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The Life Of An International Minor League Baseball Player Has Never Been Simple

A cartoon of an outfield wall with an encroaching shadow over the player standing looking at it. It feels dark and desolate. The baseball stadium is empty.
Mattie Lubchansky/Defector

Jill Gearin's official title last year with the Visalia Rawhide, a Low-A affiliate for the Arizona Diamondbacks, was director of broadcasting and media relations manager. This meant that she prepared game notes, media press releases, and worked on broadcasts of the Rawhide's games. Unofficially, her job included a lot more: assisting players from non-English speaking countries as they navigated delivery apps to get food, helping them figure out rides to the airport, or even getting Ubers to the ballpark so they could do their job. 

"People forget these guys are college-aged people," Gearin told Defector. "I'm 27 years old, and my mom still helps with understanding car insurance and bank stuff. If I was in a different country or had a kid in a different country, I would hope someone else was there to help too, you know?"

Everyone in and around the Rawhide knew about this. As one Latin American Visalia player put it when asked about the various ways he got to the ballpark, he made sure to include: "I have a Jill. She's helped me with everything."

But what would happen if there weren't a Jill? 

Minor league baseball includes thousands of players from non-English speaking countries, all here to chase the same dream as their English-speaking peers. For decades, those players have gotten by using what is, at best, an ad-hoc system of off-book support from coaches, other baseball employees, teammates, and community members who love baseball. That could be someone like Gearin who wants to help, or fellow minor leaguers who don’t mind giving a teammate a ride, or fellow international players who have been in the United States a little longer.

Now that minor leaguers have a union, a development that seemed unfathomable even a few years ago, these players have a tool they can use to demand real and lasting changes to the conditions under which they have labored. That new union already has notched some wins, including an increase in salary. Could it be that now is the time when minor league baseball will begin to dedicate significant resources to helping players from non-English speaking countries adjust to life in the U.S.?

Defector talked to 23 people, including 16 current minor leaguers, about what life is like for players from outside the U.S. (The current minor leaguers were granted anonymity so they could speak freely.) They shared stories about the kindness of strangers and the supportive strength of their communities. They also provided reminders that however poorly minor league baseball treats its players, international players tend to have it worse. These players said the union and the new collectively bargained agreement did improve their lives; players who have been around since before the realignment in 2020 noted stark differences in how much better things have become, from housing to salaries.

But they also portrayed a system that still largely relies on the benevolence of underpaid minor league staff, underpaid minor league team employees, and other still-underpaid minor league players to help everyone get by, all while the billionaires at the top of MLB benefit. 

Defector reached out to Major League Baseball four times via phone and email asking for comment, and sent a list of questions about the issues raised by the minor leaguers. Members of MLB's press communications team never responded. 

The average minor league player gets paid between $675 to $1,200 a week, per their CBA through the 2027 season. They will move across the country at least twice between spring training and the regular season. For many players, their workload goes beyond trying to make it to the top in a very difficult, very competitive sport to enfold the added responsibilities of learning English and how to navigate living in the U.S.

"The first year here was tough," a Latin American player for the Modesto Nuts (Low-A Seattle Mariners) said. "Especially trying to communicate with my teammates. But I like to talk a lot so it was pretty easy for me to learn from [not just] American teammates but Latino teammates, as well."

He added that he watched a lot of television shows and movies to learn English. One of his staples is The Office, which he said also helped him learn American culture and slang. 

A Latin American player for the Fresno Grizzlies, the Low-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, said that he spent a lot of time working on his English, to the point where he’s helped to interpret for Spanish-speaking teammates. "I try to practice every day," the Grizzlies player said. "And I feel that I am better than [when I first came] to the U.S.A. I try to talk to my teammates every day for practice because if I don’t practice, I don’t talk better."

Many players said they saw conversations with their U.S. teammates as helpful, but they also rely on them for support through the season. The Latin American Grizzlies player said that there’s one American teammate whose friendship and support is something that’s helped him in the U.S., even if it's just a matter of looking for lunch. "The other day I was looking for a Chipotle," he said. "He went, 'Hey, I have a Chipotle here near my house; I can go with you.' He's helped me a lot."

One American Grizzlies player said he helped out his Latin American teammate because it just seemed like the right thing to do and he wanted to help. "I've been able to help him out as much as I can, whether it be with English or whether it be just things that help him get through his day easier," the American Grizzlies player said. "He’ll help me with my Spanish, too. It means a lot to me to kind of have a positive impact on him."

That players from non-English speaking countries rely on their teammates is not something new or hidden. The American Grizzlies player talked about seeing other international players get help with rides to the playing field or grocery store. "I think a lot of it kind of falls on the shoulders of how much their team can help them out," he said, "and what kind of culture is established."

An Oakland Athletics minor league player noted the better support he found in the rookie-league complexes versus in Low-A. "There's definitely more resources in Phoenix," the player said, speaking through an interpreter. "It's designed for that, to provide more for players and transitions, but here, it's still enough for a player to advance."

