Thousands of minor leaguers survive on baseball earnings below poverty line
Sun., Sept. 4, 2016
AUGUSTA, Ga. – They trickled into the mid-July night, a rain-shortened loss beginning their Friday night early. A 25-year-old catcher hung back.
Matt Paré chatted with teammates and underwent a long treatment session as other Augusta GreenJackets players exited through a clubhouse door wedged open with a broken bat. He kept himself awake with a marathon shower.
By the time Paré dressed, he had the clubhouse to himself, along with what was left of the GreenJackets’ postgame buffet.
“What have we got, Sarge?” he called toward clubhouse manager Kristopher Nichols, a former Army drill sergeant who appreciates – and usually rewards – Paré’s resourcefulness.
Paré is the oldest player for the San Francisco Giants’ Class A affiliate, and he begins most homestands by waiting out his teammates in order to stockpile free food.
Far away from major league baseball’s mighty salaries and Hollywood glitz, Paré is among the thousands of minor leaguers who survive on baseball earnings below the federal poverty line. Baseball has in recent years parlayed renewed popularity into record earnings, leveraging apparel and media demands into $9.5 billion in revenue last year; its 30 franchises averaged $23 million in profits in 2015, and many of its minor league affiliates saw attendance figures and team values continue a steady climb.
But the overwhelming majority of players in professional baseball’s extensive player development system never see a cut of that wealth. More than 80 percent of draft picks will never reach the big leagues, and most live on salaries of less than $10,000 per season; the starting salary for a first-year player, paid only during the regular season, is $1,100 a month.
“You always question yourself: Should I be doing this?” said Paré, who says he is making about $7,500 in salary during this 22-week season – a little more than $340 a week, or about $8.50 an hour.
Paré shares a two-bedroom apartment with three teammates. He has, in four years as a professional ballplayer, accumulated a mountain of credit card debt.
His experience is typical among players on professional baseball’s ground floor, highlighting that financial struggle is, as much as promotional nights and floodlit nostalgia, a minor league tradition. One that might, according to a lawsuit filed against Major League Baseball two years ago, violate federal and state minimum wage laws.
“The organization traces its roots to the nineteenth century,” reads the suit, filed in a California district court and led by 41 former players. “Unfortunately for many of its employees, its wage and labor practices remain stuck there.”
MLB has denied that its organizational structure is unlawful, saying it provides opportunity to thousands of young athletes who want to make it to the big leagues. Indeed, many players say the sacrifices are worth it.
“In reality I just wanted a chance,” said Wilmer Difo, a Dominican-born player who, before being called up by the Washington Nationals last year, spent five seasons in the minor leagues and spent the majority of the 2013 season sleeping on an air mattress in an apartment with five other players. “That’s everyone’s dream, to get to the major leagues. But it’s not always going to be like that. Not everyone. Unfortunately, not everyone, but there are a lot of people that depend on it anyway.”
Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred indicated to reporters in July that additional regulation could ultimately lead to smaller minor league rosters or fewer teams.
The lawsuit has nonetheless turned a spotlight on a shadowy corner of a game in which players routinely put in 60-hour work weeks and face continual personal and professional obstacles in the name of chasing a dream.
Athletes from Latin America are particularly at risk. Many come to the United States from impoverished backgrounds with little or no knowledge of English, and lack both the cultural understanding of life in the country and network of family and friends that can help ease the burden. They are guaranteed a salary, health insurance and not much else.
But there are reasons they keep playing: Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw’s $33.8 million annual salary is the game’s richest, and the average major league player earns $4.4 million per season. When the GreenJackets’ season began, their highest salary belonged to Adam Sonabend, an undrafted 24-year-old catcher. His biweekly paycheck, after taxes, is $671.
That’s enough for Sonabend to have his own bedroom, which is more than his three roommates can say. GreenJackets pitchers Michael Connolly and Jake McCasland share a room, and Paré sleeps on a mattress on the dining room floor.
Before heading home on this July night, Paré loaded a serving bin with chicken thighs and vegetarian lasagna; Nichols encouraged him to take as much as he wants.
At nearly midnight, Paré finally headed for the clubhouse door, carrying his bounty with both hands.
Only enough to eat
Barb Rothstein used to stay up late after her husband went to bed, opening beers and listening to the young men’s stories.
Barb and Bob invited the first of the players on the Norwich Navigators, at the time a New York Yankees Class AA affiliate, to live rent-free in their Connecticut basement in 1996. Two years later, after visiting a few Latin American prospects’ apartment shocking for both its grime and the landlord’s price gouging, there were a dozen players and two wives spread through the house on futons, a mattress in their living room, sharing a room with their son.
“I’m not the warm and fuzzy type,” Barb would say much later. “But there was something about their living situations that I just couldn’t stand.”
