Most mornings this summer, Ruben Molina's two-hour commute took him from the small Chiapas town of Palenque in southeastern Mexico to Villahermosa, where he pitches for Olmecas de Tabasco, a squad in the Triple-A-level Mexican League. Soon after clearing jungle-lined roads and driving into his destination city, the Olmecas' home stadium emerged over the horizon.
Past the ballpark, which sits empty after the 2020 season was canceled June 30 because of the coronavirus pandemic, the 24-year-old Molina pulled his rented big rig into a loading dock to work his temporary day job. Standing shoulder to shoulder with hired day laborers, Molina hauled concrete and metal lighting structures onto the truck, usually in 90 degree temperatures and 70% humidity. On every trip, the left-hander not only braved sweltering conditions but also risked injury to his throwing arm or contracting COVID-19.
"It's risky, and it's hard work, but you have to get used to it," Molina said. "We have to eat."
Only the United States, Brazil and India have recorded more coronavirus deaths than Mexico. While other countries have rallied to save their summer baseball season, the rampaging path of the virus on Mexico made it impossible to guarantee a safe, economically viable season. More than 700 Mexican League players and coaches joined countless others who lost jobs and paychecks because of the pandemic.
The latent dread of a COVID-19 infection adds another layer of difficulty to those searching for work in the absence of baseball south of the border. Though Mexico's quarantine mandate was not as stringent compared to those of other countries, it still required creative solutions for ballplayers hoping to make money. For others, the pandemic meant leaving the country, albeit temporarily.
Like their counterparts up north, the stoppage unexpectedly thrust Mexico's minor leaguers into the job market. About 1,500 miles north of Villahermosa, Manny Barreda spent several afternoons ducking into the shade to stay cool in Arizona's desert sun. The 2007 New York Yankees 12th-round draft pick and current Toros de Tijuana pitcher trekked to his hometown of Tucson after Mexico's premier summer league stopped down in lockstep with minor league circuits across North America.
To mitigate boredom and income loss, Barreda and a group of friends offered baseball classes over the summer.
"Every day with the pandemic, you couldn't reserve any of the fields," Barreda said. "So if we scheduled a class at a certain time, we had to arrive one or two hours before just to make sure we could use the facility."
The parents of a few teenagers enthusiastically enrolled their kids, so Barreda & Co. expanded by reaching out directly through social media. Barreda raised enough from teaching baseball to cover his summer expenses. Still, he estimates he lost "about 90 or 95 percent" of his total income for the year.
From history to mystery
Mexican baseball was home to some of the sport's best talent outside of the big leagues around the middle of the 20th century. Dozens of Negro League stars flocked there before the color barrier was broken, and enough MLB players were lured south that commissioner Happy Chandler threatened lifetime bans for anyone jumping ship.
At the site of what is now a popular shopping mall in central Mexico City, an ailing Babe Ruth famously put one over the wall during an exhibition in 1946. The Babe reportedly turned down an offer to become a Mexican League manager or league executive as he was undergoing cancer treatments in the United States.
Subsequent decades have been largely devoid of such spectacle and star power, though former big leaguers still abound -- albeit for far less money. Last season, Chris Carter led the Mexican League in home runs with 49, as he did in the National League in 2016 for the Milwaukee Brewers. Dominican outfielder Felix Pie, previously with the Chicago Cubs and Baltimore Orioles, posted a .381 batting average, good for second in the category.
To boot, the Mexican summer league remains a seeder for MLB scouts seeking the next Fernando Valenzuela or Vinny Castilla. Houston Astros closer Roberto Osuna signed with the Toronto Blue Jays after pitching in 2011 for Mexico City's Diablos Rojos, the same club that produced Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Julio Urias.
With Mexico's summer season gone, so too was any chance for players to be signed up north or even make a living. That's how Barreda went from trying to build off a 2019 season in which he posted an 8-3 record and a 4.40 ERA in Tijuana, to tutoring high schoolers on arm angles and proper windups in Tucson to make ends meet. Molina was hoping to bounce back after ending last year with a 10.03 ERA and a WHIP of 2.14 in 56 relief appearances for Tabasco.
Some minor leaguers receive a weekly stipend of $400 from Mexican teams to help keep them afloat. Clubs have offered partial advances on salaries, to be deducted come 2021. Before starting on his summer job, Molina received 20% of his income from Tabasco in June -- money that quickly went to food, clothes and supplies for his newborn baby.
