Before COVID-19 shutdown all live sports, Major League Baseball was in the heart of its spring training schedule with its sights set on opening day, which was supposed to be March 26.
Now, the 2020 season is up in the air.
Players and owners can’t seem to agree on the right amount of games or salaries and it’s quickly starting to mirror what happened more than 25 years ago — the last time a pro baseball season either ended early or didn’t start at all.
But while the long-term effects probably won’t be as damaging for Major League Baseball, Minor League Baseball may not be as fortunate — and that would be a shame for the state of North Carolina.
Major League Baseball is the only top-professional sport that North Carolina does not have a franchise in, but there are nearly a dozen minor league teams in the state — all at various levels of play.
They range from rookie league (Burlington Royals) to Triple-A (Durham Bulls and Charlotte Knights), which means they’re one step away from “The Show.”
Many of the state’s organizations, including the Hickory Crawdads, Winston-Salem Dash and Greensboro Grasshoppers, are a little more than a hour’s drive from Wilkes County.
With there being no baseball played, those minor league players and organizations are feeling the financial pinch.
Contrary to popular belief, minor league players aren’t getting near the big bucks their major league counterparts are.
Many of them live with host families during the season before returning home in the off-season. Growing up in Asheville, home of the Asheville Tourists organization, and working for them for a few summers, a friend of my dad’s would host a player or two almost every summer.
According to The Athletic, the average salary for a minor league baseball player, whose contract is handled by Major League Baseball, ranged from around $6,000 in Single-A (the level at which the Crawdads play) to around $9,350 in Double-A to nearly $15,000 in Triple-A in 2018. Those wages cover only the months of the regular season.
Players are not paid during spring training or in fall leagues — a big reason why their signing bonus is so significant.
The poverty line in 2020 is $12,760, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
In fact, some of the owners, have cut back pay or cutting off paying their players, many who were making stipends of around $400 a week. Major League Baseball’s policy required teams to pay their minor league players $400 per week ended May 31.
But several professionals, including new Los Angeles Dodger David Price and Washington National reliever Sean Doolittle have agreed to help supplement those wages lost by minor league players.
“All of us were minor leaguers at one point in our careers and we know how important the weekly stipends are for them and their families during these uncertain times,” Doolittle said Sunday in a Twitter post.
“Minor leaguers are an essential part of our organization and they are bearing the heaviest burden of this situation as their season is likely to be cancelled. We recognize that and want to stand with them in support.”
In response to that tweet, the Nationals organization announced Monday that it would fulfill the stipends of its players through the end of June (it had announced a week earlier that it would cut players’ stipends to $300), according to a report on nbcsports.com.
Even before COVID-19 hit, Major League Baseball had announced last winter its plan to cut around 40 minor league organizations. And many of those teams were from the lower levels (the Royals were one of the teams mentioned), including two from the South Atlantic League. North Carolina has four teams that play in the SAL, and another team not far from here in Greenville, S.C.
Minor league teams don’t have big broadcast contracts that they can lean on to promote their product, so they rely heavily on ticket sales, concessions and merchandise sales among other things.
And with no games, that revenue isn’t coming in, and if there is no season, which is a distinct possibility, the state of minor league baseball is in a pickle — one that may not bode well for the future of the teams in this state.