PHOENIX – Jeremy Wolf loved being a professional baseball player. The New York Mets were his favorite team as a child, and it was a dream fulfilled when they selected him in the 31st round in 2016.
The reality was something else. From first pitch to the final out was a blast, but the time between games was filled with anxiety. His meager signing bonus wasn’t delivered until after his first season ended. In the meantime, he needed money for rent, cleats, bats, car payments, food and more—an impossible amount to cover on his $1,100 per month salary. Then he hurt his back, was cut 16 months after he signed, and left baseball with a couple thousand dollars in credit card debt.
“It’s really great to play minor league baseball,” Wolf said. “It’s an honor and a privilege. But I can’t eat privilege.”
He and others are trying to do something about that.
MLB generates billions in revenue each season, yet players throughout its minor leagues are sleeping on air mattresses, skipping meals and purchasing equipment on the cheap while making as little as $3,300 per season. The inequity of baseball’s pay system is attracting private companies eager to invest in players in exchange for a cut of potential big league paydays—one is even organizing direct investments by MLB and NFL players. Meanwhile, Wolf is helping minor league players use online crowdfunding to ask fans to provide money for meals, rent, cleats and other essentials.
Minor leaguers at the lowest levels can make as little as $1,100 per month despite spending 50-to-70 hours per week at the ballpark. A lawsuit alleging MLB violated minimum wage and overtime requirements was pre-empted last year when congress passed the “Save America’s Pastime Act,” which stripped minor leaguers of the protection of federal minimum wage laws.
MLB is also pushing Arizona lawmakers to exempt minor league players from minimum wage laws there, a move that would affect hundreds of players who are not paid during spring training.
The Toronto Blue Jays decided last month to boost minor league salaries by 50 percent, making them an outlier among the major league’s 30 clubs.
For players elsewhere, addressing short-term needs can be a dire matter. Most get signing bonuses of just a few thousand dollars, and they only pull in a salary during the season, which is either three or five months long, depending on the league.
Expenses in-season vary by organization, but players usually have to find their own equipment, at least one meal per day, and pay clubhouse dues. Housing is tricky, especially this time of year. Thursday is opening day across most of the minor leagues, and that means many players have been scrambling this week to arrange apartments across the country. It’s a tough task, made all the trickier because those players’ employers haven’t written them a check since September.
Wolf founded More Than Baseball to help address those needs. The group uses online donations—it’s raised over $2,000 so far this spring—to help fund meals, rent and other necessities. It sets players up for group discounts with landlords and baseball equipment companies, finds offseason jobs and internships for players, arranges host families, and provides career services so players have options when they’re playing days end.
“In a way we’re mitigating stress,” Wolf said. “And if we mitigate stress, we’re going to allow the kids to just enjoy playing minor league baseball.”
More Than Baseball’s staff includes a few retired players, including former Yankees outfielder Slade Heathcott. It also has labor lawyers, marketing professionals and economists as advisers.
Other professionals from outside baseball have stepped in, too, to offer resources as investors. Some companies, like Big League Advance, propose minor leaguers cash to cover costs now, then take a cut of their future earnings if they make the majors.
Another option is Pando Pooling, a private company that allows players to pool their future earnings, increasing the chance of a life-changing pay day in a career where many top prospects never cash a million-dollar paycheck. For instance, a group of five third-round draft picks could agree to enter a pool together. If four players wash out due to injury or poor performance but one player becomes a star worth hundreds of millions of dollars, each of those players get a share of those earnings.
“We want players to be more comfortable with their decision to be a baseball player and to feel secure in their financial outcome,” co-founder Charlie Olson said.
There are stipulations. Pool contributions from a single player are capped at $20 million, and players don’t begin to contribute until they’ve earned at least $1.6 million in their career—roughly the amount a player would make via the major league minimum in his first three seasons before becoming eligible for arbitration.
“I think Pando presents an opportunity that hasn’t been presented in the past,” said Indians minor leaguer Logan Ice, a second-round pick in 2016 who leads his Pando pool. “It gives players a way to diversify the risk in baseball, which is a risky profession.”
Pando has more than 200 players on board, and it’s eyeing expansion. It has launched a similar operation with football players, who also face long-term uncertainty because NFL contracts are not guaranteed.
It also is considering a new model: pairing successful pro athletes with aspiring prospects. Olson says both MLB and NFL players have expressed interest in backing minor league baseball players, offering cash and other resources like access to trainers and nutritionists in exchange for a percentage of future earnings.
“We’re trying to find as many ways as possible to help improve the lives for professional baseball players,” Olson said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.