Friday, April 30, 2010

Non-profit for Minor Leaguers

Most readers of this blog know by now that minor leaguers earn about as much as a 19th century seaman. In fact, as I noted in a previous entry on fictional character Mickey Cobb, the majority of players earn a wage that places them below the established poverty guidelines.

The situation is particularly cumbersome for families, on whom the minor league lifestyle grinds like a bone saw on a femur. Seeing this, and living this herself, one wife of a minor leaguer has formed a non-profit to assist struggling ballplayers.

I first learned of Financial Aid Serving Families in Minors a few months ago through a link someone sent me. The original article is informative--and well worth a read--but I also wanted to contact the founder of the organization, Laurel Sharpe for a little Q&A. Her responses are below.

1) FASFIM is a tax exempt non-profit. How hard is it to gain 501(c)(3) status, and what exactly does that mean?

I can only speak for FASFIM when you ask about the difficulty of gaining 501(c)(3) status. It was extremely challenging. The IRS did not understand why a professional athlete would need financial assistance and the verbage when applying for non-profit is very specific. I had found a lawyer from STL, who had a vested interest in sports, and was familiar with the IRS, to help evolve my language into what they are looking for. The reason for establishing the federal poverty line as a guide (in-season), was because those are numbers are governmentally and a relative guideline to how they operate. It was actually kind of shocking, after doing some research, that MOST minor league players make under that guideline.

501(c)(3) status means we are tax exempt, both in making purchases, paying taxes and those who choose to donate, do not pay taxes on the amount they choose to give. I could not have achieved this success for FASFIM without the help of NOLO business books; they guided me each step of the way.

2) I think people have difficulties empathizing with minor leaguers. Even though salaries may be low, they still see players as being in the privileged position of playing baseball for a living. Or they see the minors as the place where a person has to pay their dues. How do you overcome this challenge?

The mission of FASFIM is not to promote the difficulties of the minors, but rather to supplement and strengthen the family unit for a man pursuing his dream. As with any aspiration and career goal, we all start in the 'trenches', with hopes, by the grace of God, that our hard work pays off. Yes, it is more evidently challenging for a player who is somewhat romanticized by media and movies to bring to light the real truths of the challenges of playing minor league baseball, but it is a common theme in most 1st jobs. As stated before, FASFIM was not established to make it seem that playing MiLB is any harder than a 9-5 working mans job. FASFIM was established by a wife who lived and saw the need for more support for the FAMILY, and a man who is also trying to support a wife and child(ren). It is to promote family wholeness in a society that is losing sight of these values, in a sense, it is keeping an ancient dream alive!

3) I have a number of teammates in difficult positions, how do they apply for help? I didn't see a form on the website.

FASFIM began in a recession and is surviving the recession; funds and donations are low. I must admit it to a fault, I have tried to implement small little fundraisers here and there, but the money that has been raised, in the boards opinion, should be used as seed money to grow the organization and build our capacity, in order to better raise funds successfully and provide for families in the future. That being said, we have not officially awarded any money. FASFIM was established as a long term goal, something that 20 years down the road, we can be proud to have established and amazed by those it has helped. It is hard in today's world to not get hung up on the immediate gratification (quick money). We trust, with time and the grace of God, that FASFIM will reach it's full potential. So for those wanting to apply, I would encourage them to stay abreast of our newest developments and fundraising efforts, via the website and Facebook, until we have reached capacity to financially aid their family.

4) What are the federal poverty guidelines, and are most people surprised that ballplayers fall below the levels set?

The federal poverty guidelines are listed annually on (the government will release 2010 guidelines in May. FYI, in addition to the FPG for in-season play, the players must also qualify by meeting their off season's State's median income level. It is a consideration that takes all 12 months earnings into account.

Thanks to Laurel not only for answering my questions, but, more importantly, for trying to make a difference. Whereas inaction sometimes becomes the norm in this world, she has taken steps to help others. I applaud her for this.

If you'd like more information on FASFIM, including ways to donate, please go to their website at And feel free to pass the link around!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Review of "Sugar" (Finally)

I had a teacher in high school that used to always respond to the cut-ups in class by asking them what the first rule of comedy was. They knew his ploy well, as he did it daily, but yet he forced them to play his game. When they attempted to say "timing," he cut them off mid-reply. He interrupted them every time. He loved it.

The first rule of comedy may indeed be timing, but it's also the first rule of movie reviews. Therefore, I know this review of "Sugar" is about as well-timed as Israel's announcement of new settlements in East Jerusalem a month ago. So why write about it?

