FanSided Features, MLB

For the love of the game: A lost season of minor league baseball

Minor league baseball was back this summer. But for fans and players, a lost season means things may never be the same again.

The world as Rudy Martin knew it began to fall apart at a Buffalo Wild Wings.

Concerns about a contagious virus had been growing for quite some time, ever since the World Health Organization first announced a mysterious coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China on Janu. 9. Only 12 days later, the first identified case of what would become known as COVID-19 reached the U.S.

For most Americans at this time, life went on as normal — or least with the false hope that safety protocols and medical advancements could provide some semblance of normalcy in the wake of a burgeoning pandemic.

Martin, an outfielder currently with the Royals AAA affiliate in Omaha, was legging out his sixth spring training as a minor leaguer. While eating at a restaurant with teammates in mid-March, Martin saw the cancellation of a Jazz-Thunder game on television on Mar. 11 and knew things were getting ready to change.

“We showed up the next day, went through our business, and then we had a meeting where we were told we had to go home until we figured everything out,” says Martin. “We were literally sitting in our rooms for 48 hours waiting on news. Then on the third day, they said everything was canceled and that we had to go home until further notice. Little did we know that it would be a year until we were back out here.”

Photo Credit: Alan Jamison

All of us will carry the memories and emotions of weathering the early days of the COVID pandemic for the rest of our lives. We will ask each other, “Where were you when the world shut down?” We will refer to life “before” and “after” this sheltered year-plus marked by tragic loss and unsettling confusion along with newfound perspectives and emerging hope.

“You go through so many different emotions,” says Sam Wolff, a 30-year-old pitcher for the Sacramento River Cats (the San Francisco Giants AAA team). “You’re frustrated because the season comes to a halt after you put in so much work and effort into the offseason to be prepared. At the same time, there’s the side of looking at it as more time to get prepared and ready.”

Wolff found himself taken back, like everyone else, by the uncertainty created by the postponed activities and stuck around an extra week at the Giant’s spring training site in Arizona with his wife after spring training was cancelled. The hope was that a few days off would provide some optimism, but the situation became graver as the days went on.

“When they made the decision to send everyone home, that was an eye-opener for everybody. It was like, ‘Oh, this is a much bigger deal than I was initially prepared for.’ Within that week, we realized that it would be longer than that. That’s when we started to see it’d be drawn out a little longer and that there would be hurdles ahead before anything started.”

“I don’t think anybody expected all that unfolded,” added T.J. Rivera, a third baseman for the Indianapolis Indians (Pittsburgh Pirates). “I remember being with the Phillies in the spring and telling my wife and kids we’d be home for a couple weeks. I left my baseball stuff at the facility thinking it would just be a bit. That’s literally all anyone thought of it. Then it became something far more serious than anybody really expected.”

The speed of it all — the questions, the postponement, the cancellation — is what strikes a 28-year-old Rochester (Washington) pitcher Tyler Eppler when looking back at it all.

“We weren’t even really able to really talk about things because it went from zero to 100 real quick,” says Eppler, “We were in spring and I was supposed to throw live for the first time the next day. Then we came in, had a big meeting, and they said, ‘We’re going to take all the precautions we can. Just be safe and we’re good to go.’

“Then the next day, I showed up to the field and everyone’s packing up their stuff and walking out of the locker room. I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ That’s when we all got sent home. It was crazy how fast it all happened.”

Joe Territo/Rochester Red Wings

Taking stock of a lost season of minor league baseball

No one who plays professional baseball for a living would point to a canceled season as one of the worst outcomes from a global pandemic. It’s been a hellish year for everyone and maintaining proper perspective is necessary in the wake of catastrophic physical losses, extreme mental trauma, and significant economic fallout.

At the same time, all grief is still grief.

While every sport on every continent was forced to hit the pause button (or worse) due to the COVID-19 pandemic, minor league baseball players were hit particularly hard. Major League Baseball was able to resume a shortened 60-game season less than four months after the originally scheduled opening day. Meanwhile, minor league seasons were cancelled outright.

Even worse for players was the fact that Major League Baseball’s hierarchy decided to use the pandemic shutdown as a time to completely rebuild (read: contract) the structure of minor league baseball. With a single announcement, MLB decided to rid themselves of 40 minor league affiliates, leaving only four per organization (AAA, AA, A, Rookie). That’s 25 percent of available jobs gone at once for baseball players trying to chase their MLB dreams.