Minor league players did get a bit of good news this year: Thanks to the CBA, they now are paid approximately 55 to 60 percent more per week, depending on their level. A Latin American Rawhide player noted that the increase in salary helped him send money home to his family. Before that and the new housing policy, it wasn’t easy to send as much back, simply because there wasn’t much left after paying for their own housing.

"That helped me to be more chill," he said, "because I have a lot more money to give to family."

Even with the CBA covering transportation from athlete housing to the ballpark, problems still linger for international players who can’t bring a car with them.

For example, take what happened to one Latin American player for the Hillsboro Hops, the High-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Hillsboro is located in the Portland suburbs, about 20 miles west of the city center; it wasn’t easy to get to the ballpark without a ride. Hillsboro has five TriMet Bus Routes, but the two lines that stop closest to Ron Tonkin Field don't run on Saturdays and Sundays, which are typically game days during the season. Player housing is spread out through the city in various houses; an English-speaking Hillsboro player told Defector that he did his best to help out with carpooling when he could. 

"It just kinda depended on who lived in what direction," the player said. "I think some of the Latin [American] guys would Uber some nights if they didn’t have a ride or some of the guys left before they were ready. A lot of carpooling for sure."

One Latin American Hillsboro player said he was housed with other Latin American players, which meant that no one had a car. He said he relied on Ubers to get to the ballpark all season, and paid for them out of his own pocket. He estimated spending about $600 on Ubers across one season of minor-league baseball. Screenshots provided to Defector by the player’s girlfriend showed the player had taken close to $380 in ride shares over three months, with addresses listed as either going to or coming from the stadium. 

"It’s hard when you live far [from] the field, more for Latin [Americans]," the player said. "Because we don’t have a car here in the United States. So we always need to call an Uber."

He said that he thought a solution would be having some kind of bus to help players get to the ballpark—perhaps similar to what the Vancouver Canadians (High-A Toronto Blue Jays) provide their players. "Driving [to] every player for different houses,” he said. "I think it's better. It's like high school, like a school bus."

Another idea he proposed was having teams provide money to players for rideshares to get to work. "They need to pay for every player, or for Latin [Americans] because we don’t have cars here," he said. "They don’t have a bus or something for us. I think, yes, you pay the Uber every day and it’s your money. You think, 'Maybe my team is responsible [for this].'"

An English-speaking Hillsboro player said he saw how Latin American players relied on getting transportation help from players and coaches. This player did ship his car to Hillsboro—"It wasn’t cheap," he noted—because calling rideshares could also add up really quick, especially on those meager minor league salaries. 

The Arizona Diamondbacks did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The new CBA for minor league players included significant upgrades to the housing provided for players, but it also meant losing the support system created by local families who opened up their homes to minor league ballplayers, free of charge, a practice that went back about 40 seasons.

The end of host families stopped a practice that seemed engineered to save team owners money on basic needs for workers, like housing. But for international ballplayers, host families had the added benefit of helping bridge the culture gap and offering a support system for people who were new to the U.S. In a 2019 interview, Seattle Mariners center fielder Julio Rodríguez, who is from the Dominican Republic, said having a host family when he was with the then-Class-A West Virginia Power really benefited him. "It was really helpful," Rodriguez said. "Like sometimes you don't know where to get something and they would help you out and take you over to those places."

This sentiment, that the end of host families was a significant loss for international players, was echoed by the Oakland Athletics' Esteury Ruiz, also from the Dominican Republic. "One of the great things about it is that knowing once I was done playing a game, I had a family to come back home to, which felt really nice to do," Ruiz said, speaking through an interpreter. He added that he is still in contact with one of his host families to this day.

Even then, not every player who wanted a host family could be placed with one, because the supply of host families couldn’t always meet the demand. Dominican Wandy Peralta, who recently signed a four-year deal with the San Diego Padres after pitching for three teams in eight seasons, said through an interpreter that he only had a host family for the 2013 season when he played for the then-Class-A Dayton Dragons. But he added that to get one, "You gotta be lucky."

When Peralta was in the minors, in the years before the housing policy, players who couldn't get placed with a host family would have to find housing on their own. Unsurprisingly, this often led to cramped quarters, with many players trying to room together to save on costs. But getting to stay with a host family meant so much more than just saving money, Peralta said.

"The benefits you would get from a host family allow[ed] me that year to just focus on my work on the field," Peralta said. "You don't have to worry about having enough money to pay for room and board and many other things."

Another variable that affects the lives of minor leaguers is the varying infrastructures of the random cities in which they play. A player could end up anywhere from rural Iowa to suburban Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., to New York City. A recurring theme among the minor leaguers who talked to Defector was how much easier their lives were when they lived in cities with robust transportation and public services. 

In Canada, life is a bit different for them. For players with the Vancouver Canadians, transportation isn’t as much of a problem; the team furnishes a shuttle that takes them from housing to Nat Bailey Stadium and back. When it comes to getting around town, one Latin American player said that he found it easy to take the bus and get wherever he needed to go. 

