In A Pandemic, The Paupers Of Professional Baseball Are Getting Help
You won't hear a lot of sympathy these days for professional athletes who can't play their games because of the coronavirus outbreak. Technically, they're out of work. But most are also getting paid handsomely, although not as handsomely as they usually are.
Major League Baseball players will be OK after the pandemic prompted a recent agreement between the players union and owners.
Surprisingly, Minor League players will be relatively OK, too.
All kinds of help
Minor Leaguers are the paupers of major professional team sports in this country, many making below poverty wages of around $7,500 a year. They are paid only during their season and when the outbreak delayed this season, the situation appeared as dire as it is for millions of Americans who're suddenly without income.
"I've talked to multiple minor league players who are driving for DoorDash, because [food delivery] is the one thing our economy has right now," says Garrett Broshuis, a former minor leaguer who's a lawyer representing minor league players in a six-year-old lawsuit. "But by doing that, they're putting themselves at great risk of contracting this virus as well. At the same time they're supposed to be staying in game shape because they could be called back to spring training sites at a moment's notice and they're expected to be able to jump right in to an abbreviated spring training and be ready to play."
But now, thousands of low-paid minor leaguers are getting all kinds of help.
Major League Baseball pays minor league salaries and has lobbied to keep those salaries depressed. But recently, MLB announced it'll provide financial support for minor league players through May 31 or until the beginning of the minor league season, whichever happens first. The season was scheduled to start April 9. The support includes medical benefits.
"It's a really generous move by MLB," says Simon Rosenblum-Larson, a 23-year-old pitcher in the Tampa Bay Rays minor league system. "[The $400 per week stipend to minor league players] is a pay raise for 70% of minor leaguers. It's much more than I've ever made in pro baseball and I've played at three different levels."
Rosenblum-Larson says 90% of the players he talks to say the money will go almost exclusively to paying for things that will make them better baseball players. He calls the stipend a player development move by MLB.
"It's going to help their players stay in shape better, eat better, train better," he says.
Rosenblum-Larson says he used a separate stipend he got from the Rays to build a wooden piece of weightlifting equipment, and to pay for groceries. He's staying with his aunt and uncle in Wisconsin during the outbreak.
"I would've felt really guilty staying with them and eating their food without chipping in," he says.
I can help
Individual major leaguers also have made contributions.
Texas Rangers outfielder Shin-Soo Choo announced he's giving the 190 players in the team's minor league system $1000 each.
"I will never forget the minor leagues," he said when he announced the donation. "Every day, I had to make a schedule of meals. I had to plan things out. I don't want players to have to do the same thing. I don't want them to have to worry about these kinds of things. People are really having a tough time. I can help. I can help people because of baseball and I want to give back."
Adam Wainwright, a veteran St. Louis pitcher, and his wife, donated $250,000 to Cardinals minor leaguers. And the Colorado Rockies' Daniel Murphy donated $100,000 to a general fund for minor league players.
Wainwright and Murphy made their donations through the nonprofit More Than Baseball. The group's executive director, Jeremy Wolf, says the organization was built to help every minor league player on their journey to the big leagues — offering services ranging from providing equipment to career assistance to financial guidance.
But in the midst of the pandemic, Wolf says it's been all about helping minor leaguers afford housing and food.
"We weren't expecting a thousand players to sign up for our services within the month of March," Wolf says. "We were anticipating 200 to 300."
Minor league pitcher Rosenblum-Larson also serves as president and director of Player Personnel for More Than Baseball.
"We're proud of helping guys through this time," he says, adding, "We gave away grocery reimbursements to over 100 players. Gave away close to $8,000. They sent us receipts, we sent them money."
More to do
Despite the outpouring of support, those working on behalf of minor leaguers understand it's temporary. With bigger financial issues still to confront.
"Sure [minor league players] might make $2,000 or $2,200 a month between [the donations of] More Than Baseball and Major League Baseball," says Wolf, "but spread that out over a year, and it's still well below poverty level. It's not sustaining as a real 12 month-a-year job."
"We hope players get $24,000 a year. That's $2,000 a month for 12 months. That's what we want."
Attorney Garrett Broshuis is more moderate in his demand, but just as adamant. His newly started group, Advocates for Minor Leaguers, is circulating a petition calling for $15,000 a year – double the current salary of most minor leaguers.
"We're saying surely MLB, with its $10.7 billion in revenue, can pay a minimum of just $15,000 per season for their minor league players," Broshuis says. "Basically what a full-time minimum wage earner makes in this country."
Broshuis's group says minor leaguers, who aren't unionized, need representation. Especially with the pandemic threatening to alter the nature of the minor leagues.
The recent agreement between Major League players and owners allows for greatly reduced amateur player drafts over the next two years. From 40 rounds to five rounds this year; possibly 20 rounds next year.
Meaning many fewer players entering the minor league system.
"I fear there's going to be a shrinkage in Minor League baseball," says Simon Rosenblum-Larson. "I think there are guys who might be really deserving that don't get a chance to play. And a lot of guys who would've been lower round picks, and ended up a big leaguer and a very good one. Like [Hall of Fame catcher] Mike Piazza [taken in 62nd round of the 1988 draft] or [Hall of Fame infielder] Ryne Sandberg [taken in 20th round of the 1978 draft]. Those kinds of guys might not get an opportunity in the next couple of years."
With fewer minor leaguers in the system, might that mean fewer teams and the possible contraction Major League baseball has proposed? There is talk that the current shutdown may make contraction more viable – not just with the fewer minor league players, but also because minor league teams are highly dependent on the attendance that isn't there right now.
There are issues still to be determined. For now, minor leaguers are getting the support they rarely have, and hope to keep getting, when baseball, and normal life, resume.