Peter Bayer was sitting in his car, waiting for an alert that would tell him where to go next. He’d been doing a lot of that lately, both in his personal life and his now uncertain baseball life.
It was about 3:30 p.m., the busy hours were ahead of him, he figured. People in Arizona were hunkering down at home in coronavirus self-isolation and opting to have food delivered. He got the buzz from DoorDash and it sent him to an Italian restaurant. Bayer isn’t the first person to turn to the gig economy during the coronavirus outbreak, and he won’t be the last. But he’s a bit more uncommon in another way. He’s also a professional baseball player, a minor-league pitcher in the Oakland Athletics system.
“I’m just waiting for a few more things to see if I should go home or not,” he said in the aftermath of Major League Baseball shutting down over the coronavirus, sending Bayer and thousands of other minor leaguers scattering around the country without much of a roadmap of what the next few months of their lives will be like.
Big leaguers? They’ll be fine. But minor leaguers? That’s a completely different story.
As baseball wrestles with opening day getting pushed back again — not until mid-May at the earliest now — and what a 2020 season might look like, Bayer is wrestling with something a bit more dire: When is his next paycheck going to come?
Minor leaguers looking for answers
When MLB suspended spring training last Thursday, leaving players at all levels in a lurch, Bayer didn’t know what to do. So he turned on DoorDash, made some deliveries and took home $62. For someone who last got a paycheck from baseball in August, that wasn’t too shabby.
“As minor league players, and as athletes, it affects us a lot,” Bayer told Yahoo Sports. “Now not only are we out of work, but we have nowhere to train.”
He’s still unsure what the future holds, whether to remain in Arizona, where he has a host family willing to let him stay, or head home to Colorado, where his family is. Nobody knows how long the coronavirus delay will last, but Bayer — a 26-year-old who had a 3.83 ERA in High A last year — knows he has to be ready to play ball when it’s over.
On Tuesday, it was reported that the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets and Tampa Bay Rays would continue to pay their minor leaguers their regular spring training stipends and meal allowances during the MLB shutdown, which will be a welcome relief to many players like Bayer. But that’s only a partial answer to one of about a dozen questions.
When MLB complexes shut down, Bayer started working out at a Lifetime Fitness gym in Arizona, because his family back in Colorado had a membership he could use. But he got news Monday that Lifetime was closing all of its locations because of COVID-19, so he found another hurdle in front of him. If he stays in Arizona, he’s hoping to start working out in a small group with other players he knows.
He’s thinking his daily schedule will include working out in the morning for three to four hours, then continuing to drive for DoorDash at night. He’ll admit he has it better than most because he has a host family in Arizona willing to let him stay rent-free. That gives him a bit more flexibility.
“You have to do what you can,” Bayer said. “Everyone has to deal with it. You just have to figure out what you can do in order to stay ready to go, instead of just being upset and complaining about it. A lot of people are in worse situations. Obviously it’s just a sport and just a game, but it’s also our job.”
The minor-league life: side hustles and part-time jobs
In Bayer’s case, baseball is just one of his jobs.
There’s DoorDash, which he started this spring once he arrived in Arizona to save some money for the regular season. He would drive for DoorDash a few hours per night after his day at the A’s complex, hoping to have something saved up before getting sent off to a new city to play baseball.
Even now, with social distancing becoming the norm, Bayer says DoorDash is better than Uber, where he’d have people in his car all the time. He washes his hands constantly, doesn’t venture into crowds and often just leaves a diner’s food at the doorstep so he doesn’t have direct contact with them.
He’s hoping to play in Double-A this year, which would mean he’d need to find housing in a new city, and putting money away in spring training — even when he’s not being paid by his baseball team — is one strategy he’s fond of.
Contrary to what many fans may think about professional baseball players, minor leaguers make very little money. Last season, Bayer says he made about $1,300 per month from baseball, but he’s only paid during the five months of the season. From August to opening day, he doesn’t make a penny. During the season last year, he lived in a two-bedroom apartment with three teammates.
“That’s the norm,” he says.
Bayer also teaches online lessons to high school and college pitchers through Driveline, one of the leading baseball performance factories. He does that year-round, carving out time before and after games during the regular season. It takes about an hour or two each day, which he does in his apartment when the team is at home or at a hotel cafe or nearby Starbucks when they’re on the road. That earns him another $500-$600 per month, he says.
If you’ve made it to the big leagues, there’s a level of glamour and comfort that offers peace of mind in times like these. But there are only 780 of those jobs. There are another 7,000-plus players like Bayer trying to scrape by.
On Monday, it was reported the Tampa Bay Rays would be paying all their minor leaguers $800 during the MLB downtime. That’s about $200,000 total. While it’s a nice gesture, it’s not exactly a bank-breaking move by a franchise that is valued at $1.01 billion by Forbes, in an industry worth more than $10 billion annually. The Rays, mind you, are one of baseball’s more cash-strapped teams.
The A’s haven’t made such a move yet, but go ask Bayer how much he’d like $800.
“We haven’t gotten paid at all since August, so just to get $800 would be huge,” Bayer says. “Getting an $800 check right now would be incredible and that’s not even really that much money.”
Could the pandemic help minor leaguers’ fight?
This is all bigger than DoorDash and Driveline and side hustles. It’s indicative of a problem that’s been bubbling up more and more in baseball in recent years. Minor league players make poverty-line wages. Social media has made the call for better pay louder, but it largely hasn’t had much of an effect.
MLB got Congress to pass the “Save America’s Pastime” act in 2018, a bill that allows the league to pay minor leaguers as seasonal workers and thus makes them immune from minimum-wage laws. If a minor leaguer complains about how much they make, the response is almost always the same — someone saying they should feel lucky to be playing a kid’s game.
Only there are some kids who make as much as these minor leaguers. Some teams have instituted better pay for their minor leaguers. The Blue Jays are one. And the league as a whole agreed to raise wages for the 2021 season, but minor leaguers will still only get paid five months per year, which leaves players like Bayer looking for part-time jobs to help when it’s not baseball season.
With baseball shutdown, stories like Bayer’s are bound to get more attention. Maybe the bright side of a global pandemic shutting down baseball is that it makes more fans think about minor leaguers?
“Maybe it’s something that does happen,” he says. “I know there are a lot of people talking about it on social media. Who knows? It’s been like this forever. But that doesn’t mean it can’t change.”
He gets out of his car just then. He’s arrived at an Italian restaurant to pick up a DoorDash order.
“I’m going to go deliver this now,” he says, “and get on with my night.”
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