Some of the tales common on the minor league circuit are amusing: how smaller prospects sometimes climb into the team bus’s luggage bin to sleep, the way a good meal on the road is a jug of peanut butter before flies or sweaty fingers contaminate it, that it was a good bet the team’s bat boys were paid more per hour than the players.
“I would be very confident to say that anyone working in that stadium was making more than we were, no matter what job they had,” said Brett Newsome, a former Nationals farmhand and one of dozens of current and former minor leaguers interviewed for this story. Newsome is among the co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit against MLB.
Players travel with air mattresses, sometimes the only constant in a life of change, and essentials aren’t easy to come by. One former first-round draft pick said teammates often asked him to “over-order” baseball equipment from sponsors and distribute the extras within the clubhouse. Luxuries are even rarer: A trick known throughout the minors is to buy a television from Walmart, use its box as a stand and return the TV on the 89th day of a 90-day return policy for a refund.
Other stories are sad. Many of the Dominican players had been discovered in their early teens by buscónes, or searchers, the unlicensed scouts who work on commission and compel young and hopeful athletes to abandon their educations to play baseball full-time. The controversial system, in which players guarantee the buscón up to half of any future signing bonus in exchange for exposure to major league teams, is an inexpensive way for franchises to expand their scouting networks and for poverty-stricken families to go all-in on a high-risk gambit.
If a player does eventually sign, he is sent to some faraway outpost to begin the climb through baseball’s ranks. From there they attempt to gain footing in a new culture and are taught to play ball without complaints while nonetheless sending portions of their meager earnings to their families back home.
Difo said he made between $400 and $500 every two weeks — or, he said in Spanish, “only enough to eat” after sending his mother a couple hundred dollars from each paycheck — until his salary multiplied six-fold when he was added in 2014 to the Nationals’ 40-man roster. Another former player, the Venezuela-born pitcher Jose Mejias, signed with the Philadelphia Phillies at age 16 and spoke so little English he only felt comfortable communicating with hand gestures. After a few months, teammates started calling him “El Mudo,” or The Mute.
John Wesley, a former minor league player and pitching coach, said he used to sneak water to Dominican players because their apartment’s tap output was brown and the young men could not spare $1.50 for a bottle. “These poor kids,” said Wesley, who coached in the Toronto Blue Jays system. “It’s a pyramid scam: Everything goes to the top. Nothing comes down.”
The Rothsteins, one of many host families who offer housing to minor leaguers, fit dozens of players in their 2,000-square foot house until a few years ago. Barb said they came to love their guests, and when one player moved up the ladder or gave up the dream, another took his place.
In 2008, after the Giants took over the Norwich team, a tall 24-year-old pitcher named Garrett Broshuis moved in. He was from small-town Missouri and bookish, and like Barb, he too collected stories.
Every once in a while, as he and Barb shared a few of their favorites, he’d wonder aloud if the system would ever change.
Challenging a system
Broshuis’s office window overlooks downtown St. Louis and the Mississippi River, a wall decorated with reminders of an old life and a new one: his rookie card next to his admittance to the Missouri Bar Association.
“I still love the game,” Broshuis said, though a decade after signing a contract to play professional baseball, he was declaring war on it. In February 2014, he filed the lawsuit against MLB, its 30 franchises and former Commissioner Bud Selig. In it, he referred to the league as a “cartel.”
A former all-American at Missouri, he had tried, years earlier, to keep quiet and play. When a group of fans in Norwich watched him push-start the broken-down pickup he shared with a teammate, he shook it off as paying his dues. When he invited his then-girlfriend to his meager apartment, finding a room flooded by a neighbor’s toilet upstairs, he assured himself brighter days awaited.
He chronicled his experiences in articles for the Sporting News, though he squashed the grittier anecdotes and submitted the entries to the Giants for approval. But as the years passed, the stories ate away at his resolve: the Venezuelan teammate who struggled each month to send $20 back home to his pregnant girlfriend, the young pitchers worrying each month about how they’d pay their student loans.
He was told by team officials that he was lucky to play, that the system had been in place for decades, that if he wanted to make more money, he should get better.
Four days after his final game in 2009, he took the Law School Admission Test and was later accepted into Saint Louis University’s law school. He spoke with professors about a long-term plan to challenge a system that succeeded in part because the hopeful and desperate athletes continued to accept it for one prevailing reason: They always had.
MLB filed an answer to the suit last year, denying the allegations in Broshuis’ complaint. A league spokesman declined an interview request for this story, referring the Washington Post to a June statement comparing players to “artists, musicians and other creative professionals who are exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act.”
“Like those professionals,” the MLB statement went on, “it is simply impractical to treat professional athletes as hourly employees.”
