How are MiLB players going to live during the offseason, mid-pandemic?

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​Minor League Baseball players have to work in the offseason. Maybe not every minor-league player — a few early draft picks might have received large enough signing bonuses to avoid that fate, and the players on 40-man rosters are making a living wage thanks to being part of the Players Association with the protections and benefits that entail. But the vast majority of the thousands upon thousands of minor leaguers are making sub-poverty level wages, and for just a few months per year. In order to pay rent, eat, and continue to be able to train for their career, these players need to find second jobs to sustain themselves.

Just last year, you heard Randy Dobnak’s story, as he spent the time he wasn’t on a minor-league mound driving an Uber around so he could have enough money to make ends meet. He’s in the majors now, and has enough money to be donating to charitable causes because of it, so he’s one of the lucky ones who got through this gauntlet. Not everyone ends up with a Dobnak-esque happy ending. Tyler Cyr, a Giants’ minor leaguer who was also included in the above linked Dobnak story, hasn’t made it to the majors yet, and has just been living off of the stipend MLB teams gave out in place of pay during the months the Minor League Baseball regular season would have happened, if not for coronavirus. ESPN ran a story just last month on a number of minor-league players and the kinds of second jobs they have to pick up because their MiLB wages are nowhere near enough to live their life.

Now, how simple do you think finding a second job is during a pandemic? We won’t see September’s employment numbers until October, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ own site, but August featured an 8.4 unemployment rate. Back in February, before the pandemic had arrived in force and caused life to change, unemployment in the United States was at 3.5 percent. In April, it sat at 14.7 percent, and in May, might have actually been as high as 16 percent, but was announced as “just” 13 percent thanks to a classification error. Obviously, things have improved on the employment front, but part of that is because more and more businesses are reopening and forcing their employees back to work, and this has been deemed necessary for larger businesses that don’t mind sending their workers out to the front lines, and for smaller ones that aren’t seeing any additional help from the government and have their own vampiric landlords to deal with.

And “improved” is a relative concept here, anyway, since an 8.4 percent unemployment rate is still about five percentage points higher than the pre-pandemic rate, and a larger percentage than that pre-pandemic rate itself.

So, finding a job might not be a simple task, especially when at least some of that falling unemployment rate has less to do with new jobs opening up and being filled than it does old jobs reopening and being refilled by the same people who lost them in the first place. Where does that leave a minor-league player, who needs an offseason job or else they have no income until next season… if there even is a 2021 MiLB season, that is.

The players can’t even necessarily rely on their teams’ parent clubs for offseason work, despite MLB allowing instructional camps to open. Not every team is necessarily going to open an instructional camp for their minor-league players, precisely because they would have to pay them at their normal in-season salary. And not every player is eligible for these camps, either, even if their teams do host one. The camps, too, aren’t likely to just keep going in perpetuity until there is baseball or a new wave of stipends next spring, either, so what are these players supposed to do about their bills in the meantime?

Advocates for Minor Leaguers has been tweeting out a solution, and that’s for the stipends to be extended throughout the offseason. (Advocates for Minor Leaguers, you might remember, is an advocacy group founded by former players Garrett Broshuis, Matt Paré, and Ty Kelly, that I profiled for Baseball Prospectus earlier this season.) “Baseball is a $10 billion industry. No Minor League player should have to worry about their next meal during normal times, let alone during a global pandemic. Extend the stipends through the offseason.”

That’s the thing here. During “normal times,” this system of only paying players during the regular season is broken, and a difficult one for said players to live through. That’s why they have these second jobs, because even Triple-A players make worse than poverty-level wages, and only get those funds in-season. The problem — like with many, many other societal problems — is further exposed and exacerbated by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. MLB might want to gripe about lessened revenue because they put on a shorter season, and one without fans, but these minor leaguers should be considered charges under their care. They might not have a legal obligation to keep them fed and housed during an offseason coronavirus isn’t itself taking, but they have a moral obligation to do so.

Morals aren’t exactly a thing MLB clubs are known for caring about, though, so here we are, writing about an advocacy group for minor-league players tweeting about the need to treat those players like human beings. Extending the stipends is the kind of thing that should have just happened after the last of them were mailed out in August, at the standard end of the minor-league season. Instead, not doing that was the kind of thing you could see coming a mile (or a month, as it were) away. Congress never got their act together to ensure Americans were sent more money during the pandemic.* MLB didn’t react to that fact by decreeing that its teams were going to keep supporting MiLBers through a difficult and dangerous time: instead, they kept on with their plan to shrink the minors and their player development departments.

*Don’t worry, though, Congress will fill that recently opened Supreme Justice seat in a matter of weeks, so at least we’ll all have that going for us. 

As Advocates for Minor Leaguers has been sharing on their Twitter account, these players don’t have money left. That money was spent in order to get through the months they already survived. There was nothing of substance to save, and what little some of them might have managed to stash away by being extremely frugal throughout the last few months is already gone thanks to a few weeks of receiving nothing. You have to remember that the $400 per week stipend represented a significant raise for a lot of these players, as well as a drop in pay for some of the players who are better off than that because they’re at a higher level. It’s all just varying levels of precarity in focus here, and whatever dip in precariousness the stipends represented has vanished along with them.

MLB needs to reinstitute the stipends. MLB also needs to further increase minor-league pay and end the practice of sending out checks during the regular season only, but one major structural problem at a time seems to be about all they can manage. So let’s start with the stipends.

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