The movie, recommended to me by dozens over the past year, is a wonderful glimpse into the world of the Dominican baseball immigrant. This is a large part of the minor league saga, and its intricacies have too often been ignored. I should've watched the movie--and written about it--long ago. Better late then never.

Sugar, the name of the main character, is a teenager from the Dominican who gains the opportunity to play in the States for the first time. Not only his family but his entire neighborhood brims with pride for him.

This is one of the interesting aspects of the movie. For many Latino peloteros, simply making it to the U.S. is a huge achievement. This country is seen as a type of dream world to them. New cars, fancy malls, huge houses, and gigantic stadiums pervade their thoughts.

Many ballplayers have never travelled outside of the Dominican before their arrival here. Some have hardly removed themselves from their own neighborhoods. The States might as well be on another planet for them. Being given a lump sum of money and told that you are getting on a plane and arriving to this fancy dream world, with your whole neighborhood bursting with pride, must be an amazing feeling.

Sugar leaves the Dominican and arrives to the U.S. early in the movie (probably a little too quickly to be realistic). We see him and his other fellow new-to-the-States friends in a hotel room. They open up the little hotel refrigerator and find beer in it. They all agree that they have indeed reached the big time, and immediately start drinking the beer and watching hotel porn on the TV. A minor league veteran comes in and has to educate them, telling them they have to pay for all of this.

The minor league veteran is a crucial piece of this story. He's played in the States presumably for a couple of years and knows the long road ahead for these young men. He also knows their innocent excitement.

One of my best Latino friends, Osiris Matos, told me a story about his first day in Arizona. (An important part of this story involves Matos' first name, which is phonetically pronounced O-Serious.) The Giants' minor league hotel is a crappy old Days Inn, but it lies directly beside the Fashion Square Mall in Scottsdale, which is one of the nicest malls I've ever been in. One of the favorite pastimes of minor leaguers is to go to the mall, grab a bite to eat, and then sit for hours beside the main escalators in the building. It offers a great view of all the beautiful women shopping.

As soon as Osiris arrived, he and his newfound friends went to the mall to do just this. They got some Chinese food from Panda Express, and then began yelling at girls as they came off the escalator. Most ignored them. Being good hunting dogs though, they persevered. Finally--Success!--girls came their way.

One of the players knew just a bit more English than the others. He tried talking to the girls, and cut straight to the most important information:

"We baseball players."

Apparently somehow this little incomplete, grammatically atrocious sentence impressed our young ladies. They reacted as so:

"Are you serious!!!"

At this time, young Osiris Matos, stood up:

"Yes! You know me!!!"

Matos, thinking they said his name when they asked "are you serious" because it sounded like his name, thought that he was a big enough prospect that these random girls already knew who he was. Indeed, he thought he had arrived.

Every Dominican no doubt has a similar feeling upon arrival to the States. They feel on top of the world. It is usually short-lived. In our movie, Sugar quickly finds out how far he has to go. There are more talented players than he's ever seen in spring training camp.

Out of camp, Sugar is assigned to a small Midwestern town. This assignment is one of the real inaccuracies of the movie. The movie accelerates Sugar's career WAY too quickly. I can't think of a single Dominican I ever knew who went from being signed, then to spring training, then to an assignment to a full-season team within a month. Almost always, the newly signed players spend some time in the Dominican Summer League. If they do come to the U.S. immediately, the will spend at least a summer, maybe two or even three, at the spring training complex for extended spring training. It allows them time to assimilate to the culture, learn a little English, and learn a little more baseball. All of this comes in a friendlier environment devoid of many fans. It's also full of more Latinos. For the purposes of the film though, all of this was skipped.

Sugar arrives to the small town and shacks up with a host family. Their old country house is surrounded by corn fields, which contrast greatly with earlier scenes from the Dominican. He looks out his window with heartache. He's never comfortable in this house.

If awards were given out to the nicest people in the world, most host families would be nominated. But indeed, some players never really feel comfortable there. They don't like opening the refrigerator whenever they like. They don't always like sitting down at the dinner table with them. They don't like talking with them after every game.

This is not a general rule for all players, but it is true for some. Some people keep to themselves more and don't easily adjust to living in new situations. In living with a host family, they feel they have invaded another's life. They feel they must conform to this life, and therefore can't live their own normalcy. This is true even of some American players, and it must be even more true of Latinos.