"It's like five minutes riding [the] bus," the Latin American Canadians player said. "It's kind of nice. We don't have to pay [for] Uber. You pay just $1 for the bus. We just go to the grocery store and come back."

A second Latin American player for the Canadians said that transportation outside of getting to the ballpark varies. He said that some players have cars with them, but most don't, so there's reliance on ride sharing apps. He noted that the bus and transportation in Vancouver is pretty good, and he’s also had to learn the currency exchange. "Here, it's in Canadian dollar," he said. "The first time we got here, I remember it looked kind of expensive. But then you'll see, like, [because of the Canadian dollar] it's probably a little cheaper. Just a little bit."

When Gearin started with the Rawhide, it was 2019 and the team was still in High-A. Minor League Baseball had more levels then—with Rookie League (also known as the complex levels, whether it be in the U.S. or the Dominican Republic, and previously Venezuela) being the lowest level and proceeding upwards to Rookie Advanced, Class-A Short Season, Class-A ("Single-A," or simply "A-ball"), Class-A Advanced ("High-A"), Double-A, and Triple-A. With the realignment, the levels that exist are rookie leagues (still known as the complexes), Low-A, High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A. Rookie Advanced, Short Season, or Single-A were all once likely to be the first level out of the complexes for players, but now that’s Low-A.

Gearin noted that the language barrier was not as stark in 2019, as players that reached the Rawhide had been playing professionally longer; the typical group of players were in their early- to mid-20s. Now, a lot of players at the Low-A level can still be teenagers playing in front of a crowd in the U.S. for the first time.

"The person they started leaning on," Gearin said, "was me."

Gearin took on a larger role in helping players, even if it was outside of her job description during the 2022 season. She described it as "like I had 30 sons last year."

She decided to take a step back during the 2023 season because of how draining it could be, but players still relied on her at times to help out. She noted that players have learned how to download apps such as Uber; she guessed that probably half of those players live in a house with someone who knows how to navigate these apps.

"The issue is, when we need to take the bus and we're meeting at the ballpark to load the bus, they need a big Uber that can handle all their suitcases," Gearin said. "And there are no big Ubers in Visalia. So all of a sudden, I'm getting—I know this because I am trying to look for them as well. And I'm getting text messages, phone calls, 'Help,' that kind of thing."

While some coaching staff and affiliate staff have noted struggles with resources at specific affiliates, other affiliates have staff who feel that there's a good amount of help for international players. Even after the union raised the floor, there is still no uniform way in which MLB teams provide these resources.

Modesto Nuts manager Zach Vincej noted the resources available to Latin American players on the roster are the work of coaching staff and players, but also host families, which were allowed until the end of the 2023 season. "I think we do a really good job on the coaching staff of giving all the Latin American players resources to do what they need to do," Vincej said. "It's been nice this year—there has been a couple of host families that have really helped out our players a ton with giving them rides, or giving them food when they need it, transportation-wise."

Visalia Rawhide pitching coach Tyler Mark also played for the team before becoming a coach in the Diamondbacks organization; this came in the final seasons in which the team had host families. Although Mark is American, he’s bilingual in Spanish and English and has seen the progress made with the quality of life in the minors for all players.

"From 2018 to 2019, I remember spending time going through the minor leagues with the host families and getting up to Double-A where, you know, you’re close to the big leagues and go, 'Close to the big leagues, my lifestyle gets better!'" Mark said. "But I still found myself sleeping on air mattresses and cheap apartments. Now, the guys have their own place, their own rooms. [We] take two buses on the road. I think it’s well deserved because this game is hard—140 games a year, long travel, long season."

As a coach, Mark sees the differences between the complexes in the Dominican, where most of the players live through the season, and Visalia, where players live 10 to 15 minutes away from Valley Strong Ballpark. The distance between housing and the ballpark alone is a change for them, as housing in the Dominican is conveniently located near the complexes. There's also the cultural differences between Latin America and the U.S, even with things such as tone and demeanor when conversing with people. Mark helps with transportation of some of the Rawhide's international pitchers to make their jobs easier as they adjust to the States.

"I know it's a tough transition," Mark said. "Being in the D.R. last year and having to navigate through a different culture and country, a lot of the staff helped me out. So now I owe it to the guys to return that favor. It's a consistent learning, but I think it’s going to help them in the long run."

Players still have language classes, which Gearin says happens every day when the Rawhide are at home. Mark said that the language classes that the Diamondbacks offer are more conversational and teach players how to be able to use English in ways that are applicable to their day to day lives.

For the 2024 season, Gearin will be the Manager of Media Relations and Community Engagement and the broadcaster for the Charleston Dirty Birds in the Atlantic League, an independent partner league of Major League Baseball. She said that she doesn't worry about the Latin American pitchers she’s leaving behind in Visalia, because Mark is returning as a coach for the Rawhide. But she also thinks that the position players will be leaning on Diamondbacks staff more, especially at a young age. "I have seen the support grow already since 2019," Gearin said, "but there’s always room for improvement."

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