An early June Potomac Nationals game Credit: Kelyn Soong

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Northwest Federal Field at Pfitzner Stadium Credit: Kelyn Soong

Three ball fields surround Northwest Federal Field at Pfitzner Stadium, the home of the Potomac Nationals (fondly known as the P-Nats) in Woodbridge, Virginia. On an idyllic June evening, the Class A-Advanced affiliate of the Washington Nationals is playing its ninth game in 11 days. Despite the perfect weather, the crowd is small. Fewer than 100 fans are in the stands. 

The team plans to move to a new stadium in Fredericksburg, Virginia, next year, and its current home feels like it belongs in a different era. The logos on the field have faded, and the cheers for the nearby recreational softball league players are louder than any of the noise for the professionals on the diamond below.

“Days like today when there’s not that many people out there, it almost feels like an intersquad [game],” second baseman Cole Freeman says shortly after the P-Nats lose, 1-0, to the Down East Wood Ducks of Kinston, North Carolina. “But you gotta remember this is your job, those at-bats are coming the same as another at-bat … Obviously if I had a choice, I’d want 30,000 in the stands every night, but I mean, this is just part of it.”

The Washington Nationals selected Freeman, a product of Louisiana State University, in the fourth round of the 2017 Major League Baseball draft, and this is his first season with the P-Nats after playing with the Class A Hagerstown Suns last year. Going from a school with a rich baseball tradition like LSU to minor league ball required an adjustment for Freeman, who leads the team in batting average. 

He currently lives with a host family about 10 minutes away from the stadium and considers himself lucky to have received a $150,000 signing bonus. Freeman also has the financial support of his parents, but he knows plenty of players who are far less privileged. His friend in Florida drives for Uber to make extra money. Others, like P-Nats manager and former minor league player Tripp Keister, have worked as substitute teachers during the offseason to supplement their incomes. Top draft picks can receive signing bonuses in the millions, but each year, hundreds of minor league baseball players spread across 256 teams earn far below minimum wage to chase their dreams. 

Last year, President Donald Trump signed a spending bill that included the “Save America’s Pastime Act,” which effectively excluded minor league baseball players from the protection of federal minimum wage laws. According to the Associated Press, players make, per month, $1,100 at rookie ball and Class A teams, $1,500 at Double-A teams, and $2,150 at Triple-A teams. 

In this hierarchy, players in Triple-A are closest to making it to the major leagues. The names of famous Nationals players who have played for the P-Nats like Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, and Victor Robles hang on a wall near the entrance of Pfitzner Stadium.

In 2014, three minor league players filed a class action lawsuit that accused MLB of violating a federal law requiring it to pay players fair wages and overtime. The players claimed the league allowed “many—if not most—minor leaguers to fall below federal poverty levels.”

“We used to always joke that the guys selling popcorn in the stands were making more than people on the field,” says Jimmy Reed, who starred as a left-handed pitcher for the University of Maryland and St. John’s College High School. The St. Louis Cardinals selected him in the sixth round of the 2013 MLB Draft. “That was kind of a running joke for us. Regular fans don’t really know about it. You see guys in a jersey, [and think] man, they’re probably millionaires. In reality, they’re not making any money, living out of suitcases, hotels, six months out of the year. It’s really tough.”

Reed, whose wife is a friend and former classmate of this reporter, received a $40,000 signing bonus and spent four seasons in the minors before being released in 2017.

What fans see at Nationals Park or on TV is several worlds away from the experiences of players like Freeman. The popular Instagram account @minorleaguegrinders chronicles some of the shocking conditions that minor leaguers have to endure, like sleeping on an air mattress in a kitchen, or cooking a meal near a bathroom sink. Keister, who played minor league ball in the 1990s, says he remembers hoping that there would be enough leftover concession stand hot dogs and hamburgers for players to eat after the games. 

Freeman estimates current P-Nats players make around $20 a day, which can last between 10 and 11 hours. The team gets an average of two to three days off a month.

“I definitely think minor league players should get paid more,” he says. “Yeah, it’s tough, and I think a lot of baseball players have embraced that this is kind of what it’s going to be like … I’m not saying we should be paid big time, but I think a little more could definitely help out people, especially those who don’t have the big signing bonuses and are just kinda grinding it out.”

Washington Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton believes he wouldn’t be where he is without the minor league system he calls a “very dog-eat-dog world.” The Arizona Diamondbacks selected Eaton in the 19th round of the 2010 MLB draft, and he’s spent about a third of his career in the minor leagues. 

While he believes things can be improved and players should make a little more money so they’re “literally not eating crumbs,” he doesn’t want MLB to make minor league conditions more hospitable. 

“If you do, complacency sets in,” Eaton says. “I think it’s difficult, yes, and it’s easy for me to say that because of where I am, but I wouldn’t be where I am without that … If I financially am supported down there and financially can make a living and not have to get to the big leagues, I think I’m a little more comfortable. I think that I might not work as hard because I know I’m getting a decent paycheck every two weeks, and may not push myself nearly as hard.”

“I don’t disagree with [the notion] that they’re being exploited, but I think it’s for the betterment of everybody,” he adds. “I know it sounds crazy … I think there’s a middle ground … There’s ground to be made up, but I think it still should be rough.”

That mindset is not uncommon among big league players who feel they have paid their dues in the minor leagues, and one that players like Reed have heard repeatedly and understand, but don’t necessarily agree with. Reed points out that the current system could make it even more difficult for foreign players, who may be living paycheck to paycheck in a new country with no local safety net.

But there are signs of change. Earlier this year, the Toronto Blue Jays increased the salaries of anyone playing for their affiliated clubs by as much as 50 percent.

“With all due respect, you’re not motivated by the money, you’re motivated by reaching the end goal,” Reed says in response to Eaton. “You don’t sign a contract when you sign [just] to be a minor league lifer. No one is complacent being in the minor leagues. From my perspective, I never met anyone complacent in the minor leagues, even if you’re making some money.”

This article has been updated. The original version misidentified Washington Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton as a second baseman.

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