Simon Rosenblum-Larson shares a story about his experience as part of a minor league baseball team when the season was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020.This story was originally recorded and shared as part of an episode of the Madison podcast Inside Stories. Listen to that episode and subscribe to the podcast here: https://inside-stories.simplecast.com/episodes/inside-stories-covid-19-stories-4
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Simon Rosenblum-Larson: It was March thirteenth, and I woke up early, nervous. I always do on the first game day of the year, but this one was a little different. I got a text the night before from our farm director. I wasn’t suiting up for the backfields by the Harley dealership. I’d be riding the bus with the big-league club to Fenway Park South in Fort Myers, Florida, for a Spring Training game against the 2018 World Series Champion Boston Red Sox.
It’s now April eighteenth, and I haven’t seen the mini-monster, the Florida replica of the famous left-field wall in Boston. I haven’t heard the roars of the crowd, or felt the adrenaline rush I get running from the bullpen to the mound. That March thirteenth morning, I got another message. “The previews showed up. MLB has suspended…”
We’d heard rumblings, but tried not to pay it any mind. Rumors went around about a Pirates player diagnosed with COVID. And then there was talk of a Yankees player. I clicked the full message. “All clubs are directed to suspend Spring Training immediately. We will update shortly on whether players will stay in Florida or be sent home.”
My performance-day nerves became just plain confusion. Where was I going to go? Who would I stay with? Would I have to get on a plane? Had I already been exposed? I have asthma; am I high risk? Is baseball a superspreader? I steadied myself, trying not to get swept up in the whirlwind. I have a support network. I have family that would open their doors to me if I needed it. I was incredibly lucky in comparison to some of my teammates, like the guys on their own from Venezuela or the Dominican Republic.
I guess this is a good time to introduce myself. My name’s Simon Rosenblum-Larson. I’m a Madison native, a West grad, and a professional baseball player with the Tampa Bay Rays. I left college for this. Instead of a Senior year, robes, and a diploma, I’ve spent the last two years in glowing stretch uniforms with oversized mascots, and I’m working my way up in what’s called The Farm. I’ve done every level of Single-A. I was going into Spring Training with the goal of breaking camp with the Double-A Montgomery Biscuits. You’ve heard of bonus babies and big contracts for pro athletes. That’s not my crowd.
Three-quarters of minor leaguers made less than $10,000 last year. None of us are paid for spring training, because the law says it’s a tryout. Most guys pay for their own equipment, housing, and off-season training. Nearly half of the seven thousand minor leaguers are from Latin America, most from the Dominican Republic or Venezuela. Many of these guys support two, four, six other family members on their paychecks.
Getting sent home means more than just not getting to play ball. In the minor leagues, a paycheck doesn’t come until the season starts. In spring training you get housing, two meals a day, and fifteen dollars for dinner, but cooking in the hotels is a capital offense. In that fantasy, come April ninth, minor league opening day, we’d start getting paid. The first paycheck would come through a couple weeks later. But, now what? The whole world felt upside-down.
The day before, we’d seen five thousand fans in Port Charlotte Stadium. I was ready to hear their cheer. Now we’re handed plane tickets back home and a few bucks for our luggage. I wasn’t sure where I would go. I had the good fortune of a host family in spring training. They were part of the booster club for the team I’d played for the summer before, and my Dad had even stayed with them on a trip down. They invited me to stay there as long as I wanted, but, given the team shutdown, I felt like I should probably leave.
Where to? I don’t know. I had spent the winter in Boston, living on my college roommate’s couch; couldn’t go back there because he’s immunocompromised. My Dad, caring for my ninety-four-year-old grandma, couldn’t take me in because of the risk to her. My aunt and uncle in Madison invited me to stay with them, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave—going home meant cold weather, no access to training facilities, nobody to play catch with. But it did mean a little family, and a little sense of home, in a traumatic moment.
