'Wow, it's kind of over': Stories of lost seasons from across minor league baseball

Despite a global pandemic and a contentious labor fight, Major League Baseball is, in fact, on track to return this year, in one form or another. But baseball's reach is far greater than its highest level.

Countless other people -- in high schools and throughout college campuses, from youth teams and travel ball to the minor leagues, in a multitude of roles at every level -- have suddenly been left without the game that has been such a major part of their lives. Their plight is a reminder of baseball's scope and significance in a time when the sport is teetering.

This is the second part of a series examining their stories, continuing with a look at how those who help make up the minor leagues have been affected.

MITCH HORACEK RECEIVED A CALL from a Minnesota Twins executive on Monday morning and was told, basically, to stay ready. The 28-year-old journeyman reliever didn't crack the initial pool of 59 players, but he did fall within the dozen or so others on the proverbial bubble who could be called upon if a need arises.

"I don't know how I feel about it at this point," Horacek said a few hours after receiving word. "It's a really tough spot."

Horacek wants to pitch. But because he isn't technically with the team, he won't make the prorated portion of the minor league salary he agreed to at the start of the season. Instead, he'll continue to receive his $400 weekly stipend -- it comes out to about $550 after taxes every two weeks -- and will nonetheless be counted on to perform at a high level on a moment's notice. Then there are the realities of the coronavirus pandemic and MLB's clunky health and safety protocols, which have led to canceled workouts and a growing list of opt-outs.

"Is it even f---ing worth it?" Horacek asked. "Do I want to go into a situation where the only reason I'm getting invited back is because coronavirus is out of control in the clubhouse? No, I don't."

Horacek became particularly risk-averse when a bad reaction to the flu prompted him to shed 15 pounds and nearly lose his job three springs ago. Catching coronavirus, he fears, could end his career, which is why he doesn't feel safe attending his local gym.

Instead, he lifts concrete weights that he made himself while staying at his grandparents' house in Breckenridge, Colorado. To play catch, he throws a bag's worth of baseballs into a net. To throw bullpen sessions, he logs 250 miles round-trip to meet a friend in Denver.

"I've been in a gray area for months now," Horacek said. "I've been basically training in very, very suboptimal conditions trying to stay ready, and at the same time I'm not getting any information. I'm not part of the union, so the only information I'm getting is what I see on Twitter, and I'm trying to base my long-term decisions off that."

Horacek, a left-hander, was a ninth-round pick out of Dartmouth who couldn't advance past the lower levels of the Baltimore Orioles' minor league system as a starting pitcher. He moved to the bullpen in 2017, then went to the Colorado Rockies in the Rule 5 draft and pitched well at Double-A Hartford the following summer. When he struggled to locate his slider in the extreme hitter-friendly environments of the Triple-A level in 2019, he went back down, then became a free agent and joined his third organization.

Horacek has already proved he can thrive in Double-A -- he had a 2.30 ERA with 118 strikeouts in 97⅔ innings there these past two years -- and went into 2020 with the thought that one good Triple-A stint could warrant a major league call-up. Now, given his standing on the roster and his apprehensions of playing through a pandemic, he's bracing for the possibility of a lost season, which could spell the end of his career with his lifelong dream so close.

He continues to hold out hope, but baseball is becoming increasingly impractical.

"I can make plenty of money doing other s---," said Horacek, who started a web development agency with another player, Anthony Shew of the St. Louis Cardinals, and is actively seeking clients. "I can do that from the safety of my own couch. Being a Major League Baseball player has always been a dream of mine, but I'm not going to be a pawn when s--- hits the fan and everyone gets sick and they're gonna call me to get sick too."

IT WAS MAY 1, the first true spring day Rob Henry had experienced all year. He was riding a bike through Boston with his girlfriend when he came across a deserted Fenway Park and thought about his favorite activity -- playing baseball in a competitive, pressure-packed environment, a distinctive thrill that used to absorb most of his sunny afternoons.

"It hit me that I'm definitely not gonna do that this year," Henry said. "And that's when I was like, 'Wow, it's kind of over.'"

The end officially came four weeks later, on May 28, when Henry picked up the phone and Tom Flanagan, the Milwaukee Brewers' farm director, was on the line informing him of his release. Henry's close friends in the organization offered their condolences. Moments later, one by one, they all hopped back into the group chat to say they were told the same thing. Henry said it "felt like Armageddon."

But he had attained closure long before then.

"I felt as though I didn't want to be a part of it as a player anymore," Henry said. "I sacrificed a lot of my mental health to indulge in the minor league life. It's not easy. Regardless of the financial sacrifices you have to make, you make a lot of social sacrifices. There's a lot of opportunity cost when it comes to playing professional baseball, regardless of financials."

In 2017, Henry was a 39th-round pick -- the type that might never exist again. He remained at Brown University long enough to complete his degree in economics, then went about trying to make it as an outfielder in the Brewers' system. He hit a combined .226 with eight home runs and 26 stolen bases through 173 games at both of the organization's Class A levels over the past two seasons, then looked up and saw himself as a 25-year-old without a solidified spot on a Double-A roster.

"I had a pretty good understanding about my role and was honest with myself," Henry said. "And I knew that I was already exceeding expectations by sticking around."

Henry carried a .985 OPS through the first month of the 2019 season, then fizzled as summer wore on. A lot of the pitchers he initially succeeded against went on to dot Double-A and Triple-A rosters, which made Henry believe he could compete at the higher levels. He was looking forward to the challenge this year, hopeful of succeeding in the Southern League and curious about where that might lead. Then the coronavirus pandemic wiped out his season and in turn ended his career.

