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Can a union fix this? Minor leaguers say poverty-level pay, poor housing are driving a ‘mental health crisis’

Written by on September 30, 2021

Editor’s Note: This story includes a graphic description of a suicide attempt. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or is in emotional distress, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or at

SIX YEARS AGO, in an apartment he was renting for the offseason in downtown Phoenix, minor league pitcher Kieran Lovegrove picked up his Smith & Wesson Shield 9mm pistol, pointed the barrel to the temple of his head and pulled the trigger.

With naive ideas about the glamorous life of a professional baseball player, the 2012 third-round draft pick had squandered the $400,000 signing bonus he’d received from Cleveland three years earlier as a 17-year-old right-hander out of Mission Viejo High School in California. Like many of his minor league teammates, he’d been supplementing his $500 weekly salary with side gigs, barely making ends meet. He moved from place to place and team to team, subsisting on junk food and sleeping on living-room air mattresses. He’d had his share of success, but he’d just finished a miserable season for Low-A Mahoning Valley in the New York-Penn League, posting a 1-8 record and a 6.08 ERA in 14 starts.

As he battled the odds to advance in the game, he also faced depression, anxiety and alcoholism. He distanced himself from his family and felt he had to keep his bisexuality a secret from his teammates. There were nights out drinking, and bottles of bourbon waiting for him when he got home. The big-league dream he’d imagined had become a nightmare. Lovegrove’s attempt to end his life was stopped only by the safety lock on his pistol.

This July, while pitching in Madison, Alabama, for the Rocket City Trash Pandas, the Double-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels, Lovegrove shared details with ESPN about the substance abuse, financial hardship, inadequate housing, lack of access to healthy food, anxiety and depression he faced — and much of which he saw his minor-league teammates face — during his nine-year professional baseball career. He blamed poor living conditions within the Angels organization on the team’s billionaire owner, saying, “Arte Moreno wouldn’t have his kids live like this.” The Angels and Arte Moreno declined to comment.

Two months later, as he headed into his final days in baseball — Lovegrove is planning to retire — he chose to speak even more deeply about what he described as a “mental health crisis” in the minor leagues.

He is more intent than ever to tell his story and make the most of his second chance.

“It was clearly not meant to happen,” Lovegrove says, “so there’s got to be something left.”

By speaking out publicly — a rarity for an active player — Lovegrove ignited a new, rapidly expanding conversation about life in the minors. Inspired by his words, more players have begun to reach out to organizations like Advocates for Minor Leaguers, a nonprofit that encourages players to speak up about their living conditions, to share their stories and search for solutions. With the dust still settling on the radical consolidation of the minor leagues by Major League Baseball after last season, the real change is only just beginning: Players and their advocates are coming together to fight for their rights.

“It was clearly not meant to happen, so there’s got to be something left.”

Kieran Lovegrove, minor league pitcher, on making the most of his second chance after surviving a suicide attempt

When Major League Baseball cut 40 minor league teams last year, the league said reducing and realigning would increase salaries at all levels and improve standards, which are not uniform across all 30 MLB clubs. But 13 minor leaguers, most of whom spoke to ESPN on the condition of anonymity, say it’s not enough. While many fear that speaking out about their living conditions will damage the trajectory of their careers, there’s a growing sentiment — from the minors to the majors, from agents to former front office executives and all the way to Washington, D.C. — that minor leaguers need to form a union to bargain for basic needs.

“The potential of making the big leagues is presented to us as something that is an equal opportunity for every player, just like how the American dream is presented as an equal opportunity to every person who comes to this country,” says Lovegrove, a first-generation American born in Johannesburg, South Africa. “In reality, it’s not.”

SHANE KELSO, 24, was playing for the Low-A Inland Empire 66ers in San Bernardino, California, another Angels affiliate, when he abruptly retired in the middle of this season. Kelso was losing $1,000 a month from his savings and would have been broke before the end of the season, owing more in rent than his $1,600 monthly salary would allow. Kelso says four of his teammates were bunking in a camper van, while others were living out of their cars.

