It’s 1:45 AM in Kissimmee, Florida. Midnight dew collects on the outfield grass. About ten fans remain in the battered bleachers, dumbstruck that there’s still more baseball to play. Players have been on the field since noon. Batting practice was 13 hours ago. At one point, game one of the doubleheader was scheduled for 4:30 p.m. but the sky decided to change that around a bit—to 8:45 p.m. First pitch of game two was thrown at 11:55 PM.
Osceola Country Stadium in Kissimmee, Florida. Former home of the Florida Fire Frogs
The pitcher’s performance tonight will land in the same data feed as every other. The team scouts might love him or hate him. His back might be aching from a night on a soft cot in the cheapest shared-rent dive he could afford on $370 a week, his minor league salary. Don’t forget the deductions: he’s on the hook for $50 a week to a clubbie and has to buy his own equipment (his Ross discount rack cleats last him about 2 months). That pitcher and every other minor leaguer work 28 days a month. Our off days, few and far between, are spent in small towns far away from home, from girlfriends, from friends, from family. When people ask where you live, you just answer, “Wherever the team wants me.”
Once you’ve played minor league baseball, you aren’t thrown off anymore. Your skin thickens and shocking situations stop surprising you. In my own career, as well as in my work at More Than Baseball, I’ve heard stories from every corner of the minor leagues. A majority of these stories were collected before COVID hit, but some are as relevant now as they were then. As baseball forges its way towards an uncertain future, I invite you to turn your head to the forgotten. To those grinding away in their backyards, local parks, basements, living rooms, and parking lots. To those who were already living paycheck to paycheck, and now have their livelihoods, and their dreams, put on hold.
In Dayton, Ohio, it’s 11:45 PM, and the team bus is alight with cussing in English and Spanish, some of it good-natured, some of it the words of worn-down, beat-up ballplayers. The air conditioning has been out for 3 weeks and the hot, heavy, mid-summer Ohio air droops over the overused cloth seats. The back row doesn’t recline and it’s a nine hour ride back to Appleton, WI. A couple of recent call-ups didn’t get the message that they don’t get to use the comfy seats at the front. It’s not even hazing, just seniority. In the Midwest League, where the Dragons just blew out the Timber Rattlers, the average road trip is close to 6 hours. Somewhere in Western Oregon, 30 ballplayers and their coaches shoot the shit on the side of Interstate 84 at 3:30 AM while their bus hisses and smokes. They use their equipment bags as pillows and wait for a repair man to show up. Some weeks, players will spend 20 or 30 on the bus alone—turning an already grueling 60 hour, 7 day work week into a 90 hour behemoth. Hourly, they’re making right around $4.00.
Most minor league players spend 10+ hours a week on buses just like this one
In Burlington, Vermont, a clubhouse sits under raw sewage because a pipe broke while players were on a road trip. In Zebulon, NC, players file onto the bus with empty stomachs and empty wallets because a caterer misheard the date on a team’s order and the team didn’t have money to reimburse them. In Corpus Christi, Texas, a player yells into his cell because he just learned that the $600 reimbursement check for a prescription payment he had to make up front arrived at his old clubhouse in Fayetteville, Arkansas. He’ll beg for a rent extension and pay a penalty on that.
On June 14th, 2019, at a spring training complex in Arizona, a ragged bunch of young players celebrate. Extended Spring Training just ended. They have been working the backfields in blistering May and June sunshine playing intrasquad games and scrimmages for the last 3 months, unpaid outside of the $15 a day they get in meal money. Soon enough, they’ll report to their Short-Season or Rookie Ball affiliates for their first taste of baseball under the lights and in front of fans. By the time their season ends in September, their yearly earnings amount to about $3,300.
On March, 13, 2020, a mass exodus of players leave clubhouses around the country. They’ll scatter across the globe, from Curacao to California, Venezuela to Vermont, nearly 6,000 players head home. They have about a week of spring training under their belt and they’re hopeful. Most leave some baseball equipment in their locker, a few stick around, holding out hope for a quick return. When COVID shut down baseball, most had no idea where to turn.
A minor leaguer from Central California is expecting a baby and has no idea where his next paycheck will come from. Another from Panama doesn’t have a place to go home to. A group of about 15 Venezuelan guys hole up at the team hotel in Phoenix and try to wait the crisis out. Nearly 200 Yankees minor leaguers try to turn their team hotel into a home while they’re all quarantined there.
A player builds a squat rack out of 2x4s. Another puts a bedsheet on a clothesline and uses it as a throwing partner. Youtube yoga classes skyrocket in popularity. For the rich ones, the first rounders and bonus babies, garages turn into full blown baseball academies. For the rest, they make do, they survive.
In early May, players in Cartagena, Colombia, Stockton, CA, Liberty, SC, Canton, OH, Bani, Dominican Republic, and in every corner of the baseball world, get the call they’ve feared for years. They, along with nearly 1,400 others, are getting released. Minor league baseball is downsizing. Players respond like they always have, they get to work. Some find independent league teams that are going to have a season. A few start working for Doordash or Uber, they become “essential workers” and put themselves at risk to stay afloat financially.
Communities In Billings, MT, Burlington, VT, and Princeton, WV, mourn the loss of their affiliate team. 42 teams across the country are facing the same fate. Where COVID punched these minor league players and teams in the gut, Major League Baseball delivered the final blow. The players will find a way to bounce back. Some will continue in baseball, some will pivot to a different career. For these communities, this was a lifeline. It was a tourist attraction, an economic driver, and a source of unadulterated joy. For most of these small towns, they’re hundreds, if not thousands of miles from the closest MLB team. In one fell swoop, communities lost an economic driver, players lost their jobs, and hundreds of thousands of fans lost their opportunity to watch a live professional baseball game.
As we watch the best in the world return to the sport we love, remember the little guys. For every Kevin Kiermaier, a 31st round pick in 2010, there are 50 others who chased their dreams at the highest level, sacrificed years of their lives, spent months and months away from those they love for just the chance to step on a big league field, and they never will. They didn’t build a resume, they didn’t settle down, they didn’t start saving for a house, they didn’t have the opportunity to build a stable life, they gave everything they had to baseball, and will walk away with little more than memories, credit card debt and a precarious future. Any fan who has been to a minor league game can sense the palpable love and passion. In those spaces you find unadulterated baseball, the game in its purest form. You also find poverty, loneliness, anxiety, fear, and emptiness. You find players barely scraping by for their one shot at a childhood dream, and you find a system that fails those players over and over and over again.