By the end of January, John O’Reilly was chomping at the bit to get to spring training. Like most minor leaguers, the 24-year-old pitcher, newly assigned to the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, viewed baseball’s preseason as a mecca of opportunity. Sure, O’Reilly who played last season in Double-A, minor league baseball’s second-highest level, wasn’t expecting to make it to the majors and become the Pirates’ opening day starter. But with a decent showing perhaps he could inch his way up minor league baseball’s arduous, low-salaried ladder.
And, when it started, O’Reilly was having what he considered to be a highly successful spring training. He had been called upon to finish innings for major league pitchers. In one game, he pitched against the New York Yankees, a big deal for a kid from New Jersey.
Then on the evening of 13 MarchO’Reilly got a message from the organization. Beginning tomorrow morning everyone must go home. By that point the Covid-19 outbreak had been officially declared a pandemic. It was no longer safe for any large groups to gather together. Baseball games were no exception.
“It is definitely scary,” O’Reilly says. “Less of a chance to go out and play the game you love with your teammates. You look forward to it for the five months you’re away [during the offseason].”
O’Reilly went home to his family in New Jersey where he is anxiously following the news. With no gyms open, nowhere suitable to throw, and unlike Major Leaguers, no guarantees of being paid this season.
Mitch Horacek, a 28-year-old pitcher in the Minnesota Twins organization opted to stay in Florida with his girlfriend’s family instead of going home to the cold of Colorado. One day Twins doctors were cautioning players to wash their hands and avoid signing autographs. Three days later, Horacek’s big league hopes were paused. Horacek had been following Covid-19’s growth since the first outbreak in Wuhan, China, and sensed baseball could be shelved a while.
“One of our last games had almost 10,000 people,” Horacek says. “It was a culmination of my nerves. I kept thinking someone here might have this virus, we should do something. Of course things got way more crazy.”
The exodus from camps was chaotic and unprecedented. As teams were figuring out how to operate in the new climate, Horacek, O’Reilly and hundreds of other minor leaguers started to worry about when – or if – they would be paid.
Then again, money is always a concern in the minor leagues. Players are provided housing and a $10 per diem during spring training. They get no salary. During the regular season, players make anywhere from a measly $1,160 a month to a slightly less measly $2,100 a month, depending on which level they play at.
Despite being professional athletes, these players’ salaries often fall below the United States’ minimum wage, forcing many to get creative to make ends meet. Horacek says it’s commonplace for players to double the occupants allowed on a lease so they can all afford to pay rent. Many offer pitching or hitting lessons, but a huge chunk of players take second jobs that they can fit around their baseball career, such as delivery driving. Horacek used to engage in another common cost-cutter for minor leaguers: skipping breakfast.
Minor leaguers understand it’s all part of the sacrifice, namely because they have no choice if they eventually want to make it to the big leagues. “I watch guys I’ve pitched well against. There are guys on TV I’ve struck out before so I know I’m good enough,” Horacek says.
Last season was Horacek’s best training camp and had a few more stars aligned, he says he could have been called up to the big leagues. Instead he toggled between Double-A and Triple-A, his dream dangling so close. Horacek’s taxable income from baseball for 2019 was less than $8,000.
Minor leaguers’ low salaries have been discussed frequently over the past few years, most notably in 2018 when Major League Baseball lobbied Congress to exempt minor leaguers from making minimum wage. More recently, MLB floated the idea of contracting 42 minor league clubs at the end of the 2020 season. Bernie Sanders, currently competing to become the Democratic presidential candidate, has been a vocal opponent, calling the possible contraction another example of “corporate greed.” Sanders, along with over 100 members of Congress, created the Save Minor League Baseball task force in November which has pushed back on MLB’s plans for contraction and continued low salaries.
After the start of the baseball season was postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak, MLB agreed to pay minor leaguers a spring training stipend of $400 a week. The league has since announced that minor leaguers will continue to receive the weekly stipend, plus health benefits, until the end of May. Ironically that’s more than many minor leaguers receive when not in the midst of a global pandemic.
Horacek was met with plenty of pushback on Twitter when he initially expressed his concern about pay. “It’s a perception problem,” he says. “Someone might perceive baseball as less of a job than working at a stadium concession job. Just because my job is fun doesn’t make it easy and it doesn’t make my bills go away.
“One guy said there are plenty of people who would like to have my job in a second but while somebody might want to take my job, they can’t. They physically can’t.”
Back in February, MLB, largely at the behest of Sanders and the congressional task force, announced that it would boost pay for minor leaguers, starting with the 2021 season. Salaries are then expected to range from $1,600 a month for rookies up to $2,800 a month at the highest level, Triple-A.
But for many, that’s not nearly enough. Enter Advocates for Minor Leaguers, a new group founded by a group of former players that is seeking annual minimum salaries of $15,000 for minor leaguers. Ty Kelly, a utility player who spent most of his 11-season career in the minors, says the organization was prepping to launch before the coronavirus halted spring training but it is prioritizing taking care of players left in limbo.
“I used to find an apartment for five months in the offseason. Then find a new lease for the next offseason,” Kelly says. “There are tons of guys in that situation that don’t have a home to go back to. It was necessary for us to launch now and try to help them.”
Advocates for Minor Leaguers has already had a rush of donations, which Kelly attributes to the public’s connection to minor league baseball and a growing understanding of the players’ plights.
Kelly is one of the lucky minor leaguers who had his dream realized. After seven-plus years in the minors, making a salary below the poverty line, the New York Mets called him up and his life instantly changed.
“It was crazy. I was called up from Colorado Springs, my least favorite AAA field by far, went straight to Washington DC to play with the Mets in this pristine park,” he says.
Kelly was signed to a 25-man major league contract, where he was paid a prorated salary based on the MLB’s minimum (currently $550,000 a year). He suddenly had protections. He had a union. The Mets team hotel was a Ritz Carlton where Kelly ordered a $20 omelette and coffee with no guilt.
Even when Kelly, or any player, is sent back to the minors, they still earn a prorated salary base of $91,000 for the rest of the season. Even though Kelly was better off financially, it was somewhat jarring at first to return to the conditions and second-class citizenry of minor league baseball. These cultural differences are felt everywhere, from salary to resources to facilities.
For example, the Mets recently spent $57m to upgrade their spring training facility in Port St Lucie, including a pristine new clubhouse. But according to MLB.com’s Anthony DiComo the minor league St Lucie Mets would have to remain in their basic clubhouse when spring training ended as a reminder of what they’re trying to achieve.
Despite the conditions, despite the unlivable wages, despite the slim odds of making it to the majors, the dangling carrot is too hard to walk away from for guys like Horacek.
“Every year you play is like rolling craps,” he says. “Say you need to roll a seven. If you stop rolling the dice, you have no chance.”