Minor league players sent scrambling by closed spring camps

Sports

A sign outside Hammond Stadium reads “spring training suspended” after a baseball game was cancelled between the Minnesota Twins and the Baltimore Orioles, Thursday, March 12, 2020, in Fort Myers, Fla. Major League Baseball has suspended the rest of its spring training game schedule because if the coronavirus outbreak. MLB is also delaying the start of its regular season by at least two weeks. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

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PHOENIX (AP) — For most, the news was delivered via text message or email.

“All minor league players and staff will be sent home over the next 24-48 hours. This is not to be repeated, but for your information to start preparing,” the Colorado Rockies told players in an email.

“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are closing our facility and suspending spring training,” the Milwaukee Brewers wrote to their minor leaguers. “Players that are currently rehabbing should remain in Phoenix. All others should make plans to travel home as soon as tomorrow, Saturday 3/14.”

“We encourage everyone to go home until further notice,” the Chicago White Sox told players. “If it is unsafe for you to travel, or there may be challenges in a return to the US, you may remain here, but this must be discussed and cleared by the organization.”

Those communications, sent Friday and obtained by The Associated Press, left minor leaguers at spring training camps in Florida and Arizona scrambling. Most were told to go home, including players from Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and other countries, despite concerns they may have trouble returning to the U.S.

Baseball players are only paid in-season — which does not include spring training — and the minimum yearly salary at Class A was only $5,800 last season. In lieu of paychecks, many minor leaguers depend on team complexes for housing, meals and workout facilities during spring camp. Most also get a per diem of $100-200 per week.

For most players, that all disappeared when Major League Baseball suspended spring training Friday.

“We will be pretending this is just the offseason,” one player recalled being told by a team official in a meeting Friday, when he was informed he must leave. All minor leaguers who spoke to The Associated Press for this story did so on condition of anonymity due to concerns that teams might punish them for speaking publicly.

That player had been at a camp in Florida and spoke to the AP on Sunday while driving to a friend’s place in Texas — he’s from the West Coast and didn’t want to take his car across the entire country.

He has about $800 in his bank account, no second job lined up and no idea how he’ll make ends meet until spring camps re-open — and he has no idea when that will be.

“How are you supposed to get a job when you don’t know when you’re coming back?” he said. “And that’s without this whole outbreak situation. Because of the COVID-19 deal, most people are working from home, and they’re not hiring, they’re cutting hours.”

That player said he followed the lead of Oakland minor league pitcher Peter Bayer and signed up for a food-delivery job, but he was unsure how much work that would provide. Bayer tweeted Thursday night about his new part-time gig.

“Who knows what’s going to happen with the MILB/pay,” he wrote.“So I decided to start driving with Door Dash tonight. $62 in 3 hours… not too bad.”

Filing for unemployment isn’t an option either, since players are under contract by major league teams and are thus ineligible for those benefits.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus within a few weeks.

Major League Baseball left it up to individual teams to determine how best to handle their minor leaguers amid the outbreak.

New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said Friday the team planned to let minor leaguers stay in camp, although that was before learning Sunday that a player had tested positive for the virus. It’s unclear if New York will continue to let players stay at the facility.

Brewers executive David Stearns said Sunday the club sent nearly all minor league players home but made exceptions for a few who didn’t feel safe returning to their home countries. He said those “players will remain here and we’re working through what the next couple of weeks will look like for them.”

The Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox also said they hoped to let minor leaguers stay in camp if they preferred.

“This may be the best option for them,” Red Sox executive Chaim Bloom said. “And we want to make sure that is a good option.”

Most clubs weren’t so generous.

Phoenix Sky Harbor airport was teeming with minor league players Friday night. Around 8:30 p.m., the check-in line at the American Airlines counter included players from the Padres, Dodgers, Indians, the entire South African baseball team and even Hall of Famer Iván Rodríguez.

One player at a spring complex in Florida was told Friday he must leave, even though he was hesitant to return home because his father works in a nursing home and he has family members who are at-risk for the virus.

He is staying at a teammate’s house in Florida hoping the delay is only a few weeks. The team said it would continue to provide per diem through March 25, but he’s unsure what happens if he has to stretch much longer than that.

“The past couple days haven’t really felt like anything,” he said. “It’s a numb experience that I can’t really put the words to.”

Teams are telling players to be prepared to return to spring training and ramp up for the regular season at a date to be determined. That means the athletes need to find somewhere to train — a tricky scenario with many gyms and batting cages closing amid the outbreak. Players are concerned about returning to camp out of shape and getting injured or cut.

Even for the teams permitting players to train at team complexes, it’s unclear if that arrangement will last. MLB is expected to update teams on its policy Monday.

Players who spoke to the AP for this story said there are other ways MLB teams can help, most notably by continuing to provide meal money and the salaries players would have made beginning opening day April 9.

Until then, many are seeking aid elsewhere. More Than Baseball, a nonprofit support group for minor leaguers, has been operating an online fundraiser, and some players have signed up with the @adoptmilbplayerTwitter account to find individual fan sponsors.

It’s more than the player driving to Texas is expecting from his major league club.

“The way they’ve handled this has been really upsetting,” he said. “You have a national emergency and you’re not going above and beyond for your players, and that’s just awful to me.”

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AP Baseball Writer Noah Trister and freelancer Andrew Wagner contributed to this report.

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