By the time the dust settled in late autumn, hundreds of baseball players found themselves facing life-altering questions as to how to proceed. Was it time to abandon a lifelong dream — one that typically reaches back to one’s earliest childhood memories — in the wake of a lost year, fewer opportunities, and an uncertain future?

“It’s tough. Your heart goes out to the guys who didn’t come back, because it’s the ‘what if’ question,” says Wolff. “What if we were able to get that season in? What if I’d been able to play? What could have happened? That’s a tough pill to swallow with everything that happened last year. Some guys didn’t get the opportunity to continue to play, and it’s disheartening to see when that does happen to players. You hate to see anyone’s career come to an end, but especially when it’s completely out of their control.”

Wolff’s sentiment is a common one for minor leaguers whose bonds often develop into familial connections given the long seasons and close quarters. Thus when the dream of one player ends, everyone feels it.

“It’s really hard when you’ve played this game your whole life to let COVID take you away from it,” says 26-year-old southpaw Bennett Sousa, who plays for the Chicago White Sox AAA affiliate Charlotte Knights. “It’s hard to get released but to know it’s because of COVID, that sucks.”

“I mean, a thousand different things go through your mind that you might be one of those guys who get cut,” adds Martin. “I can honesty say there was a week of sleepless nights where I wondered what was next. You just didn’t know.”

Unlike others FanSided interviewed, the 31-year-old Rivera has enjoyed a short yet successful stint in the bigs with the New York Mets in recent years. Unfortunately, an elbow injury led to Tommy John surgery and subsequent issues, which cost him considerable time and opportunity. After fighting through those physical issues, Rivera wasn’t ready to let COVID take him out.

“For me personally, if I’m not going to play anymore, it’s going to be because my body can’t take it or because my abilities are just not there anymore. That’s the way I’m going out, not because COVID shut down a season. If I was out of the game because I stunk, I could live with that, but not because of an injury and then COVID happening. That’s how the decision [to return] was really made. I felt I had more in the tank and I wanted to give it one last hurrah.”

Earlier this summer, Peter Mooney chose to return after making the hard decision to not let unforeseen circumstances dictate how his professional career would end. A former 21st round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays back in 2011, Mooney had yet to reach the majors at the age of 30, but knew he couldn’t just stay away from the game after a cancelled season due to the pandemic.

“It’s different if you lose the ability as you get older,” says Mooney. “If you see your numbers decline or drop off a bit, it’s easier to accept it. When you have it stripped from you, like you can’t play because there’s a virus, to me it’s unfair. I’m not letting my career be taken away from me. Let me end it on my own terms.”

Bennett Sousa of the Chicago White Sox, Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Minor league baseball players had to get creative

It’s hard for outsiders to wrap our minds around the full spectrum of things lost when a season is canceled like this. It’s the halting of a lifelong trajectory in which every bit of energy, time, and resources has been channeled, often since early childhood, toward a single goal: realizing the dream of playing in the Majors.

Alongside every player who suddenly had free time thanks to the pandemic was an entire family unit who had to make room in their lives for someone who was typically gone. Husbands were around. Fathers were home. Adjustments had to be made.

For some players, the downtime allowed them to consider their post-baseball goals for the first time on a serious level. For others, it was a chance to actually enjoy a summer with their friends and family while also trying to remain in shape for when (and if) baseball would actually get back to business.

“I was sitting back home in Rapid City, South Dakota in the summertime and I don’t remember the last time I’d been there in the summer in the last 10 years,” says Wolff with a laugh. “That part was actually refreshing to get to enjoy a bit of that downtime. I played a good amount of golf and got on the course quite a bit. [Laughs] It was great. It was a nice breath of fresh air to slow down for a minute.

“You get so wrapped up in your routine of working out and going from season to offseason back into a season, so it was nice to take the foot off the gas pedal a bit to enjoy ourselves,” he continues. “So you go through mixed emotions. You’re bummed to not play baseball and get closer to your dream to get to that big-league level.”

“It was hard. You literally had to be in love with the game in order to work through it because you’re in limbo the whole time,” says pitcher Jake Elliott of the Birmingham Barons. “A lot of people depend on the checks they receive in minor league baseball, so they were having to get jobs at a time they normally don’t have to. Fortunately I didn’t have to, but it was tough.

“There was a lot of thoughts and conversations with my parents. I do have my accounting degree from the University of Oklahoma. I could walk out of baseball and make a good salary. But my mom was the biggest proponent of not giving up. She said, ‘Jake, you can’t let this year off be the end of it. Work your ass off this summer and see what can happen next year. Then if your heart is not in it after next year, then that’s okay.’”

