The majority of minor leaguers are on their own and living far below the poverty line; Where is their help in this COVID-19 crisis?

Catcher Alejandro Flores #47 chats with Seth Romero #40 before his first Hagerstown Suns appearance. (TalkNats photo)

We all know the kids in camp who we used to call back in the day “bonus babies” because they just signed for big bucks. Most minor leaguers live on wages below the poverty line, and no, this is not a new problem. It has always been the “haves” and the “have-nots” in baseball and in life. On June 18, 1953, a promising teenage high school kid from Maryland, Al Kaline, was signed a day after he had graduated and Detroit gave him $15,000 as a bonus and a guaranteed $20,000 in salary over three years. Back then, that was a ton of money. Today, you have players in the Washington Nationals minor league system like Yasel Antuna, who signed for $3.9 million, Seth Romero (pictured above) signed for $2.8 million in the first round three years ago; and last year’s first round pick Jackson Rutledge got $3.45 million. Those are not the starving players in the minor league system who must rely on host families for a bed and handouts to get by. But most of their minor league teammates have no money coming in, and they are kind of forgotten in this COVID-19 crisis unless teams come up with a plan. That is our wish for today.

“You don’t really talk about that [bonus and money] stuff with each other. It’s just baseball,” said Joe Gillette, Diamondbacks’ 36th round pick in the 2018 draft who signed for $2,500. “On the field it doesn’t matter how much you signed for.”

We did some rough math, taking the 40-man roster players who are receiving checks according to the MLBPA of $1,100 per week or roughly $4,400 per month as we try to figure out how many kids there really are who are struggling in the minor leagues. With 26 players at each level of pre-A, Low-A, High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A, that is 130 players less 14 who are on the 40-man roster equals 116 players who could be receiving nothing from most teams. Of those 116 players, at least 16 in every organization are in that “bonus baby” category, and a few others at that Triple-A level have big league experience and have made a decent living, but for argument’s sake let’s say 100 kids in the minor leagues are below that poverty level. That is probably on the high side depending on the team.

We reached out to several minor leaguers in this category who are not on the 40-man roster. While there is no formal plan in place other than teams continuing to pay spring training stipends, a source told us that at least within the Nationals organization that they plan on getting financial assistance to their players who have been living on per-diems during spring training and have not seen an actual paycheck since September. This was a response from a player we know on an American League team who wanted to remain anonymous for this interview:

“So far, [our team] has done nothing [financially] that I know of for the [players not in big league camp],” a minor leaguer told us. “Sent everyone home. Only certain people rehabbing or Arizona residents can stay and workout in Arizona at [our team] complex. Limited times, limited numbers. No ‘Training’ from staff while on-site. They have provided at-home work-out materials.”

While this player says he will be fine since he was a high draft pick and got a nice bonus, he is once again living off of his savings with no money coming in. Time in the gym and eating right and paying for housing and car insurance all costs money. Some host families have welcomed players back with open arms while maintaining “social distancing” and this is to help out those players in need.

While teams pledged $1 million for stadium personnel, the gesture was certainly received well, but keep in mind that some of the recipients of those funds will be part-time workers who have other jobs, some are retired workers with some other income, and, yes, some are unemployed people who would make this their only job. Keep in mind that the gameday staff in home stadiums had not even started those stadium jobs because the season had not started. Again, great job by MLB owners to help out here.

“Our gameday staff is part of our family and we want to make sure that we take care of them and support them during these challenging economic times,” Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick said in a statement. “When times are tough, that is when organizations like ours need to step up, and I’m proud of all 30 teams who are motivated by a desire to help others in our baseball community.”