Ways to cut costs
Paré was on his 38th consecutive hour awake – games on consecutive nights and in stadiums 426 miles apart, one pitch to the head in the first one, a nine-hour bus ride in which he wasn’t allowed to sleep because he was being evaluated for a possible concussion – and now it was approaching midnight.
He put the leftover chicken and lasagna into the fridge, and when he opened the sliding pantry door it fell off the track.
“Believe it or not,” he said of the apartment, “the last place was worse.”
In this complex west of town, roughly 10 units are filled – packed, in some cases – with GreenJackets players and coaches. In here, the air conditioning rumbles and the front door must be slammed to close; Paré sat on carpet singed in places by a previous tenant, examining the lens on his video camera.
All four players in this second-floor apartment hold second jobs at least part of the year. Connolly works construction during offseasons, McCasland is a substitute teacher and Sonabend spends part of the morning hours organizing online inventory for a pharmaceutical company. None pays especially well, but they provide enough financial oxygen to keep the dream alive.
Paré makes YouTube videos that poke fun at the plight of a “homeless minor leaguer,” a light-hearted look at the lonely hours and inelegant lifestyle the common fan rarely sees. “You can sponsor a player right now,” he implores viewers in one video inspired by those old “Save the Children” ads. Paré ends most videos by soliciting donations, and a good month – he collected $83 in July – means he doesn’t have to negotiate food prices at Waffle House.
A 26th-round draft pick out of high school by Houston in 2009, Paré elected to play at Boston College rather than accept the Astros’ offer, which he said included a $200,000 signing bonus. He tore a meniscus as a sophomore, and scouts never viewed him the same. He wasn’t drafted after his junior and senior seasons, but after a tryout in June 2013, the Giants offered him a contract – this one offering $1,000 to sign.
He met Sonabend, another undrafted former college catcher, at a voluntary camp last year before spring training. They traded stories and agreed that luck and persistence had led them to the professional ranks. Sonabend reached Class AA Richmond last season, collecting a salary increase because of service time at a higher level, and this spring they were assigned to Augusta. Sonabend and Paré agreed to room together with Connolly and McCasland, collaborating on ways to cut costs: Paré sleeping in the dining room because the other residents pay for the internet, Sonabend buying eggs a few times a week in exchange for use of Paré’s SUV.
Evenings are spent at the ballpark or at fan events; Paré has perfected the art of asking boosters for donations. This year the roommates have scored eyedrops, a few jugs of coffee, laundry detergent, a sofa and a potholder set.
As Friday turned to Saturday, Paré not yet able to wind down, Connolly and McCasland came in through the front door and one of them wrestled it closed.
“I brought lasagna!” Paré announced, but his roommates had stopped at a restaurant on the way home.
Connolly wished he had known.
“That could’ve saved me some bucks,” the 24-year-old pitcher said.
Paré returned his attention to the camera, a few ideas in mind for new videos, and Connolly approached the pantry. The door again fell off the track, and Connolly slammed it.
“This whole place is a joke,” he said, and all Paré could do was laugh.
Waiting for the phone to ring
Paré was living rent-free in a cousin’s spare bedroom last fall when the email arrived: “The purpose of this Notice,” it read, “is to inform you of the existence of a collective action lawsuit against Major League Baseball.”
A group of former minor leaguers had formed a movement against the league, and hundreds more were adding their names.
He thought about it and talked to people he trusted. He read articles about the attorney who had once played for the same organization now leading a charge against MLB. Paré wondered if, like the 1968 uprising that ultimately led to free agency, a victory here would be good for the game.
And in the end, he couldn’t be certain it would. He believed the Giants (who through a spokeswoman declined to comment for this article) and MLB had, all told, been good to him. Around 2,300 current and former players would opt-in on the suit, but Paré would not be one of them. He didn’t want to take a side.
He reported for spring training last February, reconnecting with Sonabend and Connolly, who also received the email but refused to add their names.
“If I signed it,” Connolly said, “it would almost be like me not appreciating the opportunity.”
Sonabend saw it similarly.
“I knew what I was getting into,” he said, “and I worked for it anyway.”
Last month, a California magistrate judge stripped the suit of its conditional class-action status. A setback, Broshuis admitted, but earlier this month the same judge granted a request to reconsider the class certification; a hearing is scheduled for Dec. 2.
For now, Broshuis and the 41 co-plaintiffs wait, and for different reasons so do the young men in the apartment in west Augusta: Paré increasingly realistic about his baseball fate, Sonabend seeing how a former baseball castaway can climb, Connolly defiantly hopeful that the phone will someday ring, a voice on the other end inviting him to a higher level in the game and a better lifestyle.
“It’s only going to be a couple years and you filter out,” Connolly said, “or you get that paycheck everybody dreams about.”
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