Even before spring training began, really until last weekend, Luke Leftwich figured he would spend the latter half of March in daily competition for a spot in the Phillies’ triple-A bullpen.
Instead, he’s looking into peddling trendy yoga pants at Lululemon.
Welcome to life as a minor-league baseball player in the age of coronavirus, when simply making ends meet during a two-month (or longer?) shutdown from playing the game suddenly feels more daunting than facing Mike Trout.
“There’s a lot of people that are in a tough spot,” Leftwich said Wednesday by phone from his home near Atlanta. “I could see where people have to hang it up [from baseball] to support themselves and their family. It could be a real possibility.”
Like so many in the United States and around the world, minor-league players have seen their lives upended by COVID-19, the contagion turned pandemic.
It all began March 12, when Major League Baseball suspended spring training and pushed back the start of the season by at least two weeks. A day later, MLB and the Players’ Association issued a joint memo that gave players on 40-man rosters three options: Stay at their spring-training facility, go to their team’s home city, or return to their offseason residence.
But minor leaguers, who lack union representation, didn’t have those choices. Most were ordered to go home, where they have neither a job nor a guarantee of when they will receive a paycheck because they don’t get paid until games begin.
MLB offered a measure of relief Thursday, announcing that minor leaguers will receive a lump sum equal to the spring-training allowances that they would have received through April 8, the eve of what was supposed to be their season-openers. The Phillies pay players in their minor-league camp $15 per day for meal money in spring training.
Minor leaguers were generally encouraged by MLB’s gesture, with one player noting that it’s “way better than nothing.” But what happens after April 8? In a statement, MLB said it’s still talking to teams about developing an industrywide plan to compensate minor leaguers until whenever the season begins, a more expensive and therefore complicated initiative.
The Phillies sent their minor leaguers home on March 15. Exceptions were made for about 40 players, according to general manager Matt Klentak, most of whom are rehabbing from injuries or residing overseas in volatile countries such as Venezuela. Otherwise, the team bought plane tickets, handed out gas money, and wished roughly 150 players well until baseball returns from a hiatus that has no end date.
“It’s definitely a surreal feeling,” said lefty reliever Jeff Singer, born in Northeast Philadelphia and raised in South Jersey. “Me and my roommate were sitting in our hotel room Sunday watching TV, and I’m like, ‘Dude, we’re going home tomorrow. This is crazy.’ It was weird packing our bags. I haven't been in Jersey, Philly during March in five years — since college. It felt like you were getting released or something.”
Only they’re still employed by teams and therefore ineligible to apply for unemployment assistance. The lucky ones have money stashed from signing bonuses. But only top draft choices get life-changing cash. Seventh-round picks such as Leftwich typically sign for about $200,000. Singer, an undrafted free agent, didn’t receive a signing bonus at all.
Even during the season, there’s vast inequity between compensation for big leaguers (average annual salary in 2019: $4.09 million) and their minor-league brethren, who typically make a monthly salary (for five months) ranging from an average of about $1,200 at Class A to roughly $2,500 in triple-A.
Minor leaguers tend to live paycheck to paycheck. Singer said he even depends on offseason earnings to pay for his living expenses during the season.
“All the money you make during the offseason, for me, goes to my apartment during the season,” said Singer, who spent last season at double-A Reading. "That’s basically what it comes down to. Money you make in the offseason is money that you spend during the season.”
Leftwich, who drove home to Atlanta on March 15, said the initial concerns of Phillies minor leaguers were health-related. With nearly 200 players jammed into a clubhouse at the Carpenter Complex, they worried about getting sick, especially after hearing that two minor leaguers in the New York Yankees’ camp tested positive for coronavirus.
Thus far, Leftwich hasn’t heard of any cases among Phillies players.
But once it became clear that the season would be delayed, Leftwich reached out to the Lululemon retailer where he had worked in the offseason and asked for part-time hours. The best that the manager could do was to promise that he could come in and help whenever the company reopens its stores, which won’t happen until at least the end of the month.
One of Singer’s first phone calls went to John Scanzano, the Kings Christian High baseball coach and owner of a training facility in Cherry Hill. Singer works for Scanzano Sports in the offseason, giving lessons to players ages 8 to 18, and figured he could pick up where he left off before he went to spring training. But coronavirus — and the social-distancing protocols that are being implemented — threw a wrench into those plans, too.
“There shouldn't be more than five people at the facility, so what we established was just one-on-one [sessions],” Singer said. “I’m telling the kids and their parents, ‘Take your temperature before you come. I’m going to do the same.’ The place is disinfected, but it’s just going to be one-on-one workouts.”
Singer’s previous offseason jobs have included valet parking and working at a car dealership. He said some players intended to drive for Uber. Some were hoping to work on farms, or for food-delivery services such as GrubHub and DoorDash.
No odd job is too odd.
But part-time work is scarce in an economy that is being plunged into a recession by industrywide shutdowns. It's even more difficult when players tell a prospective employer that they might have to pick up and leave again to resume spring training in mid-May.
"Where do most of these guys work in the offseason? They work in gyms. They do hitting lessons,” said Jeremy Wolf, co-founder of More Than Baseball, a nonprofit that provides aid to minor leaguers. “Well, there’s no hitting lessons right now because there’s no facilities open. The gyms are closed. Their source of income in the offseason is now gone.”
Before MLB intervened with what it called “interim support," it was up to individual teams. The Tampa Bay Rays agreed to give their minor leaguers a one-time $800 payment to cover the rest of the month. According to Baseball America, the New York Mets, Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox and Miami Marlins are also extending spring-training allowances to their minor leaguers.
“It’s kind of the big, hot-topic issue right now,” Leftwich said. “Yes, they got everybody home. Yes, they gave everybody gas money. They bought flights, which is great. But there are a lot of people who now don’t know what to do in terms of money.”
Earlier this week, all 30 MLB teams pledged $1 million apiece to assist part-time and seasonal ballpark employees (ushers, security, concession workers, etc.) who will lose wages during the shutdown.
Wolf would like to see similar initiatives for minor leaguers.
“Trevor Bauer is trying to raise $1 million for the workers at the stadiums. Look, I get that. Totally get that,” Wolf said, referring to a GoFundMe set up by the Cincinnati Reds pitcher. "But everyone is neglecting the fact that there are 6,000 players right now who are forced home and they can’t work. It’s $200,000 maybe to pay every guy $800 for two months. 150 guys, $800 a month? Guys would be thankful for that.”
The longer the shutdown lasts, the more likely that some players might be forced to consider giving up their dream of playing professional baseball for the certainty of a paying job.
It’s a familiar worry for most minor leaguers. But in the age of coronavirus, it has become more immediate and acute.