But where is the fund for the minor leaguers? They could use even a portion of that $1,100 a week that the MLBPA union is promising to pay to their members on the 40-man roster. A minor leaguer could use that money a lot more than a Max Scherzer, and he has earned over $200 million in his career. Don’t take this the wrong way, the Scherzer family is very charitable. Yesterday, Sean Doolittle announced that he and his wife are giving back in a big way during this crisis. And we get it, players give and do as they feel appropriate.  Once a national emergency was invoked by the President on March 13th and any game not played as a result would mean under current rules of the CBA that players would not be paid for that pro rata share of their salary unless a new agreement supersedes that. It is the player’s union that has done their part during a shutdown to take care of its active players who paid their union dues, but it falls short because even some former MLB players like Emilio Bonifacio who paid dues for years won’t be eligible for that $1,100 per week because he is not on the current 40-man roster and did not complete the 2019 season on a big league roster. Don’t worry, Bonifacio has made over $15 million in his career.

“We were fortunate to attend spring training just before players were sent home,” Brandon Ramsey who has been a host family for the Nats’ Harrisburg Double-A players told us. “Minor leaguers had just arrived and were sent home a short time later. No one reported to Harrisburg. They were all sent back to their offseason homes.”

Luis Garcia lived with us for the entire season last year, and I spent some time with him in Florida when we were there. He wasn’t sure where he would end up, but did ask if he could come back to our house. The players try to line things up early to be prepared.”

“We have hosted Dominicans for the past 5 years, and now they usually will reach out with referrals to the new guys coming up that they played Single-A with to help them find a place. Some players end up not getting a host family and are forced to find a place to stay after the 3 nights the team will pay for at the hotel once they first get into town. This will hopefully be our eighth year housing players. The idea was to try and help players that were not making much money so they had a place to stay.”

Giving those minor leaguers just $500 per week would only cost a team approximately $232,000 a month for those 116 kids. The full cost if this season was not played would be about $1.27 million to get these players through the end of August. Some would say, “this is more than those players in A-ball are making now,” and the answer would be that is true and a debate for another day on the pay for minor leaguers. Some would say the theory is that the minor leagues want to keep you humble and hungry so you strive to get ahead. The big leagues is the payback and you never want to go back.

“I think for a long time we’ve had this idea in baseball that you have to put in your time.,” Mike Yastrzemski said. “To an extent that may be true, but we need to make sure that everybody has an opportunity to make themselves better. I think it’s really hard to be focused on other things in the offseason when guys have a significant advantage because they don’t have to go work 30 hours a week or 40 hours a week to try and keep up just with regular life.”

Starting next year, minor leaguers at rookie and short-season levels will see their minimum weekly pay increased from $290 to $400, and players at Single-A will go from $290 to $500. Double-A will bump from $350 to $600, and Triple-A from $502 to $700, and those are for players not on the 40-man rosters. Below is a tweet from Justin Verlander‘s brother, Ben, on the new pay scale.

Keep in mind that minor leaguers are paid only during their season and don’t receive wages during the offseason and they only receive per diem stipends during spring training. The formula on the stipends starts at a mandated minimum of $25 per day, and most teams pay much more than that with options for housing and meal plans. They cannot apply for unemployment insurance during this shutdown because they are technically still under contract. Many work in the off-season doing youth baseball instruction at batting cages, driving for UBER, and as day-workers in the construction industry. But not all will be able to find jobs in these most difficult times. During the season, most minor leaguers live with host families. Now, who knows where these young men will find housing.

“All we do is provide a bed and a place to shower,” a Nats’ Hagerstown Single-A host family participant Brian Campbell told us. “The players pay for most of their own food, etc. There are some host families that don’t see the players too much. But we make it a family environment and it turns into dinners together etc.”

A great host family can make all the difference for young players, and in the Nats minor league system they are fortunate to have host families like Ramsey and Campbell provide. The minor league season runs from mid-April to the end of August for Single-A to Triple-A. Was the pay raise for 2021 a way to get politicians like Bernie Sanders off of MLB? Who knows, and it is a small step in the right direction for 2021 which feels like a long ways away now. There of course is the proposal to reduce the size of the minor leagues.

“Obviously there is a way to pay people more without reducing the number of franchises,” commissioner Rob Manfred said. “I think the question there becomes who should bear all of the costs associated with the player-related improvements that we think need to be made in the minor league system.”

While all of that is great for next year, what about now? Of course there could be other teams out there that have reached out to their minor leaguers with a plan. If so, let us know.

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