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As Major League Baseball has started the 2020 season, thousands of minor league players are left at home watching, hungry to throw on a uniform, lace up their cleats and step out onto the diamond.
The minor league season was officially canceled on June 30 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing layoffs, pay cuts and the unfamiliar feeling of a summer without baseball for guys who haven’t spent this time of year doing anything else since they were young teenagers.
“I've been watching a few of these summer camp games and it makes me feel pretty sad, honestly,” Mitch Horacek, a pitcher for the Double-A Pensacola Blue Wahoos in the Minnesota Twins organization, told Yahoo Sports. “Every minor league baseball player put tons of [unpaid] time and effort, you know blood, sweat, tears, so to speak, into preparing for the season through the offseason. To basically have it all for naught this year really sucks.”
After five seasons of earning less than $10,000, Horacek had finally negotiated a free agent contract for a livable salary heading into the 2020 season. All of those years of surviving on the bare minimum since his first year in the minors in 2013, sharing small apartments with multiple teammates and working offseason jobs were finally paying off — or so it seemed.
Once spring training was suspended, so was his new salary. The Twins were one of the first teams to pledge to pay their minor league players a $400 stipend each month, but that was well under what he was supposed to be making.
"It was extremely frustrating to see that evaporate with the pandemic," Horacek said. "I have a contract that is signed and executed by myself and by the Twins, and it's been very frustrating through this whole thing not being paid what that contract says, and also at the same time being expected, at least during the earlier parts of the pandemic, being expected to keep performing and ‘stay ready’ for when the season did resume.”
How minor leaguers are staying afloat without baseball
Even during a typical year, most minor league players struggle to make ends meet. The minimum weekly pay at rookie, short-season and Class A levels is $290 a week. Players at the Double-A level have a minimum of $350, while Triple-A is at $502 per week. On top of the low salary, no one is paid during the offseason or spring training. In 2018, the average player salary was $6,000 in Single-A, $9,350 in Double-A and $15,000 in Triple-A, according to The Athletic.
Add a global pandemic into the mix, and staying afloat becomes even more of a challenge.
Last offseason, Horacek taught himself to code with a focus on web development in an effort to diversify his skillset and earn some extra income making websites for companies. It only started as a few clients, but with the added financial strain this summer he joined forces with Anthony Shew, a pitcher for the Double-A Springfield Cardinals in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, to start their own business, In the Zone Development. Horacek is in charge of client outreach and design, while Shew handles most of the advanced coding.
Ivan Pelaez, a pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays Double-A affiliate Montgomery Biscuits, started panicking as soon as he was told in a meeting that spring training was canceled and everyone was being sent home. It was unclear if players would be paid at the time; and even after being told he’d be receiving $400 a week, he knew that wouldn’t be enough to pay bills and put food on the table for his two sons.
He says he immediately went into “father mode” in search of part-time employment, eventually getting hired at Home Depot with the help of a family member’s connection. Since then, he’s had to learn a whole new skillset, including how to use a sawing drill to cut plywood and two-by-fours. Pelaez’s coworkers have no idea that he’s a professional baseball player, let alone that this is the only job he’s ever had outside of the sport.
“It's definitely tough, but we're all getting through it, and I’m grateful to [the Rays] for even paying us,” he said. “It's definitely challenging and I'm just looking forward to next year.”
What happens when you lose your job?
While there is a clear sense of frustration, players like Horacek and Pelaez are grateful to still have a job; many other minor leaguers can’t say the same. Over 1,000 players were released through July 9, per a calculation from Baseball America’s database.
Hamlet Marte, a catcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Double-A affiliate Tulsa Drillers, and Brandon Van Horn, a shortstop for the Double-A Richmond Flying Squirrels under the San Francisco Giants, were two of the many let go.
Marte, a native of the Dominican Republic who’s played in the minors since 2011, was on a one-year contract for the 2020 season. He got the call from his team on June 27: The organization didn’t have plans for him for the following season and he was being released, his monthly stipend and benefits cut off.
“It was tough especially for me. I supply for my family pretty much everything, and I lose that money from my contract,” Marte said. “It was hard at the moment, but the show’s gotta continue and I'm still getting ready, waiting for a call.”
Marte, 26, went back to the Dominican Republic with his wife and 2-year-old daughter when camp was suspended, and he’s been training for the fall league there with the hopes of another chance at a contract for the 2021 season. While it’s certainly been a strain on his family, he says he was fortunate enough to invest and save money over the years, which has helped them get by.
Van Horn, 26, felt like he was in the best shape of his career heading into camp. He spent the offseason making major adjustments to his game and working with a hitting coach from the Los Angeles Angels who lived nearby in Boise, Idaho.
Once camp was canceled, he moved to his girlfriend’s family’s farm in Washington, where he was able to turn a barn into a gym. He worked out daily, also using a neighbor’s batting cage, to stay ready with the hopes that the season would resume.
Van Horn proposed to his girlfriend on May 11, but a week later the Giants called to say that he was going to be released if the season was canceled. He’s continued his training since, but it isn’t the same as competing on the field.
“I still dream about [playing baseball] every single day,” Van Horn said. “You just gotta hope that the right situation comes along, which I think is the hardest thing about it. … I would say it gets easier, but it's definitely at least a couple times a day you think about it.”
Welcome to the show … now there’s no baseball
Though they aren’t dealing with the same financial struggles, newly drafted players have been through quite the whirlwind of their own over the past several months, starting with the cancelation of the collegiate and high school baseball seasons all over the country.
