Lucas Knowles
Lucas Knowles Credit: Rick Nelson Photo

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In a fewdays, Lucas Knowles will return to his home in Belfair, Washington, a tiny town an hour and a half from Seattle, with a population under 5,000. There, he’ll live with his parents, and have a job waiting for him.

For the past couple of months, the 22-year-old minor league baseball player in the Washington Nationals organization has been staying in Pensacola, Florida, living near his brother and preparing for the possibility of playing organized baseball. This week, Minor League Baseball officially canceled its season. Vacation, Knowles jokes, is now over.

“I think I’ll either wait tables or go back to waking up at 3 a.m. every morning to go mow greens on a golf course,” he says. “So, if those aren’t two beautiful options, I don’t know what else to do.”

While Major League Baseball is set to resume with a 60-game season beginning on July 23, the minor league season has been canceled outright due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some minor league players, like Knowles, are heading back to their hometowns in search of jobs outside the sport, and other players are no longer on rosters at all. In late May, hundreds of minor leaguers across many MLB organizations were cut, including several dozen in the Nationals organization. Even before the pandemic, MLB proposed cutting the minor league from 160 to 140 affiliated teams for next year, a proposal that, if accepted, could lead to radical restructuring of the minor league system. 

A career in the minors often means a life of financial precarity and uncertainty, and that has only been exacerbated by the global health crisis that does not appear to be slowing in the United States. 

“The mood is kinda like, ‘Man, this sucks,’” says Knowles, a left-handed pitcher who is currently with the Auburn Doubledays, the Class A Short Season affiliate of the Nationals in Auburn, New York. “We have a very finite amount of time to prove how good we are and to make it or we don’t, and for a lot of people, this is a year that could be a make or break year. I just came into professional baseball last year, so I think I have a lot of games moving forward, but for a lot of people, this was their last chance and it’s gone.”

Ryan Williamson was looking forward to competing in the minors this season as a way to show how far he’s come since his injuries. The Nationals drafted Williamson in the 15th round of the 2016 MLB Draft out of North Carolina State knowing he would need Tommy John surgery to replace a torn ligament in his left elbow. This is the best he’s felt physically in years, he says. In August 2017, while coming back from the Tommy John surgery, Williamson suffered a fracture in the same arm that required surgery.

Last season, the 25-year-old left-handed pitcher played for the Hagerstown Suns, the Class A affiliate of the Nationals based in Hagerstown, Maryland, finishing 4-1 with a 3.84 ERA. On May 29, Williamson was one of 40 players cut from the organization.

“To be honest with you, I was shocked,” he says. “But the thing I said to myself, when I had gotten released, ‘cause I was blindsided by it, I said to myself, there’s a lot of other things going on during these unprecedented times … Other people in the world have it way worse. There’s a lot of other things going on right now that are just really unfortunate … People are struggling to eat three meals a day.”

Williamson emphasizes he “has nothing but respect” toward the Nationals, and says he is thankful for the organization “for taking the chance on me in 2016.” Last month, he signed to play for the Somerset Patriots of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, a team based in Bridgewater Township, New Jersey, that is not affiliated with the MLB. The team has yet to be approved to host baseball games at its ballpark this year.

On Monday, the Nationals revealed a list of 60 players eligible to participate in MLB games in the 2020 season—a feeder system unique to the shortened season—ahead of the modified “spring training” that began this week. Several minor leaguers saw their names on the list, including pitcher Jackson Rutledge, the team’s first round selection from the 2019 MLB Draft. 

Rutledge, 21, knows he’s in a fortunate position. He’s watched close friends get cut from teams.

“[It] just makes me want to work harder to prove that I belong on that list,” he says. “I’m excited to get back into competitive situations and back into the mindset of spending every day getting ready to compete.”

After the league suspended spring training in March, Rutledge returned to St. Louis and kept—or attempted to maintain—a structured routine. When the gyms were closed, he would go to a local high school field hockey field to throw with his dad. “I did smoke him in the shin one time,” Rutledge says. “He still makes fun of me for that.” Rutledge also had to get creative with his workouts. At his parents’ home, he would use buckets of concrete as weights.

When the local pitching gym, Premier Pitching and Performance, reopened, Rutledge got up around 7:30 in the morning to make it out to the gym by 9 a.m.

“I think the hardest thing was just trying to stay ready all the time,” he says. “Because you never really know when things were going to start. We didn’t know if we needed to be ready the next day or if it was gonna be in four months when everything started. [So] this entire time you had to train and compete with the mindset that you have to be ready to go next week, even if that doesn’t end up happening.” 

As the 17th overall draft pick last year, Rutledge, who finished the 2019 season with a 2.30 ERA over 27.1 innings with the Hagerstown Suns, had the luxury of receiving a signing bonus of approximately $3.45 million. He’s cognizant that, for that reason, he hasn’t had to worry about picking up another job during the offseason. Some of his friends, Rutledge says, “would work for construction jobs or work in a warehouse or work for Postmates … just to be able to pay for their training during the month or to be able to pay for whatever food they need.”

The Nationals are providing their minor league players a stipend of $400 a week until September, which is when the season would have concluded. Last month, the team reversed course on a decision to lower the stipend to $300 a week after considerable public backlash. (A weekly pay of $400 is the lowest amount that any minor league player would be paid under a new payment plan the MLB said it would roll out in 2021.)

The $400 weekly stipend is more than what Mason Doolittle, a catching prospect in the organization, had expected to earn this season. His financial advisor had figured he would be making $256 a week. In addition to the stipend, Doolittle also teaches lessons at Line Drive Indoor Baseball in Jupiter, Florida, where he lives. 

“So I’m kind of rich right now, actually,” Doolittle says with a laugh. “I’m kidding, but between the $400 a week and lessons, I’ll be all right. Also, it’s nice my girlfriend has a job so every once in a while, she’ll be like, ‘here, here’s a dinner,’ so that’s nice, too.”

Being in Jupiter allows him to be in close proximity to his trainer and other minor league players. His Hagerstown teammates, Doolittle says, have been able to keep in touch via Zoom calls. He’s heard from someone within the Nationals organization at least once a week. 

One of the most challenging parts has been not letting himself feel disappointed that the season has been canceled. Seeing some of his best friends lose their jobs has impacted the way he approaches the game. Doolittle, 21, calls the massive cuts “heartbreaking.” 

“I remember the first time I saw a guy get cut in pro ball, it was probably the most eye-opening part because you get drafted … and you got your jersey with your name on it,” he says. “And you kind of go, ‘all right, here I am. I’m just starting out.’ And then you see a guy packing up his stuff right next to you. And you’re like, ‘oh, shit, that guy’s done.’”

And while he won’t be playing this summer, Doolittle is excited to see MLB’s return. In three or four years, he says, minor league players currently on rosters may look back at this year as one that fueled them to improve even more. He predicts minor league baseball going forward is going to be the “most talented and the most competitive it’s ever been.”

“Everyone’s always hungry in the minor leagues, but with all the cuts, I think everyone’s realizing that anything can happen all the time,” Doolittle says, “so we gotta be grateful for where we’re at now.”