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Baseball, Capitalism and Panic Attacks
MLB pitcher Trevor Hildenberger on the exploitation of players, and the mental toll baseball takes.
Trevor Hildenberger is a professional baseball pitcher with the San Francisco Giants, and one of the most openly pro-labor players in the league. As the MLB-imposed lockout continues, with owners refusing to recognize many of the demands of the players union, threatening to cancel weeks of games during the 2022 season, Hildenberger was kind enough to chat with me about the toll that playing baseball takes on players, and how we need to recognize professional sports as a form of labor like any other.
How did you get your start in professional baseball?
I was drafted in 2014, at 23 years old, which is relatively old for a baseball player. I was a relatively late bloomer. I played every level at the minor leagues with the Twins, then reached the major leagues in 2017. I played a couple years in Minnesota, and then was up and down between Triple A and the majors for the last few years. This year I’m with the Giants but I’m coming off a couple arm surgeries and rehabbing.
Probably the biggest misconception amongst the public is that baseball affords players a luxury lifestyle. Can you talk about how untrue this is?
The luxury lifestyle is a common misconception—some people definitely have the opportunity to make millions, but that’s the .00001 percent of guys who play baseball. But when you first sign with a major league team, you’re a minor leaguer making $1,100 a month, and that first year, no matter what level you play at, your previous experience, your age, you get paid that. And then it increases by $100 or $200 a month per level, and there’s five or six different levels before you reach the major leagues. If you stay in the minor leagues you don’t have the ability to renegotiate your salary until you hit free agency, which is seven years. So say you play in the minor leagues for six years, and you’re still on that minimum contract, and then you get called up to the big leagues, then you don’t have the ability to renegotiate until six more years. So when a team signs you they have the ability to control you and your salary for up to 13 years before you really reach the free market and get to really haggle over what you’re worth.
“It’s hard on your body and hard on your mind and hard on sleep. And then you add in the housing insecurity.”
The minor leagues can be really hard on the body. You don’t get enough sleep. It’s 141 games in about 160 days. We might get two off-days a month. Sometimes you can play a game every day for three weeks, and half of those games are going to be in small towns across the country, so you take buses, you don’t fly, until you reach Triple A, and then maybe you take a Southwest flight early in the morning, probably with a connection, always a connection. But mostly you’re crowded on a bus sometimes eight to 12 hours. I think the longest bus I took was 16 hours. And you get into your hometown at five in the morning and the only place open is Waffle House, so you get 30 guys going to Waffle House at dawn to fuel up before the next game. It’s hard on your body and hard on your mind and hard on sleep. And then you add in the housing insecurity. We get paid so little that you try to team up with one or two other guys in a one- or two-bedroom apartment. When I was in Double A, I played in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and it was me and three other guys in a two-bedroom. I slept on a pull-out couch the whole summer, another guy slept next to me on an air mattress in the living room. You do what you need to do to get by.
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In my first year I stayed in the team academy—that’s a dormitory type thing. I was 23, I had lived on my own for five years, I was competent, I could cook for myself, I liked privacy, but you had to stay in the dormitory. It was basically mandatory. My signing bonus was $561 after taxes. And then the dormitory charged you—they gave you three meals a day but charged you $17 out of your paycheck. At the end of two weeks my paycheck was about $185. Doing the math about how many hours I spent on the field and how much work I was putting in, it came to $2.70 an hour. So it’s rough. You don’t make enough to save for the offseason, so then you go back home and you have no money. I was fortunate enough to live with my parents, train, get an offseason job as a sales associate at a sporting goods store. But there are guys who live in their cars, or crash with friends and bounce around because they just don’t have the money.
How does that take a mental toll on baseball players?
It all piles up. The pressure of being a professional athlete, the expectations that you put on yourself, or that your family or significant other can put on you—you feel like you have to make it to the big leagues in order to call your career a success. And if you’re 18, just out of high school, and you’ve been the best player in your hometown for your whole life, and then you get to the professional level and you might not be the best, and you’re making such low pay, you kind of hit adversity for the first time. And then on top of that there’s a stigma surrounding mental health—people don’t ask for help if they feel their anxiety is getting high. But they’re fueling their bodies poorly, constantly traveling, not sleeping well, they’re maybe not doing as well on the field as they hoped, they're homesick because they’re 19 and across the country from everyone they’ve ever known, or across the world if you’re an international player, and might not even speak the language. It’s extremely challenging and isolating. And then on top of all that, the financial conditions, it can definitely pile up on people.
“I think my first panic attack happened in 2016…I felt like I was being selfish, choosing this baseball life over being a supportive, good partner, or a contributing member of my family.”
I think my first panic attack happened in 2016. It was after my third year in the minor leagues, and I had just felt a little guilty about living with my parents during the offseason, them still supporting me even though I was working offseason jobs. And then my girlfriend would want to visit me and she would pay for flights, and the hotel because I lived with three other guys so she couldn’t stay there on a pullout couch. I felt like I was being a burden because I was chasing my dream but not able to do it on my own. I felt like I was being selfish, choosing this baseball life over being a supportive, good partner, or a contributing member of my family. So at the end of 2016, I’m not a big fan of flying, and I was on a flight with a lot of turbulence, and a lot was on my mind—I felt like I needed to reach the big leagues soon or it would be unsustainable—and then I had an anxiety attack. It was a miserable three hour flight home.
