When the minor league baseball season was canceled on June 30, hundreds of players were left scrambling. Unlike their major league counterparts, minor leaguers aren’t unionized or protected by federal minimum wage law. Most of them earn low pay during the season — players in Class A made, on average, $5,800 last year — and don’t get compensated at all during the offseason, which means many already live below the poverty line.
“When I was playing in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a concession stand worker told me that teenagers in the U.S. could make more babysitting than I did playing in A-ball,” says Carlos Suniaga, a pitcher in the Twins organization.
Yet Suniaga is one of the lucky ones. He still has a job — for now. In May, hundreds of minor league players were released by their teams; in June, the MLB draft was shortened from 40 rounds to five. The Twins and other MLB teams have committed to paying their minor leaguers a weekly stipend (of $400) and providing benefits through August. But even that lifeline runs out in a few weeks. And at the end of September, the Professional Baseball Agreement, which regulates the relationship between major league teams and minor league affiliates, will expire. MLB has threatened to eliminate as many as 42 minor league teams for the 2021 season, which could end the careers of hundreds more players.
Minor league baseball isn’t all that different from other struggling industries around the country. With families to support and their job prospects uncertain, many prospects have been forced to take on second (and third) jobs, move home with their parents or sleep on air mattresses in shared apartments to continue chasing their dreams. Some wrestle with whether to give up on baseball altogether. ESPN interviewed four minor leaguers whose livelihoods — and lives — are at a crossroads. Here are their stories. –As told to Anthony Olivieri
CONNER O’NEIL, 25
Pitcher in the New York Mets system
FOR HALF OF the year, I’m usually doing something — playing professional baseball — that only a handful of people on this planet are paid to do. For the other half, I’m selling stretchy pants.
That’s what ran through my mind when I worked at Lululemon, the high-end athletic wear chain, on Melrose in West Hollywood during the 2017 and 2018 offseasons. The store is in a trendy spot. I’d see influencers, people famous on YouTube and Instagram, and celebrities all the time. People like Tom DeLonge of Blink-182 and comedian Theo Von, who bought shorts in every color we had.
I’d also see big league baseball players. And I hated it.
They dropped money like I wished I could. I lived on the sale rack. During my shifts, I snagged the marked-down items and put them next to the register to buy after I clocked out. I would have been dumb not to take advantage of the employee discount — 75% off the original price.
One Christmas Eve, with the racks practically empty, Trevor Bauer, who’s now with the Reds, came in looking for a gift for his brother at the eleventh hour. A co-worker, after he found out who Bauer was, couldn’t wait to tell him that I played for the Mets — leaving out the fact that I was just a minor leaguer. Bauer must’ve been scratching his head, wondering why a Mets player worked at Lululemon.
His response: That’s cool, but what do you have in stock?
That was embarrassing.
It’s unfortunate that I have to take jobs in the offseason to support myself, but I have to do what I have to do to chase my dream. I’m not ashamed — I’m not above it — but I’m frustrated that the 35 hours a week I’m putting toward a retail job takes away from my craft on the field. I’m forced to apply to places that won’t care if I’m only there for a few months. My professional resume is pretty good, but I can’t use it for anything right now. I’m not in one place long enough.
I don’t work at Lululemon anymore. I’ve worked so hard to be among the tiny percentage of people who get to play or teach baseball, yet there I was getting yelled at by wealthy tourists on shopping sprees while guys with big bonuses can afford to focus solely on baseball during the offseason and hire people to help them train. My encounter with Bauer was kind of a wake-up call. I just want to do something that uses the knowledge I have acquired over the years.
I had a gig lined up coaching a U16 baseball team for a nonprofit based in Orange County. It’s a year-round job, but even though I could only commit to seven months, they wanted me anyway — they’re excited to have an active player work with their kids. I planned to make connections with the parents so that I could give kids on the team private lessons. That’d be another stream of income.
