Red Sox minor leaguers worked out and played intrasquad games at the JetBlue Park complex in Fort Myers, Fla., last Friday and left the premises expecting to return for more of the same the next day.
But shortly after the players scattered, the team sent out a jarring communiqué: Effective immediately, minor league camp was over. The Red Sox wanted players to collect their belongings from the park and encouraged them to head home.
Upon receiving the message, outfielder Tyler Dearden, who spent last year with Single A Greenville, took to Twitter with grim humor.
Sooo anybody hiring??
All minor league baseball players right now.
“I had no idea what to expect and was kind of trying to make light of the situation,” Dearden said by phone. “But I’m pretty sure that’s a thought that ran through all minor leaguers’ heads when they found out.”
Dearden’s tweet inspired dozens of comments, hundreds of retweets, and thousands of likes — many from fellow minor leaguers suddenly wondering about their employment and financial security since the COVID-19 virus led to the shutdown of minor league camps and the chaotic dispersal of players, including the roughly 180 who’d been in Red Sox minor league camp.
This past offseason, Dearden lived at home in New Jersey with his parents, offered baseball lessons, and ran food deliveries for DoorDash to help him bridge from his last paycheck at the end of the minor league season to the start of spring training, while also creating a bit of extra money for the coming season. He also worked out to stay in shape.
With the minor league season delayed indefinitely, Dearden said he’s back in a similar situation, but with fewer options. Baseball lessons aren’t an option, given the need for social distancing, and for similar reasons, it’s challenging to find a training facility (for which he’d have to pay) where he can stay in shape.
Meanwhile, he has little idea what, if any, financial assistance he might get from the Red Sox.
“It’s kind of like the offseason is starting again,” said Dearden, “except that you don’t know when the season is going to start.”
First baseman Josh Ockimey confronted a similarly unsettling notion as he drove north to his parents’ house in Philadelphia. After he spent last year in Triple A, Ockimey was a nonroster invitee in big league camp until he was reassigned to minor league camp March 8, a sense of promise emerging after he launched two homers in 11 spring training games.
“Unfortunately, for a lot of guys, we can’t afford to stay [in Fort Myers] for a month or two without any pay,” said Ockimey. “I had to make that decision. I said, ‘Hey, I have to make some money and go home.’ … I just can’t train and that’s all. I need to be out there making some money so I can afford to support myself, because I don’t know when the next game is or when we can come back.”
Ockimey drove for Lyft during the offseason to help pay for his use of the Maplezone Sports Institute baseball and workout facility. While he enjoyed the opportunity to socialize and meet passengers during the winter, his view of returning to such a line of work during a pandemic has changed.
“I guess I have to go back and pick up my Lyft job again or Uber — something," said Ockimey. "Honestly, I’m quite terrified of that. I know I’m going to have to really deep-clean my car almost every day or after every ride it’s almost going to seem like. [But] that’s what I have to do to make money.”
Teams pitch in, for now
From a public health perspective, teams had little choice but to disband their minor league camps, even if there’s the possibility of exposure to COVID-19 outside the bubble of spring training facilities. While players might benefit from proximity to their teams’ medical resources if they stayed in spring training, it represented the sort of risk that the Centers for Disease Control has recommended against.
“It’s hard to keep social distance in the facility when it’s that many people,” said Red Sox vice president of player development Ben Crockett.
In piecemeal fashion, teams started sending their minor leaguers home until MLB issued a leaguewide requirement. The league has yet to offer teams guidance about what kind of financial assistance to offer to minor leaguers, a subject that is on MLB’s to-do list but that, according to a league source, will take a backseat to negotiations with the MLB Players Association about compensation for players on the big-league 40-man rosters during the shutdown.
Some teams are taking a proactive approach to giving their minor leaguers some financial support. According to major league sources, the Rays told their minor leaguers that they’d receive two weeks of their spring training allowance, and the Mets will continue to pay spring training allowances to their minor leaguers for an undefined period of time. The Dodgers, Marlins, and Padres also have committed to some financial support to their minor leaguers, according to Baseball America.
The Red Sox have provided their minor leaguers with their spring training allowances — $560 per week for players who arranged their own accommodations in Fort Myers, $140 per week for those who stayed in the team hotel — through Thursday. They also bought the return plane tickets for players who were flying out of Fort Myers or will reimburse their mileage expenses.
