Eric Sim sends minor leaguers gift cards to help where MLB hasn’t

Eric Sim
J. Meric/Getty Images
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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:

 

 

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.

Texas Rangers ink free-agent ace Jacob deGrom to 5-year deal

Jacob deGrom
USA Today
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ARLINGTON, Texas — Jacob deGrom is headed to the free-spending Texas Rangers, who believe the health risk is worth the potential reward in trying to end a six-year run of losing.

The two-time Cy Young Award winner agreed to a $185 million, five-year contract Friday, leaving the New York Mets after nine seasons – the past two shortened substantially by injuries.

“We acknowledge the risk, but we also acknowledge that in order to get great players, there is a risk and a cost associated with that,” Rangers general manager Chris Young said. “And one we feel like is worth taking with a player of Jacob’s caliber.”

Texas announced the signing after the 34-year-old deGrom passed his physical. A person with direct knowledge of the deal disclosed the financial terms to The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the club did not announce those details.

The Rangers were also big spenders in free agency last offseason, signing shortstop Corey Seager ($325 million, 10 years) and second baseman Marcus Semien ($175 million, seven years).

The team said deGrom will be introduced in a news conference at Globe Life Field next week following the winter meetings in San Diego.

“It fits in so many ways in terms of what we need,” Young said. “He’s a tremendous person. I have a number of close friends and teammates who played with Jacob and love him. I think he’s going to be just a perfect fit for our clubhouse and our fans.”

Texas had modest expectations after adding Seager, Semien and starter Jon Gray ($56 million, four years) last offseason but still fell short of them.

The Rangers went 68-94, firing manager Chris Woodward during the season, and then hired Bruce Bochy, a three-time World Series champion with San Francisco. Texas’ six straight losing seasons are its worst skid since the franchise moved from Washington in 1972.

Rangers owner Ray Davis said the club wouldn’t hesitate to keep adding payroll. Including the $19.65 million qualifying offer accepted by Martin Perez, the team’s best pitcher last season, the Rangers have spent nearly $761 million in free agency over the past year.

“I hate losing, but I think there’s one person in our organization who hates losing worse than me, and I think it’s Ray Davis,” Young said. “He’s tired of losing. I’m tired of losing. Our organization is tired of losing.”

After making his first start in early August last season, deGrom went 5-4 with a 3.08 ERA in 11 outings. He helped the Mets reach the playoffs, then passed up a $30.5 million salary for 2023 and opted out of his contract to become a free agent for the first time.

That ended his deal with the Mets at $107 million over four years, and deGrom rejected their $19.65 million qualifying offer in November. New York will receive draft-pick compensation for losing him.

The fan favorite becomes the latest in a long line of ace pitchers to leave the Mets for one reason or another, including Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and David Cone.

The Rangers visit Citi Field from Aug. 28-30.

When healthy, deGrom is perhaps baseball’s most dominant pitcher. His 2.52 career ERA ranks third in the expansion era (since 1961) behind Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw (2.48) and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax (2.19) among those with at least 200 starts.

The right-hander is 4-1 with a 2.90 ERA in five career postseason starts, including a win over San Diego in the wild-card round this year that extended the Mets’ season. New York was eliminated the next night.

A four-time All-Star and the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year, deGrom was a ninth-round draft pick by the Mets in 2010 out of Stetson, where he played shortstop before moving to the mound. He was slowed by Tommy John surgery early in his career and didn’t reach the majors until age 26.

Once he arrived, though, he blossomed. He helped the Mets reach the 2015 World Series and earn a 2016 playoff berth before winning consecutive NL Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019.

But injuries to his elbow, forearm and shoulder blade have limited him to 26 starts over the past two seasons. He compiled a career-low 1.08 ERA over 92 innings in 2021, but did not pitch after July 7 that year because of arm trouble.

DeGrom is 82-57 with 1,607 strikeouts in 1,326 innings over nine big league seasons. He gets $30 million next year, $40 million in 2024 and 2025, $38 million in 2026 and $37 million in 2027. The deal includes a conditional option for 2028 with no guaranteed money.

The addition of deGrom gives the Rangers three proven starters along with Gray and Perez, who went 12-8 with a career-best 2.89 ERA in his return to the team that signed him as a teenager out of Venezuela. Young didn’t rule out the addition of another starter.

With several holes on their starting staff, the Mets have shown interest in free agents Justin Verlander and Carlos Rodon to pair with 38-year-old Max Scherzer atop the rotation.

Now, with deGrom gone, signing one of those two could become a much bigger priority.