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For minor leaguers worried about their careers, summer camp provides some relief

The LA Times logo The LA Times 7/12/2020 Bill Shaikin
a man wearing a helmet: Chris Betts, a catcher in the Tampa Bay Rays' organization, has been working out with other minor league players at Orange County Great Park in Irvine. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times) © (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times) Chris Betts, a catcher in the Tampa Bay Rays' organization, has been working out with other minor league players at Orange County Great Park in Irvine. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

For 60 players in each major league organization, “summer camp” means showing up to the ballpark for an organized workout in preparation for a season set to start next week.

For the scores of remaining players in each organization, the minor leaguers in a season without the minor leagues, summer camp can mean working out alongside actual summer campers.

Your team pays you $400 per week and orders you to stay in shape. How you do that is up to you, which is why a minor league catcher tweeted this two weeks ago:

And there stood Chris Betts last week, at Field No. 8 at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, working out in the shadow of an iconic orange balloon grounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. In these safety-first times, he did not offer a handshake, but he did extend the back of his mitt as a greeting.

Betts, 23, is an employee of the Tampa Bay Rays, a second-round pick from Wilson High in Long Beach five years ago, a Class A all-star last year. He could be in Alabama, playing for the double-A Montgomery Biscuits. Instead, he is here, within a sports complex otherwise occupied by kids practicing baseball and soccer.

This is the fourth workout for a group Betts estimates at close to two dozen, split between professional and college players, wearing a colorful mishmash of T-shirts and shorts in the summer heat. Betts wonders whether the group might try to play an actual game.

“Crazy,” he said, “because I’ll have to go buy some pants.”

The Rays signed Betts for a bonus of $1.485 million, and he said he had been fortunate in his investments. He also said they paid him $6,800 last year.

His days include driving from his home in Long Beach, to the private lessons he offers at a baseball facility in Yorba Linda, to this field in Irvine. His fiancé trains horses.

“We’re doing all right, but I definitely know people who are not,” he said. “It might not even be financially. Just lack of access to facilities. Some of these guys are throwing bullpens at public parks, and getting chased out of places. There was even a point in Long Beach where you couldn’t go on a grassy park and throw the ball around.”

a man standing in front of a fence: Chris Betts takes a look at a group of players gathered for workouts at the Great Park in Irvine on July 8. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times) © (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times) Chris Betts takes a look at a group of players gathered for workouts at the Great Park in Irvine on July 8. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

With major league owners negotiating to eliminate some 40 minor league teams next season, none of the players working out here this summer is guaranteed a minor league job next summer. For some, their careers could be over.

Beau Amaral is one of them. He is 29, an outfielder from Huntington Beach High and UCLA. He played seven years in the minor leagues, then last year in the Mexican League. He signed up for another year in Mexico, but the pandemic shut down that league too, and he said he was not receiving any stipend.

He is staying in shape with the thought of playing winter ball, hopefully well enough that a team might sign him for next season. He also is working to become a firefighter.

“It’s tough,” he said. “Once you get older, it makes it really hard to make a team.”

The workout is run by Benji Medure, the coach at Huntington Beach High. He does it all, as most high school coaches do: Rent the field, throw batting practice, shag flies, hit fungoes, even playfully tease a player momentarily hobbling after fouling a ball off his foot.

“You’ll feel better when it stops hurting,” Medure joked.

In a major league stadium, you get a major league sound system. Here, you get a boom box stocked with tunes from when Steve Garvey played first base for the Dodgers, a 1970s collection that impressively excluded disco and included Stevie Wonder, Wings, Boston, AC/DC and the Electric Light Orchestra.

a group of baseball players playing a football game: Minor league baseball players work out at a field at the Great Park in Irvine. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times) © (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times) Minor league baseball players work out at a field at the Great Park in Irvine. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Earlier that day, Medure learned that Huntington Beach High had canceled his summer camp. He said he expected the CIF to announce next week what athletic activities would be allowed this fall, if any.

“This is more fun than anything. This isn’t work for us,” he said, gesturing to the players. “You can see they’re all having a good time, just being outside and playing baseball.

“Everyone is afraid. I don’t see why. We’re going to stay healthy and play baseball.”

As he spoke, a man on the other side of a fence waved his phone at Medure.

“See this press release?” the man asked, holding up his phone.

“No,” Medure said, “not yet. Whose press release?”

“County of Orange press release,” the man said. “Today is the last day.”

The virus was surging, and the youth fields were closing. In a message two days later, Betts said the group had no place to work out.

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