The forced downtime was difficult for a relatively older player like Rivera who said long-term questions started to surface immediately.

“When you’re a 31-year-old coming off of injury, it’s going to be tough to find work even if you didn’t have to miss a whole season due to the virus. So those conversations happen. Do you keep chasing your dreams? Do you try to work your way back to the Major Leagues? A lot of us had to have those conversations with our families to see if we should keep pushing forward.”

The canceled season did present new opportunities for some players like Martin, who’d been waiting for an educational window to open up.

“I was drafted out of high school and never went to college, so I just finished up my first year,” says Martin. “I also have a younger brother who plays, so I put all my work into him. We worked out together and did everything together. I coached his summer team, so I was still around baseball every day but I put all my focus on my brother and myself and that’s really what I did the whole pandemic.”

For a lucky few, MLB teams had alternate sites set up in order to have some sort of pipeline in the wake of injuries, poor performances, or even a coronavirus breakout. As Major League teams returned, they were allowed 60-man player pools from which they would create 30-man rosters for a new opening day. Sousa was one such player who was given the chance to still play some meaningful baseball in 2020 even if it wasn’t anything normal.

In most players’ minds, the goal became to get to the alternate site, because at least you can play baseball there. I was fortunate enough to get to the alternate site, so I did get to play a bit of baseball last year. But we were playing against our own teammates and there were 20 of us at the field. It still wasn’t real baseball.”

Photo by Zach Bolinger

Minor league baseball is back but it may never be the same

On this side of the pandemic, with some sort of normalcy instilled inside a new minor league structure of 120 teams, most players admit they’re back with a reinvigorated outlook.

“It’s just been great getting back into the daily routine of coming to the field, working out, taking batting practice, playing the game and then doing it all again the next day,” says Sousa. “Having a year away from that, you forget how much of a drain it can be, but it’s also a great time, too. You also miss the locker room, so being back there is also great, too.”

“You learn to enjoy some of the little things a bit more—the atmosphere, the clubhouses, even if they aren’t the greatest,” adds Wolff. “It’s still just fun to be around the team, the camaraderie again, and going through it all with a group of guys. I think you learn to appreciate it all more after missing it for a year.”

Returning to life in the minors was made even more meaningful when stadiums allowed fans back into the seats, even in a somewhat limited capacity.

“I’ll tell you now that we didn’t realize how much it means to play in front of fans,” says Sousa. Playing with nobody in the crowd, you really have to love the game. You really do. It shows that side of who really loves the game and who doesn’t. Then when you get the fans back, you appreciate them so much more.”

“When you’re playing year after year, you almost grow numb to the fact that you’re playing in front of all these fans,” says Elliott. “We had spring training for a month and nobody is there. Then we’re back and there are fans there. You almost feel the butterflies all over again, like it’s the first game of the year. It’s definitely great to have them back and it makes you appreciate what we did have because we had it taken away for a year.”

“We had a sellout crowd for our home opener and I had the chills again,” adds Mooney. “Here I am 30 years old and I’m glad I still have the chills. If I didn’t, that would tell me something, but I love the fans here and it drives the players. It’s just exciting to be back to normal.”

Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images

Before the pandemic, Martin said he’d heard it all. After the pandemic, he can’t hear it enough.

Opposing fan bases can be brutal on visiting minor league players in general. As an outfielder who stands 5-foot-7 and weighs just over a buck fifty, Martin says hecklers often have a field day with his diminutive size. It wasn’t so long ago that Martin would try to tune them out, to focus on the pitch coming his way or the play in front of him. These days, it’s all part of the appreciated package that was taken away from him.

“It was a surreal feeling because we had fans in the stands,” says Martin. “Being away, fans will talk crap to you, and I missed that part of the game. Years ago, I would hate going away because they will talk smack while I’m in the box, but now I actually embrace it and have fun with it. I’ll take that every day. I’d rather you talk smack than not say anything at all.

“I’m not tall, so I’ve heard a thousand different jokes about my height. The most used one is when I’m in the box and someone will yell, ’Stand up!’ I’ll laugh in the box on that one. The catcher and the umpire will giggle. You gotta give that fan some love and show it some love. But we can also dish it back. We have fun with the fans. I’ll fake throw a ball at ‘em or something. We’ve been away for a while, so we all need it.”

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