They were going home.
“You’re not shocked, because you had heard the rumors, but we were definitely scared,” said one player who was in the meeting. “We now have no clue when our next paycheck is going to come.”
Baseball’s response to the novel coronavirus pandemic is still evolving. First, Major League Baseball limited who could be in the clubhouse, removing media and any nonessential personnel. Next, it canceled the remaining exhibition games and delayed the start of the regular season by at least two weeks. Then, on Friday, a joint memo from MLB and the MLB Players Association gave players three options: Stay in their club’s spring training facility, go to their club’s home city or go to their offseason residence.
But minor league players were not given the same choices. Baseball America reported that the Tampa Bay Rays, Detroit Tigers, New York Mets, Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, San Diego Padres, St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins will continue paying minor leaguers spring training stipends and meal allowances. Many other players were sent home without pay or any promise of weekly stipends, which were supposed to get them through the next few weeks, according to interviews with players, agents and executives and a handful of media reports. The minor league regular season was scheduled to start April 9 — a date that could get pushed back by a few months — and the players won’t get paid until games begin.
They cannot apply for unemployment assistance because of their agreements with MLB. They will have trouble finding jobs, a few players noted, because they could have to pick up and leave in a week. Yet without a union, they have no negotiating power in these instances.
Eight minor league players spoke with The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity for fear that doing so publicly and without their team’s permission could lead to punishment.
The Nationals player who described himself and others as “definitely scared” made $7,500 in 2019, with his last check coming in early September. He budgeted his winter income, which he made working at a golf course, to last until the middle of April. But now he will have to get creative with the $140 stipend he received from the team Friday.
“If it’s a couple weeks, fine, we can scrape by and handle this,” he said Sunday afternoon. “But if it gets to be a month, two months, you could see guys quit because they just have to do something else to support themselves. That’s my biggest worry, that this isn’t sustainable.”
A few hours later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made an announcement that few players missed: It recommended that organizers “cancel or postpone in-person events that consist of 50 people or more throughout the United States” for the next eight weeks. MLB announced Monday that it would comply with those guidelines. It will be a while before there are minor league games.
‘They really have zero say’
It was assistant general manager Mark Scialabba who broke the news to Nationals minor leaguers Saturday morning. Position players had arrived in West Palm Beach, Fla., toward the end of the week and had had only one formal workout. Pitchers hadn’t been around much longer. Scialabba, an assistant general manager in charge of player development, offered to answer any questions.
Most centered on whether there would be any financial relief from the organization, according to three players who were in the room. Each also described a line from Scialabba in a nearly identical way: If it were up to him, the players would receive their usual per diem and get paid come early April. But it’s not up to him.
When asked Monday whether there was a plan to provide financial relief to minor league players in the coming weeks, a Nationals spokeswoman deferred comment to MLB. An MLB spokesman then declined to comment on any specific club’s situation. The understanding is that MLB is in discussions with the players association about how to pay major leaguers during this break and will shift its attention to the minor leaguers after that is figured out.
“[Minor league] guys are struggling, guys don’t have answers, and there is nothing they can fall back to,” said Jeremy Wolf, a co-founder of More Than Baseball, a nonprofit that provides housing, food and equipment aid to minor leaguers. “They don’t have a union that supports them, so they really have zero say.”
While decisions were made on a team-by-team basis, MLB made clear recommendations on what to do with minor leaguers. In a memo sent to all 30 clubs Sunday, MLB required teams to keep their spring training facilities open to big league players. Those players should continue to receive allowances for food and housing, the memo stated, and be free to work out individually with a limited staff.
Minor leaguers, though, were to “return to their offseason residences to the extent practical.” Teams are expected to cover travel costs and to work with players who cannot feasibly return home, whether home is another country or a high-risk area in the United States. Injured players could stay at spring training to keep rehabbing with their club’s medical personnel.
But those were the only stipulations.
“There are all these reports saying it’s not safe to travel, then they tell us to head home immediately,” said a minor leaguer who was training in Phoenix before the shutdown. “It doesn’t make sense to me at all. It’s really disappointing to see where the priorities lie, as if it would have been too expensive to keep us in camp. Come on.”
The Rays are giving minor leaguers $400 per week for the rest of March, according to Simon Rosenblum-Larson, a pitcher in their organization who is More Than Baseball’s director of player personnel. Many players are not receiving the same assurance, as indicated by more than a dozen people familiar with the situation. They were counting on housing, two meals per day at the team facility and their modest weekly stipends until the season began. That would hold them over along with any saving they did in the offseason.
Instead, they are scrambling for answers and part-time work. Peter Bayer, a minor leaguer in the Oakland Athletics’ system, recently tweeted that he made $62 delivering food as a DoorDash driver. More Than Baseball lent a player $200 for a two-hour taxi ride from the airport to his family’s house in Venezuela. Rosenblum-Larson recently spoke to a young player who is planning a wedding for the fall and doesn’t know whether he will be able to afford it.
The minimum salary for Class A players was $5,800 in 2019. Many players in higher levels made around $15,000. This winter, MLB announced a raise for minor league wages that will not kick in until 2021.
“Our lives are already in flux,” Rosenblum-Larson, 23, said when asked what the feeling is among minor league players. “So when this kind of thing happens, it throws us for a loop a little bit. We’re not really sure what’s going to happen.”
‘We have to be really smart’
When the meeting ended at the Nationals’ complex and they were all shot into limbo, a few players started doing the math.
One still had most of his $140 stipend. He went to a restaurant that offers well-priced, healthy meals that can be refrigerated. He spent $80 for about a week’s worth of food for him and his girlfriend. That could get them to Friday — or Monday, if they’re conscientious — and by then, he hopes to have a plan.
“We have to be really smart with how we spend our money,” the player said. “We have no idea how long this is going to last, so you really can’t take any chances.”
But one of his teammates was already playing catch-up. This past Friday, when players received their stipends, he spent $22.50 on dinner to celebrate the start of spring training. He called that “splurging a little bit.” So when they were told to go home and that they wouldn’t get paid, he was mad at himself for the decision.
He then went to a McDonald’s down the street from the complex and ordered off the dollar menu.