I applied in late June, a couple of months into the pandemic. Four days later, I got the job. Two days after that, I was told that the team’s founder decided that the assistant coaches wouldn’t be paid. I want to be involved in baseball, but I’m not in the financial position to do so for free. I’ll do that when I’m a dad.
These days I work out as much as I can. I do the physical therapy prescribed to me after I tore my UCL completely off my bone. The doctors found it during my physical at spring training on March 13. I had surgery the next day.
I’m trying to apply for unemployment. It can be tricky if you’re an athlete. Because I’m employed by the Mets but live in California, I woke up at 4:30 a.m. one day in late July so I could beat the people calling in from New York to apply. I dialed the number 20 times before I finally got through. I’ll find out if I get unemployment in a few weeks.
In the meantime, maybe I’ll find a job at a surf shop. But I’m not going back to Lululemon.
BREINER LICONA, 21
MY DAUGHTER, ELIANNA SOFIA, was born in January in Fort Myers, Florida. Two months later, my fiancée, Alyze, and I put her in a car seat in the back of Alyze’s Suzuki Grand Vitara and drove two hours from Fort Myers to Miami, where I kissed them both goodbye and boarded a flight to Colombia. I haven’t seen them since.
My trip back to my hometown of Cartagena after baseball shut down because of the coronavirus was supposed to be a quick one. I thought this virus outbreak would go away. I’m the youngest of six brothers, and I needed to check on the rest of my family here. I help support them too. Last season, I saved my meal money to send back home. The Red Sox were giving us $20 a day, so I’d send my family about $100 or $120 a month. When I returned to Cartagena during the offseason, I drove an Uber and took a second job as a comisionista, a driver who runs errands for people in the neighborhood who can’t do it themselves — a common practice in South America.
Things are desperate in Colombia now. There are many positive COVID-19 cases and few resources. The government has mandated a national quarantine. No one can enter or exit the country. International flights are still grounded.
So I’m stranded 1,200 miles from my daughter. When I left, I told Alyze I’d be back soon. Weeks turned into a month, and one month turned into five. It’s impossible to predict how much longer it’ll be. All I can do is wait until the airports open and I’m allowed to travel again.
Elianna is 7 months old now, and I’m watching her grow via daily video calls on WhatsApp. Alyze and I are planning to get married when I can make it back to Florida.
I’m concerned about how I’m going to support my daughter. It’s almost impossible to find work here in South America now. After the season shut down, the Red Sox continued to pay us $370 a week, after taxes. I’ve sent as much of that as I can to Alyze.
Then, on May 28, more than two months after I left Fort Myers, I got a call telling me that the Red Sox had released me. I was told that the pandemic had forced the organization to make a tough financial decision. The payments stopped. I felt like my dreams had collapsed.
The Red Sox said they won’t cancel my P-1 visa, which is for foreign athletes who are working in the U.S. I’m hoping to sign with another team. I’ve heard from a few scouts but nothing more.
In the meantime, I’m working out wherever I can, with help from my brothers. I take batting practice in the street, hitting soft tosses into a black tarp I set up a few steps from my front door. I crouch on my front sidewalk and practice receiving the ball as a catcher.
Just steps away from where I train, my family has opened up a fruits and vegetables stand in the shaded part of the sidewalk. We fill used crates with bananas and pineapples and sell them — for about 80 cents per 2 pounds. We’ll take whatever money we can get. –-Gueorgui Milkov contributed to this report, which was translated from Spanish
TREY COBB, 26
Pitcher in the New York Mets system
WHEN I FOUND OUT that my wife, Kaci, and I were having twins in 2019, I knew I needed to retire from baseball.
We sat in the car outside the office, where we had just received this unexpected, life-changing news and stared through the windshield into our future. We were excited about the twins’ eventual arrival but worried about how we’d provide for them. We’d soon be at Buy Buy Baby saying, “We need two of those, and two of those …” How could we afford it all? I looked at Kaci and she looked back at me — and we arrived at the same conclusion before either of us had said a word.
I needed a new job.
