When Michael Rivers started the “Adopt a Minor Leaguer” program in February, he only planned to assist with food and cash over long seasons of low pay. Now, a month later, his work looks different—providing a lifeline to players who were sent home from camp amid a global pandemic, with no idea when they’ll receive their next paycheck, and no sense of when they’ll be allowed to return.
As the novel coronavirus outbreak has shut down baseball, MiLB players have been thrust into a difficult situation. They already face frustratingly low pay during the season and no pay at all during spring training. But now they’ve been ordered home—difficult in itself, for foreign players who worry about potential future travel restrictions—where they must remain in playing shape and figure out a way to pay their bills. With no idea of when they will be called back to camp, they can’t easily seek immediate work at home, and they can’t file for unemployment benefits while still under contract with their clubs. Teams have not stepped in to pay. So fans have answered with the ultimate modern solution: They’re crowdfunding. And, in a particularly unflattering statement on the quality of life in the minors, the crowdfunded efforts to pay players in a pandemic aren’t new. They’re the ones that already existed to pay players under previous conditions.
Rivers, 39, lives in Eagan, Minn., with his wife and two children. Before Adopt a Minor Leaguer, he had no previous involvement with baseball beyond his fandom (Twins), but after a painful winter, he was in search of anything to make him feel better. His father was diagnosed with lung cancer in November and learned that it had spread in January. In the days that followed, Rivers wanted to find a distraction. So he landed on Twitter, where he saw former Twins farmhand Todd van Steensel, now in indy ball, posting about the difficulties of his seven years in the minors.
“I started to see more about the truth about what minor leaguers don’t get paid, that they don’t get paid for spring training, and they get paid very little during the season,” says Rivers. “And at that point, I was like—giving always makes you feel better.”
So he reached out to van Steensel and asked if he could help him out a little. When he said yes, Rivers, who works in a restaurant, sent along some money on Venmo. It made him feel better. He asked van Steensel if he had any friends still in the Twins’ system who could use some help, too. Then Rivers had the idea for an organization that could be much bigger than himself.
By the time that pitchers and catchers reported, Rivers had registered @AdoptMiLBPlayer on Twitter. He looked for players in need and sponsors who would “adopt” them for the season—$100 to $150 in supplies, gift cards, or cash, sent each month. At the end of February, players started to share photos of their first care packages, modest collections of snacks and toiletries that still made a significant difference for men who worked without pay for spring training.
And then, two weeks later, camps were closed and players were scrambling. Now, a care package or cash infusion, no matter how small, meant even more.
Rivers was contacted by another organization that supports minor leaguers, a non-profit called More Than Baseball, which has helped players with housing, nutrition, and career services since 2018. Together, they set up a fundraiser to help minor leaguers while baseball is suspended, where people can make one-time donations if they’re unable to do the season-long commitment of Adopt a Minor Leaguer.
To distribute the money, they’re fielding stories from scores of panicked players, left financially stranded.
“if you spent however much money on housing, you’re forced home. If you spent however much money shipping your car out here, too damn bad,” says Jeremy Wolf, the executive director of More Than Baseball. “Guys are having to do unbelievable things without the support of anybody, and they’re professional baseball players, so on the whole, people don’t care—until we bring out these stories, until we talk about why it matters, until we talk about, yeah, these are employees of billion-dollar organizations that are being treated like shit.”
Wolf recalled a player who was sent home to Venezuela, even though his hometown is hours from the airport. His club told him to file for reimbursement for the cab. “But you can’t reimburse somebody who doesn’t have money to begin with,” Wolf says. “So we gave him $200 for his taxi ride.” Rivers mentioned a player who spent the majority of each minor-league paycheck last year on daycare for his young son, now without savings and scrambling to make arrangements for his family. Behind each of these stories is a dozen similar ones.
Rivers has now matched 260 players through Adopt a Minor Leaguer, with at least one from each of the 30 parent clubs, and others have been helped through the fundraiser with More Than Baseball. With baseball suspended for more than a month—and minor-league paychecks, too, if clubs do not make a change—Rivers and Wolf hope to be able to help even more.
For Miguel Pabon, a 19-year-old infielder with the Cubs, his first care package with Adopt a Minor Leaguer was a small source of joy and relief back in February. His second one is now crucial to helping him survive in March. Back home in Puerto Rico, he’s relying on a combination of the cash from his care package and the meal money that the Cubs handed out when he left Arizona. When that runs out, he is not sure what will be next.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but it comes with a lot of things that people don’t see from the outside,” Pabon says of life as a minor leaguer. “They don’t see the struggle… So the first time you see a program like this, you don’t know if it’s for real, but it is. If you need help, don’t be afraid to ask.”