An individual can’t meet basic needs earning less than $26,225 a year anywhere in the United States, according to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator. In 2021, most minor leaguers will make between $8,000 and $14,000 from April to October, according to the uniform player contract. The U.S. federal poverty guideline for one person in most states is $12,880 in annual income.

“People don’t understand the mental strain that comes along with that, that you don’t know how much money you’re going to have at the end of each month and not knowing how you’re going to make ends meet,” Kelso says. “I was a late-rounder. I didn’t sign for a lot of money. The vast majority of players are in my position.”

MLB raised salaries for minor leaguers between 38% and 72% for the 2021 season. Weekly pay went from $290 to $400 at rookie and short-season levels, from $290 to $500 at Class A, from $350 to $600 at Double-A, and $450 to $700 at Triple-A. But many players, like Kelso, say they are going into debt to play professional baseball despite the salary increases.

A large draft signing bonus can help players climb their way through the minors, but most don’t get those. Lovegrove’s 2012 signing bonus was atypical. The $400,000 he received was slotted for up to the 118th pick that year — just 9.5% of players selected in his class were slotted for that amount or greater. Sixty percent of players receive signing bonuses of $100,000 or less, 40% receive $10,000 or less, 35% receive $5,000 or less, and 21% receive $1,000 or less, according to a Baseball America study from 2016. After agent fees and taxes, Lovegrove took home around $250,000 of his signing bonus.

“We’re not real estate. We can’t be copy-and-pasted or sold online. It’s humans with families and kids.”

San Diego Padres minor leaguer

It can be a tenuous situation for the most vulnerable players in an industry worth billions. One minor leaguer in the New York Mets system says he became homeless after the 2019 season, bouncing between four couches over four months with a suitcase and a truck. He spent two months looking for work before landing three part-time jobs — one at a gym, one in retail and one coaching travel baseball. Because of the unusual nature of his career, he could not get approved for a lease for two months because he did not have a pay stub from a current source of income.

“I didn’t sleep for a week because all I could think about was what I was going to do to afford just to be alive — to afford what I was going to do for groceries, to afford what I was going to do for gas, to afford how I was going to pay for my apartment,” he says. “In terms of mental health, I struggled big-time not knowing where the hell my next paycheck was coming from.”

When he arrived at spring training the next season, he had $120 in his bank account.

A San Diego Padres minor leaguer says he and his teammates bounce from Airbnb to Airbnb for every homestand, and he spends a bulk of his time in the locker room looking up short-term housing accommodations. Recently, when one of his teammates moved on to a different level, he and his roommates had to scramble to find someone to help cover the remaining Airbnb tab.

“It takes away from preparation because you’re worrying about the stuff off the field even when you’re at the field,” he says. “All those hours you took away from preparing for the game come back and you’re questioning if you’re ready. That adds up to a lot of mental stress. Performance is going to suffer.”

The pandemic has only made it harder, preventing host families from taking in players due to COVID-19 protocols. Host families largely receive no compensation for feeding players three meals a day or providing transportation and housing. The minor leaguers who spoke to ESPN say that even when host families can safely return, they provide a patchwork solution. While some players forge relationships with their host families, others question why their billion-dollar teams need volunteers to house them .

“It shouldn’t be on host families,” says a Pittsburgh Pirates minor leaguer. “It should be on the teams.”

The fear of losing their livelihood can compel players to stay quiet about the conditions of the minor leagues, even as they advance to higher levels.

“They’re grooming guys to be what they want them to be at the major league level too, for the minor leaguers to be subservient, to be quiet, to put their heads down, to not make waves, to not say anything that might ruffle feathers,” says Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Collin McHugh, a big leaguer since 2012. “Because you’re a representation of the organization and you’re a representation of Major League Baseball.”

In 1922, the Supreme Court of the United States awarded Major League Baseball an antitrust exemption, stating that the sport did not constitute interstate commerce — the sale of goods or services across state lines — and was therefore exempt from the Sherman Act, which prevents businesses from monopolizing an industry. Out of the four major sports in America, baseball is the only one that possesses an antitrust exemption.