The first two days after the shutdown, I spent hours and hours on the phone, texting and talking. I happen to run a non-profit that helps low-wage players before we added Covid-19 to our vocabulary. It’s called More than Baseball. When you’re living the dream, it’s sometimes hard to remember that there is anything other than baseball.
That week I spend eight to nine hours a day calling players, gathering information on all thirty teams’ plans for their players. Once we found out that none were getting any pay from their teams, we circulated a petition. Five hundred minor leaguers, among the most self-sufficient, independent and hard-headed guys on the earth, signed on and asked for help—financial support. Players started coming to us looking for help with groceries, with training equipment, paying for rent. Many were in pretty tough spots.
Lo and behold, about a week later, MLB—that’s Major League Baseball, the feudal lord of The Farm, Minor League Baseball—had heard us. They announced they would be providing a stipend to all minor league players, up to April ninth, $400 a week. This news came as I trekked back to Wisconsin, on a twenty-nine dollar, one-way plane ticket from Fort Myers to O’Hare. Dad picked me up, and made me ride in the back seat of his compact, windows down even on a freezing night, because his doctor friends had told him that’s how you avoid the virus from an exposed group like baseball teams. He even brought a change of clothes so I wouldn’t be wearing the clothing I had on the plane.
When I arrived safely in Madison, I holed myself up in my aunt and uncle’s guest room, trying to avoid infecting them with anything I might have picked up on my travels. Over the next fourteen days, I got back on my endless calls with More than Baseball, and we picked up right where we left off. Groceries, fundraising. We raised nearly eight thousand dollars and gave it away to 113 minor leaguers for their groceries. We scored our first big donation from a famous big leaguer, a Saint Louis Cardinal named Adam Wainwright. He gave $250,000 to distribute to Cardinals minor leaguers. Then $100,000 came in from Colorado Rockies star Daniel Murphy to distribute it to players who need it league-wide.
Quarantine, for me, meant ten-hour workdays. But no one knew when we might be called back to camp, and, truthfully, you have to be ready to perform. Baseball bodies built to throw a ball ninety miles an hour don’t do well with a couple of dumbbells and a field to run around. It would take a little creativity to stay in shape. For my arm, I needed a bucket of balls and a fence. One of my closest friends from West High had a big bucket of torn-up old batting-practice balls in his garage. He left those outside for me as I said “Hi” from a safe distance.
Up next was weight-lifting equipment. For a week, I taped a broomstick to use as a barbell, and filled two old cat litter containers with sand for weights. My uncle mentioned he had a bunch of extra two-by-fours and a wall in the basement he’d be game to turn into a home gym. With about ten hours of work and a whole lot of sawdust, we turned out a brilliant, height-adjustable squat rack. An old baseball coach and family friend left me a barbell and weights on his front porch, with Lysol wipes to sanitize them, of course.
Once both of those were set up, I hit a groove. Work, lift, throw, work, sleep, repeat. The Rays check up on me twice a week, asking the four questions, almost like Passover. “How are you feeling? How much do you weigh? How many times a week are you throwing? How far are you throwing?” I’m trying to enjoy this downtime. It’s rare to get any in mid-April. But looking around, I see a whole bunch of people torn away from things they love. Sports might not be essential, but they do feel irreplaceable.
Personally, I faced a little crisis of meaning at the beginning of all this. The world is full of essential workers—nurses, doctors, people who deliver your food. And baseball is really just a luxury we can live without. What have I left college early for, anyway? Every day, in my job, I’m party to the challenges the game presents—the cutthroat business side, the sacrifices many players make, spending precious time away from their families. Hell, I gave up any semblance of stability in my own life to chase a dream. Ninety percent of minor leaguers never taste the show. They give up so much for their one-in-ten shot.
After a little reflection, a good dose of existential panic, and a little inspirational reading, there’s a Mandela quote that stuck with me: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair. It’s more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.”
If nothing else, I hope it’s a rallying cry to get us on the field as soon as safely possible. It might not be essential, but the world sure as hell could use us.
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