This plays out in the movie beautifully with Sugar. The scenes at the dinner table are priceless. His host family attempts to speak Spanish to him, and it sounds ridiculous. It makes Sugar feel stupid, as it seems they are talking down to him. He'd no doubt rather they speak slowly in English.

Sugar's interactions with his teammates are also wonderful. He sort of forms a bond with one of his American infielders, understanding some of what he says, but not all of it. He doesn't quite feel right throughout, as is evidenced by his attempt to hang out with the guys at a bowling alley. (I've actually done this with a couple of Latinos. Matos, Kelvin Pichardo, and others used to occasionally join a group of American players for Sunday night bowling. They didn't feel comfortable in the place--surrounded by whites and playing a strange game--but with a little encouragement from myself and a few other guys (and after a few drinks), they began throwing gutterballs with the best of us.) Sugar enters the bowling alley and sees his teammates laughing and carousing from a distance. Yet he can't bring himself to join them. He leaves before even talking to them.

In showing human interactions such as these, the movie excells. The downfall comes from the path of his career. Sugar has a seemingly minor injury and his team has little patience with him. Within a short time he leaves baseball altogether. His entire career last for a couple of months.

Yes, the window of opportunity is short in this game, but this is ridiculous. The kid gave it a mere couple of months. He was earning a paycheck and sending money back to his impoverished family in the Dominican. Despite his troubles, I can't fathom him leaving the game in such a manner.

Sugar then goes to New York and attempts to find work. His mother doesn't understand his actions. Eventually he finds other Latinos and gains a sense of home. He even finds other former baseball players and joins a pickup game.

In all, the movie is an important addition to the baseball genre. Both an immigrant's tale and a baseball tale, the beautifully done human interactions more than make up for the gross inaccuracies in the timeline of his career. If you haven't seen it, it's a must-see movie for all baseball fans.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Primavera and some links

A few lyrics from one of my favorite Santana songs, "Primavera" (Spring), which I've been listening to a lot lately:

Como la semilla
Lleva nueva vida
Hay en esta primavera una nueva era

En el aire de este universo
Hoy se respira libertad
En primavera ya

La tierra negra se vuelve verde
Y las montanas y el desierto
Un bello jardin

Como la semilla
Lleva nueva vida
Hay en esta primavera una nueva era

Beautiful in Spanish. It's worth the translation.

And here are a few links:

David Laurila with Baseball Prospectus has a great ongoing series called "Minor Issues." I had the wonderful opportunity to answer a couple of questions for him:

And here's a recent fun one about from Laurila about Derrick Loop entering his team's circle of trust:

From recent to old, here's something from Lisa Winston, written years back, that was passed along to me:

Lastly, not sure what to think about USA Today reporting a significant decrease in MLB opening day salaries and MLBPA responding with their own calculations showing a slight increase. Don't really think that accomplished anything. What's more interesting is that MLBPA seems to be gearing up for a collusion case. In my opinion, the owners definitely colluded this offseason, using the economy as an excuse to collectively make less attractive offers to free agents. But proving it is another thing. Here are some links:

Enjoy the spring! It's beautiful in St. Louis!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Food Stamps and Baseball: the tale of imaginary friend Mickey Cobb

As I stated in my previous post, the Baseball America article on minor league salaries was finally published. Yes, I know, it had become some mythical balloon floating around in the troposphere by now. Unlike the balloon boy fiasco, hopefully it contained more than just hot air.

I bored you with some stats in my previous post. Basically salaries have been grounded like a dead hawk the past 35 years, while inflation has been building faster than 1990s suburbia. Meanwhile, baseball profits are at an all time high, and MLB salaries have risen by 7000%.

But enough of that. Today we're going to tell a little bedtime story. It's a little fictional account about food stamps and poverty, enlisting the help of an imaginary friend. (Because it's better to embarrass an imaginary friend than a real friend.)

My imaginary friend is a minor league baseball player (shocker). Since my friend needs a name, we'll call him Mickey Cobb. Mickey hails from a land as open and free as a Galilean moon: Oklahoma. The name of his town? Cottonmouth. Always a natural athlete, Mickey was popular in high school but never won any contests such as Prom King. In fact, he elected to not even go to prom--he hates the choking confines of a tux. (Not to mention the terrible feeling of posing for pictures.) Instead, he sat around a bonfire with a couple of his baseball buddies, watching Bill E. Bobb crush empty cans of Keystone off his forehead. Later, others joined the circle of post-prom reminiscing, including the Prom Queen, who quickly huddled next to Mickey close to the fire (as far away from Bill E. as possible).

