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While MLB is returning, minor-league dreams are still on hold

John Romano | Thousands of minor-league players have lost paychecks and, more importantly, a year of development due to coronavirus.

The good news is this: starting next week, roughly 1,800 professional baseball players will be back on the clock. They’ll be pitching, catching, hitting, running and desperately trying not to spit.

The sad news is this: That leaves about 6,000 professional baseball players in pandemic hell.

Major League Baseball’s plan to start the 2020 season with 60-player pools for each franchise is probably the best anyone could hope for, and even that may end up being too ambitious.

So where does that plan leave the bulk of minor leaguers?

Working the night shift at Walmart.

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Unfortunately, that’s not a joke. At least not entirely. It’s apparent there will be no minor-league season in 2020 and, to make matters worse, there will likely be dozens of lower-level teams eliminated by 2021. So not only have thousands of players been furloughed in 2020, hundreds more could see job opportunities disappear permanently in 2021.

Play ball, eh?

With around 40 million people losing their jobs during the coronavirus, the plight of minor-league ballplayers is not unique. Even so, it’s an unsettled time for players who typically make as little as $300 a week in Class A. Even so, most will not give up.

• • •

It was June 2018 and Rays minor-leaguer Robbie Tenerowicz was on a roll. After hitting .291 and .295 in his first two seasons of pro ball, Tenerowicz was going to represent the Class A Charlotte Stone Crabs in the Florida State League All-Star Game at Steinbrenner Field.

Tropicana Field was just across the bay, and the big leagues felt like they would soon be in reach.

Two years later, his path looks much different.

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Tenerowicz was one of 25 Rays minor-leaguers who were released last month after it became apparent the season was in danger due to the coronavirus. A lingering elbow injury in 2019 had ruined his season at Double-A Montgomery and, at age 25, Tenerowicz was suddenly expendable.

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“I know this is a business where not many people make it to the top, but that’s not how I see myself,” Tenerowicz said. “I just got released during a global pandemic, but it’s not going to stop me. If anything, it’s going to push me. Instead of working out two times a day I work three. It will make me appreciate that first day in the big leagues even more.”

In this 2018 photo, the Baltimore Orioles' Trey Mancini (16) reacts after getting tagged out trying to steal second base by the Tampa Bay Rays' Robbie Tenerowicz during a March 23 game in Sarasota. [CHRIS O'MEARA | Associated Press (2018)]

And so Tenerowicz will wait. He will wait until MLB sorts out a new deal with minor-league affiliates and he figures out where he might land. In the meantime, he took a temporary job working overnight at Walmart while he hones his baseball skills during the day at the high-tech Driveline facility in Seattle. To save money on a gym membership, he bought sacks of concrete and big flower pots and created his own set of weights.

He’s about one year shy of a degree in sociology at Cal-Berkeley but isn’t yet ready to lean on that. In his mind, he’s been a future big leaguer his entire life and he’s not going to let a pink slip stop him now.

Tenerowicz hit over .290 in his first 1,000 at-bats in pro ball, including his first two months in Double-A last year, but hit .140 in his last 107 at-bats. At his age, and as a 27th-round draft pick, there wasn’t enough value there for the Rays to hold a roster spot.

“They have the No. 1 minor-league farm system, and they have a bunch of studs. If I was in a different system I might have been given another year or I might have moved up a little quicker,” Tenerowicz said. “There’s nothing but respect between me and the Rays, from players to coaches to staff. Even when (director of minor league operations) Jeff McLerran called to tell me, I said, ‘Hey I hope you know I’m going to get you guys. You guys have a target on your backs when I get to the big leagues.’ He just laughed. It was all friendly.”

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Tenerowicz’s story is not unique. Hundreds of minor leaguers were released this summer, and thousands of others will lose a year of development. Most of the released players will never again be signed, and others will probably be forced to hook up with independent leagues just to get a second look.

Big-league camps will reopen again with an eye toward opening day in late July.

Pro hopefuls, meanwhile, will be lifting flower pots in their garages, working in department stores and waiting for their next shot.

“I get to play a sport for a living and chase a dream. I don’t imagine that everyone gets to follow their dream so why should I be mad,” Tenerowicz said. “Yeah, coronavirus happened. But I can’t control that. What I can control is being a good dude, saying ‘hi’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘please’ and smiling as much as I can. The Rays were very, very nice to me my entire time with them. I’m forever grateful for the chance they gave me.

“But this isn’t the end. This is just a bump in the road.”