Pitcher Christian Roa, who was selected 48th overall by the Cincinnati Reds in the 2020 MLB draft, was eating a meal and watching ESPN with his teammates in Texas A&M’s locker room before they loaded the bus en route to a road series at Auburn when everything started to unfold. News flashed across the screen that the NAIA basketball tournament was canceled, and the station announced the same for the NCAA basketball tournaments 15 minutes later. They found out shortly after that several conferences were suspending spring seasons.
The team waited anxiously as all the coaches gathered for a meeting. By the time they came back an hour later, it was well past the time of the Aggies’ flight. Players were initially told that the season was being held off until April, but by the next day the College World Series was wiped away and the 2020 season was over.
“It was definitely a time of a lot of emotion,” Roa said. “I remember just kind of obviously being upset with our season ending so soon, having such a great team and being on such a great run. You feel like there's so much we could have achieved, so many games we could have gone out there and won.”
At the time, the MLB draft wasn’t even on Roa’s mind. And once he decided to forgo his senior season, uncertainty surrounding the draft set in. Players had no idea how workouts, the combine and meetings with organizations would be handled, though after some time it became clear that everything would be virtual with the draft shortened to five rounds instead of the usual 40.
Roa wasn’t too worried about the change, but the same couldn’t be said for prospects projected as later picks.
Anthony Walters, a shortstop from San Diego State, was concerned by the reduction but tried not to get down on himself about his chances of getting selected. He’d already fought a lot of adversity in his college career, so this was nothing new.
He played his freshman season at Cal, but transferred to junior college at Mt. San Antonio College because his family couldn’t afford on-campus housing, which wasn’t included in his scholarship. After earning a scholarship with the Aztecs, Walters suffered an ACL tear in 2019 that kept him out a season. And just 16 games in, his 2020 season was cut short.
While Walters kept his hopes up, he wasn’t expecting to be selected 91st overall by the Mets in the third round; so much so that the most important phone call of his career came in the car on his way home from family friend Isaiah Greene’s draft party. He and his family rushed home just in time to hear his name announced.
"It didn't really sink in,” he said. “We were kind of like, 'No way. That's not real.’”
Despite being picked as high as he was, the Mets only offered a $20,000 signing bonus — the same amount allotted to undrafted free agents. But Walters said the money wasn’t a concern; he was just grateful to sign with an organization and continue playing the sport he loves.
Just a few weeks after their draft nights, players had their first season of professional baseball canceled and were left to transition into their new organizations virtually.
Petey Halpin, a third-round pick for the Cleveland Indians out of Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, California, has tried to keep a positive mindset and look at the situation as an extra year to just get bigger, stronger and better.
He practices on a hitting machine, stretches and does outfield work six days a week so he’ll be ready if he were to be called up by Cleveland. The Indians have also held a lot of Zoom calls that’ve made his adjustment to the team feel less distant. The meetings range from a foundations program to teach players about what the organization stands for, to discussions on learning the mental side of the game, to fine-tuning his mobility in an instructional session.
Still, it’s definitely not what he envisioned for his first year of pro baseball.
“I really want to get back on the field,” Halpin said. “I feel like there's almost a part of me that's missing without playing baseball for such a long period of time.”
The ripple effect of no minor league baseball
The season’s cancelation, complete with the waves of released players and reduced or nonexistent salaries, has brought many of the issues surrounding minor league baseball into the spotlight.
While the Major League Baseball Players Association was in negotiations with MLB to reach an agreement on the specific details regarding the season’s resumption and impact on players’ salaries, minor leaguers don’t have a union.
“When something like this hits, groups of workers that don't have representation, they just get eaten alive,” said Garrett Broshuis, founder and president of Advocates for Minor Leaguers. “That's what you're seeing here. In a lot of ways, the minor league players have just been ignored.”
The organization has heard from hundreds of players that are struggling financially. Broshuis and his staff have assisted them in the process of applying for unemployment benefits, but many have been unable to qualify due to laws in their prospective states.
More Than Baseball, a group launched in 2018 to connect minor leaguers with resources for housing, equipment, nutrition and more, launched several initiatives in an effort to assist the vast number of players affected by the cancelation.
The organization first worked with another group, Adopt a Minor Leaguer, to raise money to help players afford groceries. They sent over $10,000 to players, who were able to send in their receipts and have their food expenses reimbursed.
St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright then donated $250,000 to launch an assistance program for his organization’s minor league players. Over 200 players received grants as a result, with the average grant over $1,000.
And after seeing how much that helped, the organization launched the same thing league-wide and distributed over 1,200 more grants, whose recipients are chosen based on an assessment of financial situations for a player and their family. The program distributed over $500,000, but More Than Baseball’s president and director of personnel, Simon Rosenblum-Larson, recognizes there are still a lot of players in tough situations.
“There's some players who are in tough spots,” Rosenblum-Larson said. “There are a lot of guys who have no idea when they'll get to get on a field again … there's no guarantees about next year either. So we've really tried to be a support network for players, and we've been doing everything in our power to provide direct assistance as well as the general suite of programs that we have available to guys.”
As tumultuous as the last several months have been for these players, much more unknowns lie ahead with the future of the minor leagues hanging in the balance.
MLB issued a proposal to cut the number of minor league teams from 160 to 120 last fall, and the league has been trying to reach an agreement with MiLB on the matter since. The financial losses many teams are suffering due to the season’s cancelation are expected to have a significant impact on whether many will have the means to operate in 2021.
“There's no understanding of what the minor leagues are gonna look like next year. There might be half as many minor league jobs available to guys next year as there were this year,” Rosenblum-Larson said. “You're seeing this uncertainty amongst players. ... It really is that sort of deep-seated fear of like, 'I'm not going to have a job. There's no place for me next year.'”
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