Charlotte Stone Crabs pitcher Jack Labosky and his girlfriend turn to tiny house lifestyle, aboard the J&M Express

PORT CHARLOTTE — Baseball pitching prospect Jack Labosky knows there’s a long road ahead to make it to the big leagues, but he will be traveling in style.

The 23-year-old Duke graduate and his girlfriend, Madi Hiatt, bought a 1999 International school bus and converted it into their home on wheels.

The minor league Charlotte Stone Crabs right-handed pitcher figured that investing $14,000 to $15,000 into the project would pay for itself in rent savings in about a year. The couple used Labosky’s signing bonus to buy the yellow school bus for $4,000 from a Christian school in Lynchburg, Va.

Labosky and Hiatt, with help from family members, finished what’s called a “skoolie” conversion to join the tiny home living trend.

They hired someone to paint the bus white. The couple, who met in high school in California, removed the stop sign and crossing guard arm on the driver’s side. The flashing yellow and red lights still work, but Labosky said he’s not allowed to use them.

After gutting the bench seats, they studied online tutorials to reconfigure the interior with a bed at the back, a bathroom and a kitchen/living area near the front. How many trips did they make to home improvement stores?

“Too many,” Labosky said. “We spent a good amount of money at Home Depot and Lowe’s.”

The 22-foot-long space has about 140 square feet of living space. The bus is cozy with Hiatt’s decorator touches, like the green curtains, a bedspread made from Labosky’s baseball jerseys over the years and a map showing their journey to this point.

“We had a small apartment to start off, so it's not like we lost much space,” Labosky said. “It's got everything I could want. It's got a full kitchen, it's got a comfortable bed. It's pretty much all I need in there. Madi's been happy with it, too. It's been more comfortable than we first assumed.”

They drove the 35-foot-long bus down to Port Charlotte after Labosky finished extended spring training.

The J&M Express taps into a tiny house movement that boomed after the housing crisis in 2008 and has gained popularity in shows like “Tiny House Hunters” on HGTV. Living in a smaller home appeals to millennials who want to reduce costs and leave a smaller environmental footprint.

Statistics show that 89% of tiny house dwellers have less credit card debt and 68% have no mortgage, according to the Tiny House Society.

Economic realities

With lower minor league teams like Class A Charlotte, most players make about $1,100 a month before taxes and clubhouse dues. That leaves little for living expenses.

At the highest AAA level, players average $10,000 a month for the five-month season. And it’s a far cry from the $555,000 annual minimum pay at the Major League level. This year, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado both signed long-term free agent deals for over $300 million. MLB players average $4 million per year, according to a recent NPR story.

The minors pay is so low that a former player filed suit to force MLB owners to increase salaries. In 2019, the Toronto Blue Jays voluntarily raised the pay of players in the minor leagues by 50% but other teams did not follow suit, according to USA Today.

The lawsuit failed to gain traction when Congress passed “Save America’s Pastime Act,” which stripped players of the protection of federal minimum wage requirements, the newspaper reported.

Most gladly accept the low pay for a chance to play at the highest level. They face long odds as only one in 200 minor league players makes it to the big leagues.

All aboard

Labosky, who is 6-foot-3, barely fits inside with the top of his baseball cap nearly scraping the ceiling. He has to sit on a stool to shower in the “bathtub,” a galvanized metal horse trough that they bought for $100 at an agricultural supply store.

The air conditioner is mounted where the emergency escape once was, and it keeps the interior at a cool 66 degrees when the bus is connected to power.

Hiatt, who coaches cross country at nearby Port Charlotte High, documented the conversion on Instagram to allow their family to keep up with the progress. But after a national story on the “J&M Express” in the spring, The Great Bus Adventure took off on Instagram.

“It kind of blew up from there,” Hiatt said of the account that has over 6,600 followers. “I like it. I like to show it off. Jack did most of it. He did it in 90 days.”

One photo shows Labosky sitting outside the bus in a recliner at a Florida campground.

“If you listen closely to the sounds, it is like we are on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride,” Jack posted.

Labosky, a relief pitcher, has a 2.56 ERA this year with the Stone Crabs. If his journey to the majors stays on track, they would be driving the J&M Express up to the Class AA Montgomery Biscuits and then to the Class AAA Durham Bulls. The next step would be on to the big leagues for the Tampa Bay Rays.

The young couple is tackling their Great Bus Adventure with enthusiasm.

“It's our home now, so it comes wherever we go,” Labosky said. “I’m pretty proud of it.”

Vicki Dean is a freelance based in Venice.

This story originally published to heraldtribune.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the GateHouse Media network via the Florida Wire. The Florida Wire, which runs across digital, print and video platforms, curates and distributes Florida-focused stories. For more Florida stories, visit here, and to support local media throughout the state of Florida, consider subscribing to your local paper.