In June 2018, Zack Kelly earned a promotion from rookie ball to the Los Angeles Angels’ high Class A affiliate in San Bernardino, California. But even as the move inched the left-handed pitcher closer to the bright lights of the major leagues, it confronted him with an all-too-common minor league problem: inadequate housing.

Unable to afford his own apartment in the competitive Southern California market, Kelly squeezed into a cramped two-bedroom with eight of his teammates.

“We had three guys in one bedroom, three in the other, and three air mattresses in the living room,” remembered Kelly, 26, now a member of the bullpen for the Triple-A Worcester Red Sox. “That was tough.”

The Boston Red Sox recently announced they will begin providing housing stipends to players in their minor league system, a move that will help athletes avoid situations like Kelly’s. Yet even with stipends and recent salary increases, many minor leaguers struggle to find stable and affordable housing as they pursue the dream of making it to the major leagues.

Fans may associate professional baseball with the multimillion-dollar contracts given to stars in the majors, but players at the Double-A level for the Portland Sea Dogs can make as little as $600 per week. That means over the course of the slightly abridged 2021 season, a Portland player making the minimum will earn about $12,000 before taxes. And while top draft picks like first baseman Triston Casas can draw from signing bonuses in excess of a million dollars, many players sign for a few thousand dollars, or even less.

The Sea Dogs, like many other minor league teams, have long relied on a network of host families to house players when they’re not on the road. The system provides players with free or cheap housing and host families with the opportunity to form relationships with athletes, said pitcher Matthew Kent, who is in his third season with the Sea Dogs.

“Yes, you’re going into a stranger’s home, but they’re welcoming with open arms,” said Kent, who enjoyed living with Portland-area host families during the 2018 and 2019 seasons. “It eases the cost burden on the player as well as reaches out to the community, allows them to interact with professional baseball players.”

But pandemic concerns shelved the host family system in Portland to begin the 2021 season. Instead, Sea Dogs players have lived in hotels – an expensive proposition for players on minor league salaries.

The Red Sox organization has helped negotiate special hotel rates for the Sea Dogs players, according to Kent. Team members are paying $70 per night for a single room at the Holiday Inn – a far cheaper rate than most guests can expect during the summer.

Still, that comes out to $490 for each week the team plays a home series – more than 80% of the base weekly salary of players making the league minimum. As a result, Kent says he look forward to road trips with team-provided housing and $25 per diem.

The decision by the Red Sox to provide housing stipends makes them one of a small handful of organizations to offer housing support to minor leaguers. The club will pay each Portland player $300 per month during the season, retroactive to the beginning of the year.

Red Sox Director of Player Development Brian Abraham acknowledged the franchise has started providing housing vouchers to its minor leaguers, but he declined to answer any questions about the decision. Instead, he referred to a statement the team gave earlier to Boston.com.

“The Red Sox are committed to providing the best resources for our players both on and off the field at the major and minor league levels,” the statement said. “We are pleased to extend this additional support to our minor league players as they continue their development in our organization.”

Pitcher Zach Schellenger, 25, said the team’s announcement came as a pleasant surprise.

“It’s great, because they didn’t have to do that,” said Schellenger, who also finished the 2019 season with Portland. “I knew they cared, but they really went above and beyond. It’s a big help.”

“They’ve done a good job here,” agreed Kelly, who traded his eight California roommates for a single room in Portland before his recent promotion to Worcester. “Other organizations aren’t doing as well as the Red Sox.”

The pandemic has merely exacerbated the longstanding mistreatment of players in the minor leagues, according to Harry Marino, the executive director of Advocates for Minor Leaguers, a nonprofit organization devoted to improving working conditions in the minors.

“Major League Baseball has been able to exploit minor leaguers for a long time and keep player costs very, very low,” said Marino, who noted Major League Baseball’s anti-trust exemption has allowed it to pay players at below-market rates. “While host families have provided a nice stop-gap and taken the heat off of MLB to do what they should, that’s not where the onus should ultimately lie.”

Major League Baseball has taken recent steps to improve life in the minor leagues, which Marino credits to pressure from players. In 2021, minimum salaries across the minors increased dramatically; the lowest-paid Double-A players made only $350 per week in 2019, nearly 42% less than the current rate.

Yet even after the pay increases, poor living conditions in the minors have drawn recent scrutiny. A June report by sfgate.com revealed that players for the Oakland Athletics’ affiliate in Stockton, California, have paid more in hotel fees than they’ve earned as salary during recent homestands. A video showing players in the St. Louis Cardinals’ system sleeping in a hotel banquet room has received over 172,000 views since Advocates for Minor Leaguers posted it to Twitter on July 19.

“There’s just no real excuse or justification for treating minor league players this way,” Marino said. “It’s just plain wrong.”

Kent, like Marino, is hopeful that spotlighting problems in the minor leagues will encourage clubs and Major League Baseball to make further strides.

“I think they’re seeing now that there are some places and some organizations that are not quite toeing the line like they should,” Kent said. “It’s giving MLB a chance to correct some wrongs, put some people’s feet to the fire. These players need to be treated like the professional athletes that they are.”

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