Despite the potential dangers in his labor, Molina considers himself one of the lucky ones. His father-in-law, with whom the pitcher and his family live, secured Molina's job early in the summer to keep up with expenses in the absence of a steady paycheck.
"We survived on whatever we could," Molina said. "My wife sells cosmetics online and I've sold some clothes. Anything we can do to survive and pay bills."
However, some players were left to fend for themselves financially when loan offers from their teams never came. Others still have gone months without word from their organizations, not even over the season's official cancellation.
"No one's called me [from Tijuana], and I'm not the only one," Barreda said. "I found out on the internet, it just came up on my phone."
Barreda's teammate in Tijuana, infielder Fernando Perez, sells vitamin supplements online to make ends meet during the pandemic. Like Barreda, Perez was not offered a loan by the team, necessitating a quick pivot into another industry.
"I think I'm lucky that I can do this from the perspective of being an athlete," Perez said. "But it doesn't take away from the uncertainty of what's going to happen when the winter season rolls around."
"We survived on whatever we could. My wife sells cosmetics online and I've sold some clothes. Anything we can do to survive and pay bills." Ruben Molina, Olmecas de Tabasco pitcher who drove a big rig after the cancellation of the Mexican League season
The shaky economic climate has seen teams joining players in undertaking alternative methods to make up for lost profit. Tijuana, for instance, has transformed the parking lot at its stadium, Estadio Chevron, into a drive-in movie theater. During showings, employees sell snacks available on game day. Team executives say the efforts are more about fan engagement than recouping financial losses.
"Our budget for this season was about $6.3 million," said Alejandro Uribe, the Toros' executive president. "We expected to come out about even. With the virus, it's basically a total loss."
Despite the downturn, Uribe points out that the Toros kept on most full-time employees, and seasonal hires remained on payroll until the season was officially canceled. In regard to player loans, Uribe said they are available to any player who requested them.
"We have a lot of players who haven't done badly [financially], they've earned plenty in the past and can hold out longer," Uribe said. "Those who have needed something, because their wife is pregnant or someone in the family has COVID-19, we've helped."
A cold winter ahead
Even with the Mexican League scrapped for 2020, the country's independent winter circuit, the Mexican Pacific League, is set to begin play in October, offering players a chance at recouping lost income. Historically, the league has been a destination for big league prospects looking to get offseason playing time. Hall of Famers Mike Piazza and Larry Walker spent time in Mexico before making it big, and a 41-year-old Frank Robinson joined the Tomateros de Culiacan as a player-manager after his dismissal as Cleveland Indians manager in 1977.
But Mexico's gradual economic reopening has moved slowly, and officials are planning for a season with limited fan entry.
In bracing for the winter, Mexican Pacific League teams have slashed payrolls. Some players are reporting offers of less than half their wages from last year.
"It's pretty unjust," said Barreda, who pitches for Culiacan in the winter. "I understand [the situation] is hard for owners, but it's harder for us. No one in any league has helped us through this ordeal."
Worse still, the fear among players is the pandemic will lead to extended pay cuts beyond 2020 in both circuits, as teams scramble to cover 2020 losses. Mexico's pro baseball community has no organized labor union, meaning each player fends for himself. In addition, sports journalists in Mexico rarely comment on salaries and contracts in general as is common in the U.S., adding another veil of uncertainty to negotiations.
Players have resorted to text chains and messaging groups to combat misinformation and provide updates on what teams are willing to pay for the winter campaign.
"Teams are operating with the utmost respect for the players in negotiations," said Omar Canizales, president of the Mexican Pacific League. "We understand that for health concerns, salary concerns or any other reason, players can and have opted out. Down the line, there will be no repercussions for this."
Assurances notwithstanding, ballplayers in Mexico now mull the possibility of lower salaries beyond this year, which could force their temporary moonlighting to become a more permanent way of life.
For his part, Molina plans to keep driving up and down the Yucatán Peninsula. He'll stick around this winter, taking on a roster spot with his 2019 team, Indios Mayas de Umán. The heavy workdays in the transport industry coupled with caring for an infant son take a toll, yet Molina finds quiet moments to hone his craft.
"I work out, I practice and I picture myself back on the mound," he said. "We all know making a living playing baseball doesn't last forever. But it's unfair that it might have to end like this. I still have a lot to give."