Today was supposed to be Opening Day across Major League Baseball. Life has been turned upside down around the world, however, because of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Here in America, almost every major sport has had their season suspended or cancelled. Schools are closed and huge amounts of people are either working from home or not able to work at all as many non-essential businesses have closed their doors to help stop the spread of the virus. Those in ‘essential’ fields — including doctors, nurses, and healthcare personnel as well the workers in grocery and convenience stores, pharmacies, garbage collection, restaurants that are still serving delivery, takeout, or through the drive-thru, over-the-road and delivery drivers, maintenance personnel (like myself!), civil servants, and many others are out on the “front lines” trying to keep things running while much of society is shut in at home.
Among those at home and worrying about what the future will bring are thousands of minor league baseball players who were sent home on March 15th. According to Milwaukee Brewers pitching prospect Luke Barker, “it definitely was shocking to see that happen. Everybody had obviously been tracking the news with the virus but to see it escalate basically overnight was pretty surreal. Fortunately the organization was proactive about getting us out, so I was able to get home with no problems.”
While it was a shock to learn that camp was shut down, it did not come as a surprise to most players. One anonymous player that I spoke with (we’ll call him Player A) said “after seeing the NBA and college sports get shut down I knew it was only a matter of time before baseball did too.” Player A lives in the southwest part of the country and had an easy time making it back home, but another player that I talked to who that had to travel a bit further praised how Milwaukee handled the situation. “The days leading up to leaving were crazy because it was so sudden,” said Player B, who hails from the pacific northwest. “Spring Training was shut down Thursday and Friday we were told to pack up our stuff. But traveling home was not an issue.”
Player C is a pitcher who hails from the opposite side of the country in the New England area, but he had already secured a rental house near the Spring Training facility with a few other minor leaguers. They elected to stay in Arizona and do whatever possible to stay in shape without access to the team’s actual facility. “We haven’t gotten any guidance (from the Brewers) other than notifying us that the facility is closed for all non 40-man player. Me and a few other minor leaguers have been throwing and running in an open field by our house. We went to a sporting goods store and bought some simple gym equipment so that we can do workouts in our garage. It’s difficult, but having teammates around to encourage and motivate has made things go about as well as you could hope.”
Player A and Player B lamented the lack of communication and direction from the club in the early days of this dark period, as well. “I haven’t gotten a ton of guidance yet,” Player B, a position player, said. “I know the coaches are supposed to be calling players in the coming days. I’m just doing home workouts and looking to find weights to make workouts better. Most of the cages are shut down so I can’t do too much.” According to Player A, who is a pitcher, “I’m working out on my own and throwing into a net. I haven’t received any guidance from the parent club. I honestly haven’t received any guidance from anyone at all which is making this whole situation difficult. I’ve been finding things out through Twitter and other social media platforms.”
At this point, the players I spoke with aren’t exactly sure what to expect when it comes to the eventual resumption of the baseball season. “I’m trying to stay optimistic,” Player A stated. “I will prepare to play this year. I’ll stay ready for someone to call me and be at the field.” Barker echoed a similar sentiment — “I do expect there to be baseball this year. It may look very different than what we are all used to, but my job is to stay ready for the season no matter when that may end up being.” Players B and C were more reserved. “Having the business mindset, it would shock me if we didn’t play this year,” Player B began, “but that being said, if we start the season and someone catches the virus, then we will most likely be suspended again. So you have to be really careful. It wouldn’t surprise me if it’s June before we play.” Player C agreed with that general timeline, saying “realistically, it seems like it will be mid-June to mid-July when games could start.”
With all this extra free time, players are trying to figure out how to keep busy and stay safe. “I try to limit my interactions with others to the people in the house I’m living with. Use common sense and good hygiene seems to be the best action plan for this so far,” says Player C. “I’m pretty just staying inside,” added Player B. Naturally, all this time stuck indoors has led to plenty of video game playing. “I’ve played a lot of MLB the Show! Have to get my baseball fix in somehow,” Player B explained. Other popular responses to this question from the group I talked to included playing cards, reading, watching movies and TV, cleaning the house, whatever small workouts can be done, and according to Luke Barker, “an absurd amount of dog walks. I have two dogs and they are enjoying all this attention very much.”
Major League Baseball and the Players’ Association recently approved a measure to make sure that minor league players are paid a weekly stipend through April 8th, but after that, the salary situation for players like the ones I spoke to remains unclear. Minor League Opening Day was supposed to be on April 9th, with most players planning on receiving their first regular baseball paychecks since last September on the 15th. Because the players are still technically under contract with their clubs, they are not able to file for unemployment while the season is suspended. “I do get worried that I won’t make ends meet,” Player A said. “My wife is still working so we have a little bit of income. We are being smart with budgeting and I think we will be fine. But I really worry about other people that aren’t luck enough to have any source of income. It’s a scary situation.”
Luke Barker elaborated further. “We are all waiting to see what the full extent of the financial piece is going to entail. I know lots of guys are worried about it, as most of us were counting on those in-season paychecks starting. It’s hard not to worry in a situation like this where there is no precedent, because minor leaguers don’t have a seat at the table during these types of discussions. But at the same time it’s important to be patient, and to realize that there is a lot of good being done all around baseball to help people get through this.”
We are in the midst of a frightening and unprecedented point in history, and while players are concerned about their futures, they are not losing sight of the larger struggles of the communities around them. “It’s easy to get frustrated or angry in a situation like this for a whole host of reasons,” Barker says, “but it’s important to remember there are circumstances in the world outside of just your own. The most important thing right now is keeping each other safe.”
One final bit of parting wisdom from Player C:
“I hope this period away from baseball gives players and fans a renewed appreciation for how special this game is. In today’s world it is not difficult to find things or people to be negative about. I know I have had my times where I have complained too much. It is such a privilege to get to put on a jersey and play. I just watched my friends in college have their athletic careers end abruptly in the blink of an eye because of COVID-19. Some of them will never get to play meaningful baseball ever again. I couldn’t imagine what I would do if I were in their shoes. All I can do from my perspective is make sure that I appreciate every day that I get to still play by giving 110% and not complain so much about the little things that don’t really matter.”
Stay safe everyone, and keep the plights faced by these minor leaguer ballplayers — the future of your Milwaukee Brewers — in your thoughts.