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

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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.

Today in Baseball History: The Yankees become The Yankees

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A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how the Cubs became the Cubs. In the course of that post I talked about how fluid and casual team nicknaming was in the early 20th century. Sometimes the press named a team, informally, and it stuck. Sometimes the team’s owner switched the name back and forth multiple times. It was sort of all over the place.

That was true, too, of baseball’s most storied and, let’s be honest, stuffy organization, the New York Yankees. Rather than proclaim, from on high, what their name — what their brand — would be, they got their name through the same haphazard way so many other teams did. But, on this date in 1913, they became the Yankees for good. Let’s talk about how they finally got there.

They didn’t start in New York, actually. They started in Baltimore, as the Orioles. But they weren’t even the original Baltimore Orioles. That ream was a National League club — led by John McGraw — that the National League contracted along with the Cleveland Spiders following the 1899 season. McGraw cooled his heels in St. Louis In 1900 but then, the following year, the upstart Western League, led by Ban Johnson, upgraded itself to self-proclaimed major league status and reformed as the American League. They put a team in Baltimore, called itself the Orioles and brought John McGraw back via the offering of an ownership stake.

Ban Johnson and McGraw didn’t get along too well and they were in pretty constant dispute. Johnson also didn’t think too much of Baltimore as an AL city and wanted to move the team to New York — Manhattan, specifically — to compete head-to-head with the New York Giants. McGraw, seeing the writing on the wall, but not wanting to let Johnson tell him where to go, left the Orioles in the middle of the 1902 season and joined the New York Giants as their manager and part-owner. Ever the pain-in-the butt, he gave his ownership interest in the Orioles to the Giants, which was a problem given that they were a member of the rival league which wanted to see the AL crushed and eliminated. Add that to the list of many AL-NL disagreements bubbling up at the time.

It was all solved, for the most part, after the 1902 season when the AL and NL entered into what amounted to a peace treaty. They stopped the widespread practice of teams poaching each other’s players and settled various ownership and territorial disputes like the one between the Giants and the Orioles. Finally, as a part of that agreement, the NL agreed to let Johnson to move the Orioles to New York for the 1903 season. What the Giants would not permit, however, is the new AL club to play in the Polo Grounds, so they had to find a new ballpark.

The New York club hastily constructed a new wooden park seating about 16,000 fans on the west side of Broadway between 165th and 168th streets. It was originally called American League Park and housed The New York Americans Baseball Club. The place would eventually be nicknamed Hilltop Park because of its relatively high elevation compared to the rest of Manhattan. The Americans eventually came to be called the Highlanders. For years most people believed that that was solely because they played on literal high land, but more recent research reveals that it was at least in part a play on the last name of the team’s president, Joe Gordon, combined with a reference to the famous British military unit, the Gordon Highlanders. Either way, the Highlanders they were throughout the oughts.

The Polo Grounds was devastated by a fire in 1911 and needed to be rebuilt. Despite their past disagreements, the Highlanders generously allowed the Giants to share their home at Hilltop Park while the Polo Grounds were being rebuilt. McGraw and his club remembered this kindness two years later when they allowed the Highlanders, who were looking for a new place to play given that Hilltop Park was already falling apart, to move into the rebuilt Polo Grounds.

By then the whole “Gordon Highlanders” thing was no longer as amusing as it had initially been. Between that and the team literally abandoning the high ground between 165th and 168th streets, the name “Highlanders” was not really apt. As noted above, teams often had a lot of nicknames, and the Highlander’s third name — apart from that and “Americans” — was the “Yankees.” With a new home in 1913, the club decided to formally adopt it. They played their first game as The New York Yankees on April 10, 1913. 107 years ago today. They lost to Walter Johnson and the Washington Senators (Americans? Nationals? It was confusing!) 2-1.

What’s a “Yankee” anyway?

In the 19th and early 20th century it referred broadly to residents of New England those descended from the original English settlers of the region. This is how Mark Twain used the word in his novel “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” During the Civil War it was used broadly to anyone from up north and, when not referring to the baseball team, is still used that way today. But where did the word actually come from?

Most people who think they have an idea about it are wrong. It’s often told that the word “Yankee” is an anglicization of any number of Native American words — like “eankke” or “y’an-gee” or some such — with the story often having it be an honorary term bestowed by Native American warriors on European settlers who fought bravely. Not surprisingly, linguists have debunked that self-serving notion. There is no evidence for it at all, actually.

The best accepted theory, among linguists and historians anyway, is that it’s of Dutch origin. Sometimes used as a term of derision toward Dutch colonists after England took possession of what is now New York or, possibly, a term of derision used by Dutch colonists in New Amsterdam toward English colonists in neighboring Connecticut. From Wikipedia:

Michael Quinion and Patrick Hanks argue that the term comes from the Dutch name Janke, a diminutive form of Jan (John) which would be Anglicized as “Yankee” due to the Dutch pronunciation of J as the English Y. Quinion and Hanks posit that it was “used as a nickname for a Dutch-speaking American in colonial times” and could have grown to include non-Dutch colonists, as well. Alternatively, the Dutch given names Jan and Kees have long been common, and the two are sometimes combined into a single name (e.g., Jan Kees de Jager). Its Anglicized spelling Yankee could, in this way, have been used to mock Dutch colonists. The chosen name Jan Kees may have been partly inspired by a dialectal rendition of Jan Kaas (“John Cheese”), the generic nickname that Southern Dutch used for Dutch people living in the North.

The Online Etymology Dictionary gives its origin as around 1683, when English colonists used it insultingly in reference to Dutch colonists (especially freebooters). Linguist Jan de Vries notes that there was mention of a pirate named Dutch Yanky in the 17th century. The Life and Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves (1760) contains the passage, “Haul forward thy chair again, take thy berth, and proceed with thy story in a direct course, without yawing like a Dutch yanky.” According to this theory, Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam started using the term against the English colonists of neighboring Connecticut.

That’s a lot to take in, but know that the name “Yankees” can, basically, be traced back to people calling each other names. Which, with all due respect to my Yankee fan friends, I must say is not the most inappropriate baseball team name out there.

 

Also today in baseball history:

 

1947: Jackie Robinson becomes the first African-American in the modern major leagues when the Dodgers purchase his contract from Montreal. He’ll make his big league debut five days later.

1962: Dodger Stadium opens in Chavez Ravine in Los Angeles. The Dodgers lose to the Reds 6-3.

1962: The Houston Colt .45s play the first major league game in Texas, beating the Chicago Cubs 11-2.  Of note:

1964: With the Mets having moved to Shea Stadium, demolition begins on the Polo Grounds to clear the way for a housing project.

1971: Veterans Stadium in Philly sees its first game ever played. The Phillies beat Montreal 4-1.

1973: Kansas City’s new Royals Stadium — now Kauffman Stadium — debuts as the Royals beat the Rangers 12-1.

1981:  In his first game for Chicago, Carlton Fisk hits a three-run home run in the eighth inning to lead the White Sox to a 5-3 victory over his his old team, the Red Sox, at Fenway Park.

1989: Ken Griffey, Jr. hits his first major league home run in Seattle’s 6-5 win over the White Sox.