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More tales of life in the minor leagues

Emily Waldon of The Athletic spoke to 30 people about the hardships that minor league ballplayers face.

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Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

In an article for The Athletic, Emily Waldon tries to put a human face upon the harsh lives that minor league ballplayers lead as they try to achieve their major league dreams. (The Athletic sub. req.) The piece is behind a paywall, but since minor league pay has been a repeated topic of conversation around here, I’ll try to quote as much of it as I can under fair use rules.

Everyone that Waldon spoke to requested anonymity. She quotes several players about why no one is speaking up about this unconscionable situation.

“You talk about this, you’re canned,” an AL West High-A player told The Athletic. “Nobody wants to have you in your organization anymore. You can’t talk about it. If you come up in arms about fair wage or just being able to put food on the table for yourself, you’ll get released . . .”

Waldon does quote two major league players who have been outspoken about this issue: Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright and Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle. Wainwright is near the end of his career and has very little to lose at this point. Doolittle is known for being outspoken and not caring if it upsets anyone. But when people ask why don’t the minor leaguers speak up or organize or do something about their plight, that’s why. I’m sure that if and when Vladimir Guerrero Jr. speaks out about the plight of minor leaguers, he’s not going to get released. Ignored, maybe, but not released. But for 95 percent of them? Speaking up means the end of their careers.

As I wrote last week, Spring Training is unpaid. And that extends to anyone who is left behind in Extended Spring Training that can last until June.

“If you stay in extended, you don’t get paid,” an AL West Low A player said. “So, I went all the way through March, April and May to mid-June with getting $20 a day.”

With that, you have to find a place to live. For the young guys, there is a dorm that the players can stay in. But what if the player is married with a family?

“Last year, we were in an Airbnb, but we rented a room that was in somebody’s house and it still cost us almost $2,000 a month,” [a minor-leaguer’s wife] told The Athletic. “Just a tiny little room that just fit a bed in it in someone’s house and sharing a bathroom with strangers. They do have free housing for the guys, but if you have your wife out there —”

Waldon also restates the actual pay for minor leaguers once they leave Spring Training, which ranges from a high of $2,700 a month for a player with three years of experience in Triple-A to a low of $1,160 a month for players just starting out in low-A. I should stress that some Triple-A players earn a lot more than that if they’ve been around long enough (7 years) to experience minor-league free agency or if they’re on the 40-man roster, which means that they are covered by the major league union. But for ordinary minor leaguers, that’s the pay scale.

Minor leaguer NBA players in their G-League are guaranteed $35,000 a year. Minor league NHL players receive a minimum of $47,500 a year. It is true that neither one of those sports employs nearly as many minor leaguers as MLB does. Neither of those leagues has the overall revenue of MLB either.

Once a player gets sent to a minor league affiliate, they have to find a place to live. Teams usually pay for two or three days at a hotel and after that, the player is expected to find their own place to live. The lowest levels of the minors have host families, but none of the higher levels do. Additionally, the quality of the programs to place players in with host families varies widely from organization to organization.

“This past summer I got a random text from a player, he was like, ‘Hi, I’m a new player and I’m being moved up and I need a place to stay and someone gave me your name,’” [a minor league host mom] recalled. “And, of course, I’m like, ‘What? Who? Someone gave you my name?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, someone said you had an extra bedroom.’”

Host families end up doing a lot out of the goodness of their hearts.

“It was so funny,” the host mom said. “There were nights, I can’t tell you how many people I had sitting around my dining room table. Because they would say, ‘Hey, we heard you’re cooking tonight.’ So, each one of them would text me and be like, ‘Can I bring so and so? Can I bring so and so?’

For those that don’t have host families, they’re left in pretty tough situations.

“Oh, my gosh,” [a current NL West pitcher] laughed. “Let’s say it’s like a two-bedroom apartment with a common living area, we’d have seven or eight guys, probably, and this is not an exaggeration. It’s just basically a bunch of air beds around the whole thing. It actually makes it easier to fit more people into an apartment when it’s unfurnished, which they often are. It’s like, ‘Oh cool, there’s no furniture, that means we can sleep more people in here.”

One thing I haven’t mentioned in my pieces on minor league pay is clubhouse dues. Yes, players get a small per diem, but they also have to pay $5 to $15 a day in clubhouse dues.

“It’s like this idiot [minor league president Pat O’Connor] doesn’t even understand that the players are paying dues,” a current NL pitcher chimed in. “So, the money they make per day is even subtracted when have to pay for their laundry to be done. You know what I mean? They nickel and dime what’s already been nickeled and dimed, which is insane to me.”

As Waldon notes, a lot of the Latin American players are sending a chunk of that tiny paycheck and per diem home as well.

One thing that minor leaguers do say has gotten better recently is the food provided by the team for the post-game meal, at least on the higher levels. One player said they got Chipotle or Panda Express catered in Double-A, and they were pretty happy about that. Still, while that might keep their bellies full, it’s not exactly the type of diet an elite athlete should be eating on a regular basis. Below Double-A, however . . .

Common pregame meals at the lower levels often include peanut butter and jelly, chips and dip or pre-packaged deli meat and bread, with the possibility of fruit and vegetables mixed in. “Postgame meal most nights isn’t edible,” the NL Central Double-A player said of the Class A selection. “You usually go get your own food after the game.”

This is why it was so huge when Yu Darvish bought a catered steak and lobster dinner for the players of both teams when he was on a rehab assignment in South Bend last season.

Waldon also quotes players about the miserable bus trips that the players have to take that can last as long as 13 hours and how creative they have to be to get some sleep in. She also talks about the jobs they do in the offseason to try to make enough money to get through the regular season.

But she ends with this quote from a player in High-A. This is a man who has spent much of his life preparing for a major league baseball career that may never come. And it highlights why all of this is so important.

“You know what sucks? If I don’t do well this year, I can’t afford to play anymore and I’m done,” an AL High-A player said. “I can’t stick it out an extra year. And it’s because of pay.

“I can’t afford to play this game,” he continued. “I put my body on the line and I work really, really hard and I show up early and I stay up late and I might have to end my dream, because I financially can’t afford it.

“To say that we’re not worth it until we’re putting on a major league uniform … why the fuck are we here?”

So please, subscribe to The Athletic to read the whole thing. The attention that articles like this one is getting is starting to make a difference. The Toronto Blue Jays announced that they intend to increase their minor league pay by 40% to 56% across their affiliates. That’s not nearly enough (and again, to the Blue Jays credit, they acknowledge that it’s not enough), but it’s a good first step and the Blue Jays deserve to be applauded for taking it. I doubt they do so if it weren’t for journalists and fans continuing to keep this story in the public eye.