The plight of minor league players has increasingly been in the news in recent years, though for all the wrong reasons. After spending years and millions of dollars lobbying Congress, Major League Baseball successfully got language in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 amended so that minor leaguers were no longer owed a minimum wage and overtime pay. Last year, we learned that MLB was proposing shrinking the minor leagues by more than 25 percent, eliminating 42 teams. Thankfully, that received pushback and may not ultimately be carried out.
All of that is in addition to minor leaguers already being paid peanuts during the season. Most minor leaguers don’t even make five figures, requiring them to take up part-time jobs during the season as well as in the offseason, when they are expected to continue training. They are not paid for spring training or extended spring training. Now that baseball – both major league and minor league – has pushed back the start of the regular season, minor leaguers face even more uncertainty as they may not be paid as the world deals with the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
In January, before the U.S. was confronted head-on with COVID-19, former minor league catcher Eric Sim (pictured, in 2010 when he played college baseball with the University of South Florida) suggested ways fans can help out minor leaguers. He tweeted, “If anyone wants to help minor leaguers, it’s not that hard. Reach out to them on social media, buy them some beers, or a meal, or give em Chipotle gift cards so that they can afford guac for once. Minor leaguers don’t expect 1000s of dollars, they appreciate the little things.” And thus, a movement was born. In the ensuing two months, Sim and others provided gift cards to a handful of minor leaguers. A few examples:
— David Lebron (@dlebron93) March 4, 2020
— Marcus Reyes (@marcusreyes03) March 4, 2020
— Andrew Schultz (@littleschultz5) March 3, 2020
— Taylor Rashi (@Taylor_Rashi) March 11, 2020
— Hunter Schryver (@H_Schryves23) March 5, 2020
I reached out to Sim to ask him about his gift card idea as well as minor league life in general. Since retiring in 2016, after spending six years in the Giants’ minor league system, Sim has been working as a bar manager. He has become a sensation on social media both for his sense of humor and for his advocacy for minor league players. He has become even more involved since COVID-19 arrived in the U.S., starting a GoFundMe to help minor league players affected by baseball shutting down due to the pandemic.
Why Chipotle? “I love it and I know every minor leaguer loves it, too,” Sim told me. He estimates he has helped “around 35” minor leaguers and dispersed $900 worth of gift cards thus far. Sim said, “Lots of different people have donated anywhere from students to business owners, coaches, etc. It’s funny because most of these people I’ve never met before, but they reached out to help minor leaguers, and they lived up to their words to help which I thought was really cool.”
Casual baseball fans may be surprised at how helpful a simple $25 gift card can be. Sim explains, “You don’t get paid during offseason, you don’t get paid during Spring Training, if you don’t break with a full season team and get stuck in extended you also don’t get paid.” He adds, “Even when you do get paid, sometimes you have to pay rent out of your pocket, buy food, etc. And it’s not like the paycheck is much either. We are talking $400-500 paychecks. My first full season in 2011, my salary was $2500. For the entire year.”
Phillies minor league pitcher Albertus Barber was one of the players who received a gift card from Sim. The right-hander, who reached Single-A Lakewood last season, said that Sim reached out and asked for his address. “Then one day a chipotle gift card showed up in the mail,” Barber said. “This was easily one of the coolest things that I’ve had someone do for me. Him and so many other people have helped me so much.”
Barber is fortunate enough to pitch in the Phillies organization, which in 2016 pledged $1 million to ensure their minor leaguers have access to healthy food. Four years later, the Phillies are still one of the only teams that does this. Barber, who works as a janitor for Driveline Baseball in the offseason, said, “It’s pretty crazy hearing that some teams spend millions on players and don’t even feed their farm system 3 times a day.” The 24-year-old wisely concluded, “If you want healthy, good athletes you have to start with good food and good sleep.”
Another minor leaguer who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity said after receiving a gift card from Sim, “It allows me to breathe just a little bit more when it comes to food funds.” He relies on team-provided meals “as much as possible” and does a lot of “meal prep,” which simply means to cook meals ahead of time, usually in large quantities. The minor leaguer said the team provides him two meals per day, leaving him responsible for one meal himself.
Mitch Horacek, a left-handed pitcher in the Twins organization, tagged Sim in a tweet on behalf of a friend. Like Barber, Horacek detailed the impact a small gift card can have. He said, “I try to eat as healthy as possible, but it’s hard. At this point, we minor league vets are pros at stretching a dollar. I am a grocery store pro. But, at the end of the day, we still need to eat suboptimal food to get our calories. That means lots of PBJ’s.”
Horacek elaborated, “I have friends who have massive credit card debt from the off season just paying for food and normal life expenses.” For himself, he built a spreadsheet to help budget his expenses. “I can tell you exact figures for all of 2019, for example.” Countering a popular stereotype of minor leaguers, Horacek said, “Many people think we MiLB guys need help budgeting. No, we just need to be paid better.”
Things have become even more complicated now that most sports leagues across the nation have taken precautions against COVID-19. MLB and MiLB pushed back the start of the regular season and have shut down spring training camps. It left minor leaguers without pay, without regular meals, and without a place to train. Sim said, “Most minor leaguers did not sign for a huge signing bonus so even if it’s little, they do need some kind of income to keep going. Now it’s gone.” Sim explained, “Now these guys are at home, with no pay, with worse facilities to train, can’t get a side job because no one knows if this is going to be a month or 5 months, while still training and eating like a professional athlete because your organization expects you to come back in game ready condition.”
The anonymous player quoted above also spoke about the COVID-19 response. He said, “We are losing at least a half year of time in our career. These are months lost where we can’t get to the big leagues. A baseball career is short.” The player wondered about where he would train with team facilities closing, as well as public gyms. He artfully described athletes’ bodies as sand castles: “If you don’t maintain it every single day, it fades away. A pitcher’s arm is no different.”
Sim spoke to a minor leaguer in the Yankees’ system, currently in quarantine for 14 days after another player tested positive for COVID-19. The player sent Sim a picture of a tiny bowl of chicken and rice with a scant amount of shredded carrot and six green beans, provided to the players by the team every day. Sim wrote, “That’s enough food for a 10 year old. Not enough food for 20+yrs old professional baseball players.”
Sim also highlighted the confusion around shutting down camps and sending some players home. One player wrote to Sim, “We had two guys speak up. One was more outspoken. He said, ‘Are you serious? You’re sending me back home with no pay and only travel money? To not be able to get a job because we don’t know when we’re going to be back here??’ The organization responded, ‘We don’t know, the commissioner’s office hasn’t told us anything.’”
Another player wrote to Sim, “School district I worked for in offseason just closed down. No source of income for the foreseeable future, not the best situation. [redacted] my post TJ throwing program, get sent home to rehab without the help of a training staff, absolute [crap] show man.”
A third player said, “Have spent a total of 400 bucks on bags to FL, ubers, and bags back to CA. All for one bullpen thrown.” And, finally, a fourth player wrote, “Not only do I get sent home with no job, I also asked who was going to pay a PT to do my rehab at home and they simply said, ‘I guess you are.’”
It is clear that Major League Baseball and its individual teams should have been doing more to provide a higher quality of life for the thousands of minor league players in organizations every year. That has only become more apparent as we deal with a pandemic. While some teams have gone above and beyond, willingly raising pay and providing better food options, players should not be reliant on luck of the draw, playing in certain forward-thinking organizations. Nor should they be reliant on the generosity of others, such as Sim and the myriad people he has encouraged to send gift cards, to eat well. The league itself needs to raise the standard of living for the athletes it expects to become tomorrow’s superstars.