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OC Register: Hoornstra: Minor league baseball players face an awkward present, uncertain future

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In the second inning of his Mid-Island Men’s League career, it happened. Shea Spitzbarth allowed a hit – a double down the line.

The runner didn’t score, and Spitzbarth still hasn’t allowed a run across 12 2/3 innings for his temporary team, Butchy’s Heat. In fact, he hasn’t allowed a hit or a walk since that first game. You might say things are going a little too well for Spitzbarth, who split last season between Double-A and Triple-A in the Dodgers’ organization.

“Some innings I only get up to 10 pitches, and I need to throw like 35 pitches every three days at least,” he said.

Count it among the more humorous dispatches from the great minor league diaspora of 2020. Hundreds of players have been released in four-plus months since spring training was canceled. Those still employed share a similar, awkward existence.

It’s their job to get better, to prepare to be a Major League Baseball player someday. But how do you do that when there are no minor league games to play? Where does the money come from when your only paycheck is a $400 weekly stipend?

For Spitzbarth, the answer was to go back home to Long Island and find the closest game in town. The Mid-Island Men’s League lists 19 teams on its website, and maybe the Tax On Wheels Expos will know whether a Pocket Radar can be written off as a business expense.

Teams must pay an $80 umpire fee before each game. Players must sign a standard COVID-19 waiver in order to play. Lineups are as long as each team’s roster allows. Games will be called after two hours and 15 minutes, regardless of the score or inning. Don’t have enough players to field an entire team? That’ll cost you a $160 forfeit bond.

“It’s a bunch of local college kids and guys who used to play college competitively and just still want to play,” Spitzbarth said. “I thought it would be a great idea because it was two games a week I can throw, umpires, fielders behind me, and just some type of game feel instead of just throwing to a catcher in a bullpen or 1-on-1 live batting practice.”

Spitzbarth, 25, said he’ll look for part-time work next month – that is, unless the Dodgers summon him to their alternate training site. For a pitcher who was pitching to major league hitters a year ago in spring training, the USC baseball field seems like a more logical place.

Predicting the future is impossible, so for now Spitzbarth will merely try to get his innings in. He’ll stay in shape. He’ll work on his splitter.

“(The Dodgers) told me to be ready in case more people got sick,” he said, “so I’m doing the best of my ability to do that.”

In Rancho Cucamonga, Jacob Amaya isn’t taking any chances. The 21-year-old infielder isn’t playing in any men’s leagues. He isn’t regularly congregating with friends or family, even at a responsible physical distance.

“All this COVID stuff has taken my mind off so many things,” Amaya said. “I know the outside world is not too good. Your chances are high. I like being indoors until all this is settled.”

In a typical day Amaya will work out, hit at a facility in town the Dodgers recommended, and play video games. He’ll limit his trips out as much as possible. Like Spitzbarth, he wants to be ready in case the Dodgers call him up to USC – which, at a bare minimum, means he can’t have the novel coronavirus in his system.

Last season, the former South Hills High School standout earned his first promotion to Rancho Cucamonga, the Dodgers’ advanced Class-A affiliate. This year, Amaya might have enjoyed playing all or part of a season in front of his hometown fans. Now his career – and his life, it seems – are on hold.

“Everything’s so weird,” he said. “I don’t know how to talk to people, you know? I’m weird in my own little bubble.”

Minor league baseball, as a business, hasn’t served any customers since last September. Its future is not bright. According to multiple reports, Major League Baseball last year looked to reduce its number of affiliated teams by 42 once the current Professional Baseball Agreement expires in September.

When the novel coronavirus swept the United States in spring, many teams were forced to rely on PPP loans to stay afloat. When that loan money ran out, furloughs and layoffs ensued. (Only players and coaches are paid by their major league parent clubs.) Spitzbarth and Amaya are two dots in a much larger mosaic, and their struggle is large enough to bear. They can’t worry about the business of minor league baseball.

Garrett Broshuis can, and does, and he’s worried about the players too.

“For every cool story, there are 10 more minor league players who really struggle after being released,” said Broshuis, a lawyer and former minor league pitcher who has been an outspoken legal advocate for minor leaguers’ wages. “They look at their resume and the only thing that it says on it is ‘baseball.’ It’s true for a lot of American guys. It’s really true for a lot of Latin American guys. You started at the academy at 14, signed at 16, never got your diploma – what other skills do you have? Baseball is all that you know. Now you’re 24, 25, entering a bad economy. The world only needs so many trainers.”

For minor league players who remain employed, like Spitzbarth and Amaya, their professional reality is an awkward one. Their chances of joining an alternate-site camp hinge on a team’s ability to avoid the novel coronavirus. One outbreak brings them closer to the majors than ever, a situation that elicits strange rooting interests.

Given where the business of baseball stands, this might need to be the year for many minor leaguers to break through. After the professional baseball agreement expires in September, what lies on the other side represents a great unknown.

At first there was a loud public outcry when the thought of eliminating 42 minor league teams went public. Now, Broshuis said, “due to the pandemic, it looks like that’s going through without much opposition from minor league baseball owners.”

“We’re at one of those moments where we’re in the midst of a lot of change,” he said. “An influx of new GM’s that have more of a business background, more of a thought process of maximizing products, of optimizing operations. That mindset was already influencing the future of minor league baseball. What’s happened is the coronavirus has exacerbated that movement.”

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