The uniform player contract states that teams control the rights of players for up to seven years in the minor leagues and seven years in the major leagues. Due to the antitrust exemption, if a player decides to stop playing the sport before the seven years in the minors or majors, the team owns the rights to the player and he cannot play the sport professionally elsewhere unless he is released from his contract. MLB does not keep data on how many requests to be released are received.

“This is the only industry where your employer can control you for up to 14 years and you have no say,” says agent Rafa Nieves, a former minor leaguer. “You can’t go work for somebody else. You can’t go find better pay. Nothing.”

Minor leaguers say this treatment is dehumanizing.

“We’re not real estate. We can’t be copy-and-pasted or sold online,” says the Padres minor leaguer. “It’s humans with families and kids. It needs to change from an ethical point of view. I can understand the business side, but the ethical part, I will never understand that.”

NOT ALL ORGANIZATIONS treat their minor leaguers the same. This season, the Houston Astros became the first team to provide minor leaguers with fully furnished housing.

“I was just talking to [an Astros minor leaguer],” says the Padres minor leaguer. “He’s like, ‘Dude, it’s so nice not having to worry about housing, and they’re paying for it so we get to take home all our checks.’”

In a statement to ESPN, the Astros say the investment in fully furnished housing was a result of the pandemic.

“We felt this was the right thing to do especially in light of the uncertainties everyone continues to face with COVID,” the Astros statement reads. “Our investment in our minor leaguer efforts reflects our commitment to provide them with the best opportunity to become major leaguers.”

There is no league-wide policy among MLB teams on what they need to give minor leaguers, and teams keep information sparse on what they do provide. ESPN reached out to all 30 teams asking whether they provide housing stipends, whether they pay players held back for extended spring training, how many meals they provide daily and whether they are planning any changes in the immediate future.

Seven teams — the Yankees, Mets, Rangers, Phillies, Nationals, Giants and White Sox — said they provide housing stipends, pay for extended spring training, feed players between two to four meals per day and are considering positive changes for the 2022 season. The Phillies said they provide housing for players in High-A and extended spring training. The Giants pay 100% of the housing costs for the Arizona Complex League, Low-A and High-A.

The Angels, Blue Jays, Orioles, Reds, Red Sox, Tigers, Marlins, Diamondbacks and Cleveland declined comment. The Rays, Royals, Twins, Mariners, Athletics, Braves, Brewers, Cardinals, Cubs, Pirates, Dodgers, Padres and Rockies did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

“There’s no benefit for a team to not be concerned about their players.”

Billy Bean, MLB vice president and special assistant to the commissioner

Some teams made changes this season in response to growing public pressure. The Nationals provided a retroactive housing stipend and back pay for extended spring training. The Giants provided housing stipends for players in Triple-A and Double-A. The Red Sox and Mets provided $300 monthly housing stipends retroactive to the beginning of the season.

And some owners of minor league teams are finding ways to get creative. Quint Studer, the owner of the High-A Beloit Snappers and the Double-A Pensacola Blue Wahoos, both Marlins affiliates, purchased three homes close to the Blue Wahoos stadium to host 12 to 14 players for the 2022 season. Before the pandemic, Studer says 50% of players were staying with host families.

While many major leaguers recognize a problem with the treatment of minor leaguers that predates the pandemic, the canceled 2020 season led to widespread donations. Pitcher David Price donated $1,000 to every Los Angeles Dodgers minor leaguer, while outfielder Shin-Soo Choo gave the same amount to every Texas Rangers minor leaguer. The MLB Players Association donated $1 million to support minor leaguers. Infielder Daniel Murphy gave $100,000 to More Than Baseball, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting minor leaguers, and Our Baseball Life, an organization that provides emergency resources to minor league families. Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright gave $250,000 to More Than Baseball.

Minor leaguers say they appreciate the financial support from big leaguers, but the donations represent Band-Aids to a systemic problem.