The Sox are among teams having internal conversations about how to handle support for minor leaguers but that have yet to commit to anything beyond Thursday while waiting to see what MLB does.
'They’re all scrambling’
It’s too soon to gauge the effectiveness of the support offered by the Red Sox and 29 other clubs, even as an already bleak economic landscape for the average minor leaguer just grew bleaker.
When minor leaguers arrived at spring training in February, they had not received a paycheck from their teams since late last summer when their season ended.
Like major leaguers, minor leaguers do not get paid during spring training.
At spring training, teams put up players in hotels or, in a few cases, dorms, or offer a rent subsidy if they make their own living arrangements.
In some cases, food and housing allowances exceed what players will make during the season.
Now, minor leaguers face the prospect of seeing their below-minimum-wage paychecks shrink to nothing. They can’t file for unemployment because they’re under contract to their teams.
Unlike major leaguers, minor leaguers get paid a pittance: Rookies and Single A players make around $1,250 a month, with Double A players making $1,500 and Triple A players about $2,200.
While there are signing bonuses for approximately 40 percent of drafted players, that bonus is usually $10,000 or less. Yes, the first-rounders have million-dollar cushions to work from, but the vast majority of the 4,500 or so minor leaguers do not.
Their situation is harsh.
“The best way to put it is they’re all scrambling,” said Garrett Broshuis, the lead lawyer in a class-action lawsuit against MLB by minor leaguers over wages. “A lot of them are counting on having that first paycheck around when the season started in early April, and now it’s not going to come and they don’t know how to pay their bills.
"Their cellphone bill doesn’t stop just because of the coronavirus. Their rent is still due, their car payments are still due.”
Finding housing on the fly may be the worst problem because players with no income stream are returning to their offseason “homes” where their leases had already expired.
“Some of them are going back to their parents, some of them are crashing at girlfriends’ houses, some are crashing at friends’ houses," said Broshuis. “They’re scrambling just to find a bed or couch to sleep on.”
The plight of international players, the bulk of whom come from the Dominican Republic or Venezuela, is more harrowing.
Teams asked those players to return to their home countries, but just getting them there was not so simple.
“For some guys it is dire," said Jeremy Wolf, executive director of the nonprofit More Than Baseball, which works to raise awareness and steer more resources toward minor leaguers’ housing, food, and equipment needs. "We helped get a kid a taxi from the airport in Venezuela to his home — $200. The team said it would reimburse him: ‘Maybe, we don’t know for sure,’ but he said, ‘I told them I can’t get a taxi home,’ and they said, ‘Figure it out, we have to send you home.’
"Well, they didn’t have to send him home. We could have found him a place to stay in Arizona. He could have stayed with me.”
The prospect of entry restrictions being set at a very high bar once the pandemic eases suggests that international players will face a formidable set of hurdles that uprooted players in the US will not.
“I know there are a lot of harder situations than others,” said Dearden. “Luckily I’m in a situation where I was able to get home with my family, but there are a lot of guys out there in the minor leagues who don’t have anywhere to go. I really feel for those guys and I’m not sure how that situation is going to play out.”
No union to help them
MLB has vowed to raise minor leaguers’ salaries between 38 percent and 71 percent starting next season. Yet the gap between the minor and major leagues, where the minimum salary is $563,500, has never been bigger.
The biggest difference is that the minor leaguers do not have a union or any structured support system to advocate for their issues.
“Unfortunately, for the minor leagues, I don’t think there are really any associations to help us out here,” said Ockimey. “That’s the most frustrating part."
Fear of losing their jobs by squawking over low pay is the biggest reason why minor leaguers have largely stayed silent about pressing MLB to dig deeper and try harder to pay respectable wages to the talent pool that will form its next generation of talent.
More Than Baseball is working to change that mind-set in meaningful ways, having engaged “ambassadors” from more than 20 franchises to help spread the word.
Will one of the 30 teams decide to go ahead and pay their minor leaguers the salaries — paltry as they are — they were going to pay them regardless of whether canceled games are made up or played?
To date, none has, leaving minor leaguers like Ockimey resigned to pondering a return to Lyft runs and Dearden to DoorDash while the shutdown continues.
"I think people are starting to get informed of how we live and how we’re paid,” said Dearden. “When I put out that tweet, I never expected it to blow up the way it did. I never really thought people would reach out to me for help. I was surprised by how many people knew what goes on in our lifestyle.
“Maybe now more people will be informed.”