Michael Rivers was looking for something to make himself feel better, something to keep his mind occupied after being dealt difficult news.
His father had been diagnosed with cancer in November, and in January, the news got worse: It had metastasized. Life, Rivers said, was rough, and he was hoping to bring some positivity into the world.
What began as a small-scale effort to help one baseball player — and to help himself feel a little bit better — has now grown into a much larger effort for Rivers, a 39-year-old waiter who lives with his family in Eagan. His worry turned to Minor League Baseball players, who grapple with financial uncertainty, especially now, as the spread of COVID-19 has put their season — and possibly paychecks — on an indefinite hold.
Rivers’ project “Adopt a Minor Leaguer” (@adoptmilbplayer) started with Todd Van Steensel, a former minor league pitcher in the Twins system who played for the independent St. Paul Saints last year. He had been vocal on social media about the difficulties of life in the minors, particularly the low pay, and it caught Rivers’ attention.
Rivers reached out, asked him if he could help and sent some money along. He then asked Van Steensel if he could connect him with more minor leaguers to help.
“I was like, ‘This feels really good, and I bet there are a lot of people like me that don’t know what’s going on but would want to help them,’ ” Rivers said.
Turns out, there were.
And thus began the project, which Rivers has now used to help about 300 players by connecting them with fan “sponsors” who send money, care packages and other supplies to their assigned player. Rivers, a Twins fan, has helped about 35 minor leaguers in the Twins’ organization, the most of any team.
On Thursday, Major League Baseball announced an industry-wide plan to pay minor leaguers through the point when spring training had been scheduled to end. They will get $400 a week, Twins president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said. That averages out to less than $60 per day.
While an MLB release says the league remains in communication with clubs on the development of an “industry-wide plan for Minor League player compensation,” from April 9 to the beginning of the minor league season, whenever that may be, the time of uncertainty has made Rivers’ efforts all the more important for the players he is helping.
“When the stoppage happened, it just blew up,” he said. “There was a lot more players looking for help, which was great for me because sometimes beforehand there were guys that they could have maybe used the help but pride kind of gets in the way and it’s hard to admit that you need help. But once this hit, I got just a flow, a hit of players and sponsors that wanted to help.”
Rivers uses Twitter to find players and recruit sponsors, trying to connect fans based on their favorite team when possible. Fans are asked to talk to their player, find out his specific needs and then commit help for a full season, spending about $100-150 or so a month based on a player’s need. That could include materials for care packages, gift cards, money or even equipment, Rivers said.
After players have received their packages, many have turned to social media to post pictures of what they received and express their appreciation.
“The biggest thing is the belief that you get from (the sponsors),” Van Steensel said via email from Australia. “They believe in you so much and want you to succeed, they will spend their hard-earned money to help you focus on your goals ahead. That’s the main thing. When people believe in you, it makes it a lot easier to believe in yourself.”
Rivers said he has been getting positive feedback from fans, too, who have enjoyed developing one-on-one relationships with players and being able to see exactly where their money is going.
He has ramped up his efforts in recent days to help coordinate an effort to buy and send toiletries, snacks, video games and other supplies to Yankees minor leaguers who are being quarantined in Florida right now after two players in the Yankees’ system tested positive for the novel coronavirus. He also has been working with More Than Baseball on a general fundraiser for fans who want to help but can’t afford to sponsor a player. It has raised almost $7,000 as of Friday afternoon.
“With this whole situation that’s going on, we aren’t 100% sure as to what is going to continue to go on with our pay, and so having little things like that to be able to go get food and just people doing it out of the goodness of their heart, it’s a good way for us as players to really feel like we are wanted in that way,” one Twins minor league pitcher said.
Twins season-ticket-holder Mary Wadlow found the project after seeing Van Steensel retweet one of Rivers’ tweets. She monitored it for a few days and the next time a request for a Twins player came up, she reached out.
She sent her sponsored player a Starbucks and Chipotle gift card initially, then followed up shortly after with a Walmart gift card for groceries. On a recent trip to Fort Myers, Fla., she was able to meet up with her sponsored player in person.
“I know what they go through with terrible pay,” Wadlow said. “There’s obviously prospects like (Byron) Buxton that come through the system that got plenty of money, and I’m not worried about Royce Lewis feeding himself, but there’s a bunch of these guys. I spent a fair bit of time down in Cedar Rapids and it’s even more obvious there. … They’re still trying to make their way through, and they maybe got a $10,000 bonus three years ago.”
The low pay is exacerbated for players who are relied upon to send money to their families back home, like Carlos Suniaga, who hails from Venezuela and pitched for the Cedar Rapids Kernels last season.
Suniaga, the third player Rivers sponsored, currently is staying at the Twins’ academy in Fort Myers rather than returning home. He said he has received things like shampoo, deodorant, soap, snacks and money to help him through.
“(It) means a lot because when we are playing during the season, we have to buy all that stuff, and you know that we don’t get too much money,” Suniaga said. “…We don’t have to think now whether I can buy this or not because somebody is sending it.”
Mariana Guzman, a Twins fan and blogger who lives in North Carolina, helped connect Rivers and Suniaga. She latched onto the project early on, adopting a player — Melvi Acosta — and volunteering to help translate between Spanish-speaking players and their sponsors while also helping alert players to the initiative.
“As soon as I saw the first post, I was like, ‘This is something that I want to get involved (with) and I want to do something for my people,’ ” Guzman said.
As the project continues to grow — Rivers never imagined it would get to this point to begin with — he is now hoping to make a website and then possibly turn it into a nonprofit so he can expand his reach and capabilities.
“Some people go, ‘Why are you doing this? Why do you do this? Why don’t we just make the owners do it?’ And I see it this way. I’m like, ‘Should the government fight and basically end homelessness?’ Yes they should, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t help a homeless guy on the corner because the government’s not doing it. No, you help to help,” Rivers said. “If there’s a situation where there’s somebody in need, you help. You don’t worry about who should be helping. If you can help, then you help.”