Mickey attended a local junior college where he developed as a player and continued to date Prom Queen. He then attended Some Southern University in Western Oklahoma--a well-known baseball powerhouse. His junior year, Mick had high hopes of getting drafted, but the scrimmage prior to the start of the season a hamstring was strained, which hampered (couldn't help myself) him the entire season. Both his power numbers and his ability to play the outfield diminished. Draft day passed without his name being called.

With the coming of his senior year, Mickey worked harder than ever. He knew it was his last chance to make his dream a reality. The hard work paid off. Mickey became an All-Conference player, and in early June the moment finally came. He heard his name called in the 12th round of the draft.

As a senior signee, Mickey had no leverage. He quickly took the first offer given him by the BlueBuzzards, and signed a uniform contract with a $5,000 signing bonus. He immediately took the bulk of the bonus to the local Cottonmouth jewelry store, where he bought a diamond solitaire engagement ring for Prom Queen. All of Cottonmouth, Oklahoma rejoiced.
Mickey has now played a year and a half in professional baseball. He enters his second spring training after making the Sally League All-Star team the previous year, posting a .297 average with 16 homeruns. Though he's not considered a top prospect yet, the eyes and spitcups of the organization are upon him. He hopes with another All-Star caliber season he will move into the upper ranks of the system.

Last season Mickey made just over $6000 for the year. He went to instructional leagues for all of October and also attended a two week workout camp in December. Additionally, he was invited to a mini-camp beginning two weeks prior to spring training in the middle of February. He earned no money for his time spent at instructional leagues or at spring training. All of these things--combined with a tough local economy--made it impossible for him to find work during the couple of months spent in Cottonmouth. His baseball salary was his only source of income.

Prom Queen worked odd jobs--20 hours a week at a golf course during one summer month, part-time at a restaurant 2 winter months--but she too found it hard to find work while living as a gypsy. In all, she earned $3,000 herself. Combined they earned $9000 last season.

Their bank account is as empty as an Easter tomb. Even though they're now married, they again lived with their parents in the offseason. This season, they're living with three other players, all crammed into a two-bedroom apartment, yet they still pay almost $400 per month for rent.

More and more, Mick and Prom Queen are finding it difficult to pay for groceries. Finally they make a tough decision. They inquire to see if they are eligible for food stamps.

They open up Mick's old laptop--a Christmas present from his freshman year in college that is as slow as a sailboat on a windless day. After a few minutes, the power of Google directs them to a website that gives an instant estimate. Prom Queen types some information into the calculator. FNS SNAP eligibility screening proclaims they are eligible for between $357 and $367 per month in food stamps.

They also look into other benefits. They find that they are well below the established poverty guidelines which qualify them for a myriad of things. In fact, they are more than $5000 below the threshold of $14,700 set by the government for a family of two.

Mick and Prom Queen quietly go about the process of applying for these benefits. They are embarrassed about their situation, but they don't know what else to do. Their parents have no money to help them. Prom Queen can't find work. And Mick's meager salary is set by his original contract. They've done their best to avoid credit card use. They're pinching pennies as much as possible--Prom Queen hasn't bought a new shirt in months--yet they need help. Not even Bill E. Bobb's awesome powers can rescue them.

Mickey tries to put these things out of his mind. He goes to the park each day, hoping beyond hope that he will soon be promoted. He knows he has talent, but so do many others. The chances of reaching the big leagues are slim, but he must continue to believe.

Each day he signs a few autographs before entering the clubhouse. Playing for his new team in the Midwest League, seven or eight thousand people watch him play each night. These people cheer him, and many already know his name. Being an All-Star the previous year, he's one of the centerpieces of his new team's marketing strategy. He's on the cover of the program and will routinely make visits to schools. He talks to the local press and makes radio appearances. And Mick never turns down the opportunity to say hi to a kid.

The minor league team will directly benefit from these things, but they will pay no part of his salary. They won't even help with housing. Instead, the major league team will pay his salary, and they have no incentive to increase it. After all, with only a small percentage of minor leaguers contributing at the big league level, it's in their best interest to pay minor leaguers as little as possible. Constantly in a battle with the MLBPA--which does not represent minor leaguers--they try to use almost all their resources on the big league budget.

While Mickey's at the field each day, Prom Queen goes to the grocery store. As she approaches the register, she takes the food stamps out of her purse, hoping that nobody will recognize her as a ballplayer's wife. Having paid for the food, she grabs her bags and quickly walks out with her head cast slightly towards the ground. More than ever, she misses the simplicity of her Cottonmouth youth with every step that she takes.