting Robinson over the weekend to celebrate Cavenaugh’s birthday.
“You really just need one friend that you can be friends with, then the next season you gain another girl, then another girl,” Stauffer said. “Then you begin to look out when you meet someone else that is new and you add them to your group and conversations. That’s how I’ve gotten through, I’ve always been a big talker, so I talk to the girls and ask their opinions. That’s how you survive in this industry.”
For Stauffer, Diamondbacks pitcher Bryce Jarvis’ girlfriend Leah Withrow is her go-to pal. She’s someone who understands the intricacies of being an athlete’s partner or spouse.
“It can be really overwhelming,” Withrow said. “There’s a lot of moving pieces. It really helps to have a friend that has been there and can help you navigate going through this. She’s been my closest friend as we watch our guys. I can really lean on her when times are hard. I have really good friends at home, but no one understands this life unless you’re living it.”
Stauffer and Withrow look forward to their coffee debriefs, where they can vent and talk before heading to the ballpark. Stauffer also thinks her friendship has been able to flourish with Withrow since they are both “tomboys.”
Comfort has come in different forms for Stauffer. Donna Kay, the wife of Diamondbacks assistant pitching coach Dan Carlson, instantly eased Stauffer’s nerves during her first days in the new group of spouses after Saalfrank was called up to the big leagues.
“(Kay) was this light just radiating,” Stauffer said. “She told me they love Andrew and love how calm he is and her boys love him. She said she’s so happy to have me and then she told me that I radiate so much light and she’s an older figure in my life, and I have always been taught to respect those that have come before me. She is such a wealth of knowledge.”
Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo’s wife Kristen is another maternal figure who has helped Stauffer transition. The first lady of the Diamondbacks carries around what Stauffer describes as the “Mary Poppins purse,” which contains everything a woman might need.
Stauffer appreciates there is an overarching theme of unity throughout the organization to ensure no one is left behind. She sees it through the coordination of taking one large charter flight with the families and big breakfasts together on game days.
“The Diamondbacks have been so generous with the way they treat their players’ girlfriends, wives and families,” Stauffer said. “I can’t even begin to explain how thankful I am.”
Stauffer’s favorite memory of this year’s postseason journey came when the Diamondbacks won their series against the Dodgers. Another magical moment occurred during the trip to the team hotel in Philadelphia following a victory against the Phillies, when she said the families played music together the entire way.
“You sit there and you think to yourself if this is real life or not,” Staffuer said. “You ask yourself if this is really happening to you. I sat there and really looked around like, ‘I am on this bus with these random strangers that I didn’t know a month ago.’ We’re really getting a police escort through Philly while we’re getting flicked off on the side of the road.”
Being an MLB superwoman
The women have different approaches to how they choose to maintain their own careers and day-to-day lives.
After playing soccer for two years at Southwestern Illinois College, Stauffer transferred to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she worked in social media and statistics for various sports. To travel with Saalfrank full time, she has to put the brakes on her aspirations to work in athletic public relations or social media.
Once the couple is in a stable location, Stauffer plans to revisit and pursue her long-term career goals.
“You never know how long they will be able to do this,” Stauffer said. “I always tell people to travel with them for one year and if it’s not for you, you don’t have to do it. But for me, it is something for me.”
Robinson has decided to pursue her dreams of being a chief communications officer or vice president of public relations at a sports team while also serving the role of Cavenaugh’s No. 1 fan.
“Our relationship automatically started on, ‘We are going to support each other in everything we do, so that we can be the best versions of ourselves,’” Robinson said. “You can chase your dreams and, in the same breath, I know he is always going to support my dreams.”
Robinson does admit that sometimes she has a fear of missing out while she is away.
“It took me a while to be all right with streaming the games on MiLB.com from thousands of miles away because when there’s big moments, I want to be there in person and rightfully so,” Robinson said.
Major misconceptions in the majors
Some of the misconceptions that come with dating a professional athlete include outsiders believing the players’ money is also the girlfriends’ or wives’ money. Stauffer said she’s not the one on the field for games or practices earning Saalfrank’s $720,000 salary. Instead, she has taken on being a fitness coach at Orangetheory Fitness studios and bartending in cities of their minor league stops.
“I think another misconception is that people think this life is all rainbows, smiles and butterflies,” Stauffer said. “They don’t realize that at any time you can get sent down to the minor leagues. You just never know the next steps.”
Stauffer also mentions one of the downsides is not being able to see family often, but it gives her and Saalfrank a chance to create their own family traditions with intention due to their limited time together.
On game days, Saalfrank is often at the field for a total of eight hours before first pitch, during the game and after the game. The couple values the time they get to be together at night and try to join forces to combat the difficulties of changing time zones.
Robinson and Cavenaugh as well as Stauffer and Saalfrank enjoy trying new restaurants in different cities through recommendations, sometimes via Uber drivers.
“I think we really connect over things that may seem pretty small to other people but in terms of spending time together, in this busy lifestyle, we really cherish all the small things,” Stauffer said.
From the simple trips to Target to the uplifting phone conversations when one may feel underappreciated, the memories are worth around the $440,000 each player on the winning World Series team is projected to receive.
But while the perks are nice, it’s the intangibles that make all the lonely car rides and last–minute travel snafus worth it. One snapshot from the final moments of the NLCS Game 7 in Philadelphia will forever shine in the memories of the partners and families who often live and work in baseball’s shadows.
“As soon as Corbin Carroll caught the ball in right field, we all jumped up and hugged the person next to us and we don’t even know each other’s names and you don’t even know what relation they are to the player, but at that moment you don’t even care,” Robinson said. “You’re going to hug that stranger. You’re going to cry with that stranger. My boyfriend and my family are going to the World Series.
“You just think, Wow, this is so surreal.’”