“I don’t want to take any of these guys’ money. They earned that money,” says a Mets minor leaguer. “I don’t want to see a penny from these guys. They deserve that. They have their own families to take care of.”

While COVID affected the bottom line for MLB teams, the sport is not struggling for cash, with billion-dollar television rights deals and teams combining for $3.66 billion in revenue last year. The Yankees are the most valuable franchise in MLB at $6.75 billion, while the least valuable team, the Marlins, is estimated to be worth $1.12 billion, according to Sportico.

The total cost for a team to pay all of its minor leaguers $50,000 a year would be $5.8 million, $4.35 million more than what teams currently pay, according to research from Baseball Prospectus. The cost to put groups of two players in two-bedroom apartments would be $986,400; giving each player his own apartment would be $1,585,920. Furnishing each apartment would cost a team about $3 million annually, while covering the meals of every player from spring training through the end of the season would cost $1,781,760. The cost to fly minor leaguers on every road trip would be around $4.8 million.

Minor leaguers say those accommodations would help alleviate stress. MLB did not make commissioner Rob Manfred available for comment, but the league says it is taking note of the troubling state of mental health across the minors. MLB vice president and special assistant to the commissioner Billy Bean says the league is continuing to work on a mental health initiative called Ahead in the Count to foster dialogue in clubhouses. Bean will also address players at the Arizona Fall League to talk about mental wellness and daily maintenance.

“There’s no benefit for a team to not be concerned about their players,” Bean says. “I think deep down when one player sees another player go to the big leagues, this is human nature, there’s always a narrative in a player’s mind, ‘When is it my turn,’ or ‘Why wasn’t I picked,’ and so then all of a sudden, your surroundings become a little more difficult in your mind.”

When asked if MLB is considering issuing standards for minor league housing, meals and payment for extended spring training, the league issued a statement to ESPN.

“We are seven months into a significant change that aims to address longstanding issues that have impacted Minor League players,” the statement reads. “Improving the working conditions and pay for Minor Leaguers is among the chief goals of the modernization of our player development system. Player salaries and working conditions are unequivocally better than they were under the previous structure. While more work remains, enormous strides have been taken by increasing salaries from 38-72% for 2021, improving facilities, providing more amenities and better clubhouse conditions, and reducing in-season travel with better geographical alignment. We firmly expect clubs to seek reasonably priced housing options, including in challenging markets with inadequate supply. We will continue to emphasize the obligations that Major League Clubs and PDL Clubs have and look forward to the progress that the modernized player development system will allow.”

ON THE SIXTH floor of the Homewood Suites by Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., Harry Marino hunches over his MacBook, furiously typing Instagram direct messages. Marino, who serves as the executive director for Advocates for Minor Leaguers, spends much of his time reaching out to recent MLB draftees with a link to the organization’s draft handbook.

The handbook explains the rights granted by the uniform player contract, pay scales, the challenges of finding in-season housing, the expectation for food and nutrition from teams and more.

“I want players to be informed as soon as they get drafted,” Marino says.

Marino, who played in the minor leagues for the Diamondbacks in the Arizona Fall League and for the Aberdeen Iron Birds and the Delmarva Shorebirds in the Orioles system, cites Marvin Miller — the trailblazing former executive director of the Player’s Association who was inducted this month into the Baseball Hall of Fame — as one of his professional role models.

During his time in the minors, Marino noticed a theme: Many of the players who moved up received financial support from their families. Marino — the son of white-collar criminal defense lawyer Kevin Marino — got help from family to pay rent, but noticed other teammates did not.

“I remember hearing their stories and thinking that these guys are really incredibly talented, like the top of the world population, and they’re not able to monetize it in the way they should because they come from vulnerable backgrounds,” Marino says. “It just struck me as really wrong.”

Marino left professional baseball to go to law school at the University of Virginia. He worked as a litigation associate at Williams & Connolly LLP — a prominent D.C. law firm — and served as a clerk to two federal judges.

“It’s impossible to stand up for your own rights when you’re one versus the machine. You can’t have those conversations with teams and organizations. You can’t sit down with the GM. You can’t sit down with Rob Manfred and Dan Halem and the labor committee.”