Thankfully that was the only one for nine or ten months. But then in 2017 I reached the big leagues, and I felt like I had achieved my goal, and then I felt like I should be happy, but I wasn’t. I felt that pressure to do well, and also to respond to a lot of people who reach out to you and ask for tickets, and want to see you in every visiting city. You feel a responsibility to entertain people. So I had relatively high anxiety that year. You don’t pitch well in a major league game and you get messages on social media, Twitter DMs and Facebook DMs and Instagram DMs calling you a bunch of names, telling you you suck, saying that you owe them money because they bet on the team, saying you’re letting their team down, embarrassing their city. As silly as it sounds coming from random people, it sticks in your brain, it’s hard.
With the support of my then-girlfriend and now wife, she got me to reach out to a professional. At the end of 2017 I started seeing a woman via video chat, someone unaffiliated with baseball, which I felt was nice because they were able to have an outside perspective about what’s really important. It wasn’t just about getting back on the field or sports performance, it was more about coming to terms with who I am and what I thought was important in life. That really helped, and went on for about six months. And I felt like I was in a good enough place so we stopped having those conversations. Then about a year ago, there was a ton of movement in my career—I signed with a new team, I picked out an apartment in Syracuse, New York, and then the Giants in San Francisco picked me up. I slept one night in my new apartment before I had to find someone to take it over. I flew across the country a day later. New team, new environment, new teammates. Luckily I was only two hours from home, but then I had some other issues with my family—health issues with people who were close to me. That caused me some stress, and so I wasn’t performing well. My body was hurting. It was all getting to me, so I reached out to the Giants and they have two mental health professionals on their team who do a really good job of being open and approachable and communicating with every player. So I’ve been talking to a mental health professional with the Giants once a week for eight months, and it’s been really helpful.
There are people who get frustrated with how difficult the game is, how difficult it is to survive on such low pay, frustrated with injuries that won’t heal, frustrated with their bodies in general. I’ve tried to direct them to mental health experts and say it’s okay to talk to somebody, tell them just discussing it can help you feel better.
Is part of the problem that people see baseball, and sports in general, as not a real job?
People say, “this is a kid’s game, you get to play a kid’s game, you shouldn’t be able to complain,” and that’s just not true. It’s a job like any other job. We do get to play a game, but you don’t always love your situation, you don’t always love your coworkers. Yeah it’s a game but it’s still labor. And you still feel exploited, especially in the minor leagues. You’re creating so much value, you’re putting in year-round work to be a professional top level athlete. And it sometimes doesn’t feel like you’re treated like that. So it can get frustrating when people can’t sympathize with us.
Did the labor conditions of baseball and the mental toll they take inform your politics? I think it’s fair to say you’re to the left of most baseball players.
I think I didn’t pay much attention to politics until 2015, 2016, that presidential election. I think in a year or two following that I became pretty radicalized to the left. Playing a professional sport, playing in a clubhouse of 25 predominantly affluent white men—not everyone shares my views as you can imagine. There’s definitely been more than a few times when I butt heads with people, so that can throw a wrinkle in. Sometimes I have to speak up, and sometimes I bite my tongue and leave the room and go get a drink of water.
The last collective bargaining agreement was 2016, and there was no work stoppage. I’ve been looking forward to this collective bargaining for a few years, and I was hoping the union would take a big swing and try to make a big dent in how exploitative the conditions currently are. I’m really proud that they didn’t cave when MLB issued a lockout. The lockout isn’t mandatory, it’s not required by any rule or law, it’s just an attempt to break the union. So I’m proud of the union for being really strong, and for the players for having a more or less unified front.
“You could still have games without the 30 owners of MLB teams, but there’s no MLB without the players. Labor is entitled to all it creates.”
I hope this lockout has changed players’ opinions and the public’s opinion. Especially now with social media where we can voice our opinions directly and fans can interact and see how unified we all are. For minor leaguers to be able to share their stories, the facts, and say, “this is how I’ve been treated, this is how I’ve been exploited. I don’t have a say in my pay or where I go and when I go there.” I think that makes people more sympathetic. People have less sympathy for the majors because the minimum salary is still $570,000 but when you’re creating millions in value, when revenues are skyrocketing across the MLB, franchise valuations keep going up, and you could still have games without the 30 owners of MLB teams, but there’s no MLB without the players. Labor is entitled to all it creates. People don’t pay money to come watch the owners sit in the press box.
I hope this is figured out quickly but it’s also going to be a big win for labor I think. That’s my dream.
How much of the mental health stuff, the stress, can be worked out without a radical change in the labor conditions of baseball?
Seeing a mental health professional is kind of putting a bandaid on the problem. As long as players are exploited to the level that they are, there’s still going to be all this stress and pressure. But that’s capitalism at its core: extract the most value from your workers while paying them the least, suppress wages as much as possible, have them work as many hours as you can. Until we start valuing labor, and the value that that labor delivers, I’m afraid people will still be suffering from mental health issues in baseball. One of the silver linings of the lockout is that it might open some guys’ eyes, the ones who haven’t been paying attention to the labor battle. With how tough it’s been over the last few months, and how obvious it is the owners don’t care—about the games, about your and your family or your well-being, that they just see everything as a dollar sign and that’s how they view all their workers—I hope all that will open players’ eyes and make them realize we need a fundamental change in the game, and in labor in general.
As a society we can talk about how much we value sports, but at the end of the day we are labor, and I hope across all labor fronts we can move in the right direction. I hope people become more pro-union everywhere. Seeing Starbucks stores being unionized across the country, I feel like the pro-labor movement over the last year or so is really starting to pick up steam. I hope players can show solidarity with their fellow workers, no matter what field that they’re in.