I was making $700 every two weeks, but only during the five months out of the year that I pitch in the Mets’ system. After my first year in the pros, 2017, I returned to Oklahoma during the offseason and took a job at Ross Dress for Less, the discount department store. I toiled in the stock room from 7 a.m. to noon before I drove about an hour to Oklahoma State, where I was taking the last course I needed to finish my economics degree.
But minor league baseball isn’t for the family man. So after we showed the ultrasound video to my parents in early 2019, I told them that I was done.
They stopped me and said they didn’t want me to regret giving up on something that has been my life’s passion. They told us later, after the babies were born, that we could move to Tulsa and live with them.
Even with my parents’ help, it hasn’t been easy. Not long before I found out I’d be a father, I underwent Tommy John surgery to repair a ligament in my elbow. I was out for the 2019 season, and instead of playing, I rehabbed at the Mets’ facility in Florida. Kaci and I lived with four of my college teammates in a three-bedroom place. Kaci had one rule: She had to have her own bathroom. Because of that, and our dog, we got the master bedroom. It wasn’t all bad. In August, the team sent me home to Oklahoma. So we packed up our belongings, moved out of the place we shared with my teammates and started over. The babies were born two months early, on Oct. 20. We spent the next 45 days in the neonatal ICU.
The Mets were as supportive as an organization could be. Instead of forcing me to show up in person for rehab updates, they told me to stay home with the twins. Jared Banner, executive director of player development, calls and texts regularly. You don’t get that in every organization, where you feel like part of the family.
This past January, I reported to Florida to continue rehabbing. When the baseball season shut down because of the pandemic, I returned to Tulsa and started giving baseball lessons. Business is booming because kids are playing tournaments here in Oklahoma. I’ll give one kid a lesson, and then the rest of the team will want to come. I’m doing 20 lessons a week now and making close to $4,200 a month. That’s almost as much as I make in an entire season playing. Kaci and I have our own place now, and we’re trying to save as much money as we can so we can use it to cover our expenses during the season when baseball starts up again.
When it does, I’ll have to figure out how to support my family on $700 every two weeks.
CARLOS SUNIAGA, 23
Pitcher in the Minnesota Twins system
Fort Myers, Florida
I WAS NERVOUS. It was the end of May, when teams were releasing minor leaguers because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I was sitting in my dorm room at the Twins’ complex in Fort Myers, Florida, alone with my thoughts.
I thought about the Tommy John surgery I’d had eight months earlier, the one I was still rehabbing from — a surgery that would prevent me from signing with another team if Minnesota let me go.
My family — they needed the income from my baseball career to survive. They lived on the $200 — split between my mom and dad, who are separated — I send to Venezuela every two weeks. They needed the U.S. dollar to get by. Venezuelan money, the bolivar, is worthless because the economy has collapsed. Salaries for those who can find jobs are equivalent to $3 or $4 U.S. a month, and a carton of eggs can cost $5.
When I was signed by the Twins in November 2014, I got a $70,000 signing bonus. I had to send $21,000 of it to the baseball academy that I was signed out of back home. I also bought an apartment in Venezuela — I rent it out when I can find people who can afford to pay — and gave some to my parents.
Where I’m from, there aren’t many other sources of income. I grew up on Margarita Island, off the coast of the Venezuelan mainland in the Caribbean. We rely on tourism; it’s where people go on vacation, which isn’t happening now. Venezuelan baseball players, who usually play winter ball back home for offseason income, can’t even do that now. Last year, MLB banned anyone under contract with its teams from playing due to U.S. economic sanctions against the regime of Venezuela.
When other players returned to their countries when spring training was canceled, the Twins allowed me to stay in Fort Myers and continue to do my rehab. That brings me back to that dorm room with the two double beds. I had it all to myself. I was on the floor, between the beds, strengthening my arm; the Twins gave me exercises to do with a band and light weights.
A friend knocked on the door of my dorm room, bursting in.
The Twins, he told me, would not be releasing anyone. I still had a job.
I was ecstatic. I celebrated. Then I got back to work.