Collin McHugh, Tampa Bay Rays pitcher

But Marino began feeling an itch to return. In April, he became one of the first full-time employees of Advocates for Minor Leaguers, an organization founded by former minor leaguers Garrett Broshuis, Ty Kelly, Matt Pare and Raul Jacobson, content management specialist Lisa Rafael, a current major leaguer who prefers to remain anonymous, and labor activist Bill Fletcher Jr.

“We are not organizing a union, just to be really clear, but at the end of the day, [minor leaguers] are going to need a union,” Fletcher says. “They’re going to need to collectively bargain, and the creation of the MLBPA proved it.”

Through the work of Advocates, Fletcher and Marino hope to open the eyes of fans about the treatment of minor leaguers. So far, the group has caught attention through social media campaigns, sharing videos of teams sleeping in hotel conference rooms, testimony from players about their experiences and photos of meals provided by organizations. If players decide to take the leap and unionize, public support could go a long way.

McHugh, the Rays pitcher who served on the executive subcommittee for the MLB Players Association from 2018 to 2020, says he got taxed more the first time he got paid in the big leagues than he made total in the minor leagues the previous two seasons. He believes minor leaguers need to unionize.

“It’s impossible to stand up for your own rights when you’re one versus the machine,” McHugh says. “You can’t have those conversations with teams and organizations. You can’t sit down with the GM. You can’t sit down with Rob Manfred and Dan Halem and the labor committee and actually come to any reasonable conclusions as an individual.”

Although free-agent rights had been collectively bargained between the league and the players’ union, Congress’ Curt Flood Act of 1998, signed into law by former President Bill Clinton, formally states that major league players are covered under antitrust law. Yet it explicitly excludes minor leaguers, preventing them from gaining free agency before seven years of service.

“It is sound policy to treat the employment of major league baseball players under the antitrust laws in the same way such matters are treated for athletes in other professional sports,” Clinton said at the time.

That exclusion led to lawsuits and legislation on behalf of minor leaguers. In 2017, the Supreme Court declined to consider a case in which minor leaguers alleged MLB violated antitrust laws and colluded to suppress player salaries. In 2018, Congress passed legislation that required teams to pay minor leaguers minimum wage with no overtime pay and no obligation to pay players outside the five-month minor league season.

But during the Supreme Court case NCAA v. Alston, which determined in June 2021 that the NCAA violated antitrust laws and paved the way for college athletes to sign endorsement deals, Justice Neil Gorsuch, on behalf of a unanimous court, questioned the legal status of baseball’s antitrust exemption when considering how the market has changed since the initial ruling nearly 100 years ago.

MLB has defended this antitrust exemption in recent years. In 2016, Manfred said minor league baseball was less like a career and “more like apprenticeship programs or artistic pursuits, where there are explicit exceptions to the wage and hour requirements.” Justice Brett Kavanaugh took aim at this logic five years later in response to the NCAA vs. Alston case.

“Law firms cannot conspire to cabin lawyers’ salaries in the name of providing legal services out of a ‘love of the law.’ Hospitals cannot agree to cap nurses’ income in order to create a ‘purer’ form of helping the sick,” Kavanaugh wrote.

Kavanaugh noted in his opinion that collective bargaining would serve as an alternative to legislation and litigation for the minor leaguers.

“This is a black eye for the game. It’s a black eye for the country. I mean, this is our national pastime. This is hiding in plain sight, and it’s egregious.”

Bill Fletcher Jr., Advocates for Minor Leaguers

When asked about the prospect of a minor league union, MLB referred ESPN to the MLBPA, which declined comment through a spokesperson.

The Supreme Court also cited an amicus brief submitted by Marino and Advocates for Minor Leaguers — an unusual occurrence.

“The Supreme Court has significant skepticism about baseball’s antitrust exemption,” Marino says. “The opinion of Gorsuch reads like an invitation to raise the issue in front of the court.”

Fletcher calls the labor dynamics in the minor leagues a “fight for the soul of the game.”