Henry is living out of his parents' house in Cranston, Rhode Island, and is trying to enjoy his temporary retirement. Soon, he'll apply to law school. But he believes working in a major league front office is his calling. Had he never played professional baseball, Henry said, he might not have that ambition. It makes him think about the dwindling opportunities that come with a shorter draft and fewer minor league affiliates, and how it might negatively impact the sport moving forward.

"I can be a general manager one day," Henry said. "If I continue the passion I have for baseball, there's no reason why I can't be. But there's also professional baseball players that can be the next big league hitting coach, or can be the next A-ball manager. Those jobs are gonna be stripped away, and it's really sad what's going on. It hurts."

THE CALL CAME in at 9:01 a.m. ET on a Sunday, immediately after teams were allowed to reach out to undrafted free agents. On the other end were scouting director Brian Barber and area scout Jeff Zona with an official $20,000 offer from the Philadelphia Phillies. For Jake McKenna, a left-handed pitcher and lifelong Phillies fan from Ocean City High School in South Jersey, it represented something of a dream come true. And yet, the alternative was impossible to ignore.

The pandemic shut down sports before McKenna's baseball team was able to stage its first scrimmage, eliminating what promised to be the type of breakthrough senior season that might have changed everything.

"I only had eight innings last year," McKenna said. "My coach was saying I was going to have to step up this year, and I was ready to do that."

McKenna decided to dedicate himself exclusively to pitching after that 2019 season. He followed a stringent weight-training program, began "eating 'til I wanted to puke" and put on 30 pounds over the course of one summer, his 6-foot-7 frame increasing from 200 pounds to 230. He immediately began throwing in the upper 80s, then reached 90 mph in the fall and was dialing it up to 93 over the winter. His mechanics and command were improving along the way.

Had his senior season played out, McKenna believes he "would have been in those top five rounds."

"But I'm also thankful that I was able to sign as a free agent," he said. "It is what it is."

McKenna was committed to Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, but put that aside in large part because of the grim future that baseball faces -- a shorter draft moving forward, fewer roster spots because of the eventual elimination of numerous minor league affiliates, and a backlog of collegiate athletes after the NCAA granted an extra season of eligibility. McKenna ultimately decided he would sign if the Phillies agreed to pay for his college education.

"Not many people know that," McKenna said. "Some people think this was like a crazy decision, but yeah, that was huge for me."

McKenna, 18, grew up idolizing Cole Hamels and has owned season tickets to Phillies games at Citizens Bank Park for as long as he could remember; his parents also made trips to Clearwater, Florida, for spring training.

Later that same Sunday morning, McKenna heard from the Kansas City Royals, Milwaukee Brewers, Miami Marlins and Atlanta Braves. But the Phillies were always his team.

"They knew I was very signable," McKenna said. "I knew that if I got the opportunity I was gonna take it, and they also knew that. I wouldn't say I was surprised when I got the call, but it was definitely really relieving."

C. KELLY SMITH was donating a kidney to her mother in 2012 and was scheduled for surgery during a period in August that coincided with a long road trip for the Pawtucket Red Sox. She didn't want to miss any part of the team's run toward its first Governors' Cup in 28 years, but she developed a staph infection in her arm during the procedure and was kept for antibiotics. Her stay was becoming more and more prolonged, and the PawSox were getting close to solidifying their spot in the International League playoffs.

She pleaded with doctors to expedite the process and finally persuaded them to move her final session up by four hours, which gave her a chance. She bummed a ride from Worcester, Massachusetts, to Providence, Rhode Island, a 45-minute drive without traffic. From there, she caught another ride to McCoy Stadium and arrived just in time to watch her PawSox clinch.

In August 2018, when the Boston Red Sox's Triple-A affiliate officially announced it would relocate to Worcester, countless people reached out to Smith and asked whether she would move with them.

She thought about it.

"If I could -- if I could do it, and if I could rationalize doing it with my present circumstances -- I probably would because I love them so much," Smith said. "But I can't."

Smith grew up rooting for the Red Sox, but fell in love with the PawSox and the intimacy of minor league baseball when she attended a game two decades ago. She became a season-ticket holder in 2009, designed "K" signs in the team's font and became known as the "K Lady" for displaying them from her front-row seat behind the third-base dugout. Along the way, she built meaningful relationships with the likes of Ryan Lavarnway, Bryce Brentz and Chris Carter when they were still trying to figure themselves out, and marveled at the prowess of guys like Josh Reddick, Jose Iglesias and Daniel Bard when few others knew who they were. She learned long ago that the team would move to Worcester for the 2021 season, but she was looking forward to one final summer to say goodbye.

The coronavirus pandemic didn't allow it.

"I've been steeling myself up for that for the last two years because I've known it's coming," Smith said. "I just thought I would have this season to make my peace with this and say goodbye to the team I love so much, but apparently not."

Smith, 58, is a social worker logging full-time hours in her state's fight against COVID-19. She understands the widespread dangers of the virus and doesn't believe it's safe to play baseball in this climate. But she also identifies with the countless fans who will soon lose their beloved minor league teams in their city, either because of relocation or as part of MLB's plan to cut 40 affiliates throughout the country.

Smith hopes to attend as many games as possible in Worcester, but doesn't believe her job responsibilities will allow it. She has spent most of her downtime the last few months reading books she never had time for and watching baseball movies she has seen far too often. She hopes to get back into hockey to help fill the void of baseball, but she doesn't think that will work.

"I don't know how I'm gonna replace it because I don't think it can be replaced," Smith said. "In a lot of ways my heart is broken."