“We are posing the question about whether or not to get into baseball, you have to crawl, whether you can enter into baseball and retain your self-respect,” Fletcher says. “It’s about dignity. People talk about wages, hours and working conditions, but it is really about dignity. Am I going to be respected as a human being?

“This is a black eye for the game,” Fletcher continues. “It’s a black eye for the country. I mean, this is our national pastime. This is hiding in plain sight, and it’s egregious.”

TRASH WAS EVERYWHERE. Stacks of clothes, Amazon boxes and large piles of garbage lined the room. Empty bottles of water dotted the dresser and bedside table. Two blankets had been tossed on top of an unmade twin-size mattress lying on the floor. A sheet hung in front of the window, helping Lovegrove and his roommate — who slept on a queen mattress, also on the floor — block out the sun in the mornings after a late night at the ballpark.

This season, Lovegrove lived with four teammates and two of their significant others, in a three-bedroom apartment that at one point housed six more teammates.

Lovegrove called it “one of the best living situations I’ve been in during my time in the minor leagues.” He’d previously been crashing after games in the luxury suites at Toyota Field, the Trash Pandas’ newly built, $46 million partially taxpayer-funded stadium.

Lovegrove’s pitching days might be coming to an end, but his advocacy isn’t — including for his fellow members of the LGBTQ+ community. For years, Lovegrove kept his bisexuality a secret, even from his teammates, whom he didn’t tell until 2019. By revealing it publicly now, Lovegrove becomes the second active professional baseball player affiliated with a Major League Baseball team to identify openly as LGBTQ+, following David Denson, who came out in 2015 as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers organization.

“Baseball is a game of statistics. And if you want to tell me that I’m the only queer person in baseball, I’m just not going to agree with you,” Lovegrove says. “Someone is terrified because it’s a terrifying prospect to come out. I do encourage any one of them to reach out to me.”

After his suicide attempt, Lovegrove spent years grappling with why he tried to take his own life. He stopped drinking and, when he joined the Giants organization in 2019, he started seeing a therapist for the first time. With support from his girlfriend Celina Felton — whom he met while playing in Akron, Ohio, in 2018 — Lovegrove began opening up. Today, he continues to seek help through therapy, supplemented with the use of mushroom capsules and CBD to manage his anxiety and depression. He’s now four years sober.

“This is some of the highest-level baseball in the entire world. So to me, that can’t be treated as a sideshow anymore.”

Kieran Lovegrove

When Lovegrove’s comments about minor league conditions were published this summer, he read the story out loud to his teammates in the clubhouse. Some were shocked that he’d called out the Angels’ owner. Some thanked him for speaking up. Others high-fived him. A few teammates gave him an ovation.

Lovegrove expected the Angels to release him. But then one night passed. And then a weekend. And then a month. In September, Lovegrove received a call from Angels general manager Perry Minasian and special assistant to the general manager Ray Montgomery, a conversation he describes as “really positive” and which he hopes will help lead to change.

“I know I’m not the only person who has that type of love for the game, and I know that that can be exploited,” Lovegrove says. “I don’t want to see guys who have that sort of passion for the game be taken advantage of.”

With the season over, Lovegrove will be spending some time working as a high school pitching coach back home. Even though he will hang up his cleats without ever making a major league appearance — 82.4% of players drafted between 1981 and 2010 never made the majors, according to Baseball America — Lovegrove feels like he lived a full life in professional baseball, having pitched in the Futures Game in 2018 and at Fenway Park.

Lovegrove would like to work for a big league team one day, envisioning a role where he could serve as a liaison between the front office and minor league affiliates regarding player living conditions and necessities. He also understands that speaking out could hurt his odds of landing an MLB job.

If that’s the case, he’s OK with it. He couldn’t stay silent.

“The love of the game is so deeply ingrained into my being that it is irrational at times, because I will do just about anything to try and improve it,” Lovegrove says. “This is some of the highest-level baseball in the entire world. So to me, that can’t be treated as a sideshow anymore.”

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