The GM’s Perspective recently spoke with Erik Nilsen, Director, Baseball Assistance Team (B.A.T.) at Major League Baseball. B.A.T. was formed in 1986 by former MLB’ers. It was originally funded confidentially to help members of an exclusive fraternity who were in need of assistance and were out of options. Whether, it’s medical, financial or psychological assistance, Nilsen and his team are there to lend a helping hand. We were fortunate enough to speak and learn more about the organization and the assistance that it can provide to those in need.
The GM’s Perspective: What is your background and how did you got started with the organization?
Erik Nilsen: I played baseball my entire life. I played Division 3 ball for State University of New York at New Paltz for two years than my final two years at York College of Pennsylvania. I was a catcher at D3 and majored in sports management. My thought process was, if I can’t play professional baseball, I also had a dream to work in professional baseball one day. After school I did some internships (Hudson Valley Renegades) and then found a position with the Mets (New York) as a telemarketing sales representative. I did that for about six months and got promoted to group sales rep. After about a year and a half in that role I saw a position with the Commissioner’s office working for the Baseball Assistance Team (B.A.T.) It was pretty enticing knowing I could work in the game, but also help people on a daily basis. I went for the interview and got a phone interview with Bobby Murcer while I was working at Shea Stadium. I eventually got hired in December of 2005 and have been here since. I was promoted to Director in August of 2013.
GMs: What is B.A.T., how did it start and what is its purpose?
EN: B.A.T. stands for Baseball Assistance Team and it was started in 1986 in conjunction with Commissioner Peter Ueberroth and a number of other former players as more of a short term organization just to help out some players where their pension really didn’t cover their expenses and they were going through some tough times. The thought process back in those years was that it’d be around for a couple years and dissolve. That hasn’t happened. As the years have gone by, the organization has evolved into not only helping MLB players, but someone who has now two years of service as a minor league player, umpire, scout, athletic trainer, major and minor front office personnel. We also help out Negro League players, women from the Women’s Professional Baseball League, widows, widowers and children under the age of 23 of all eligible members.
We make sure a roof is over that family’s head by paying their mortgage or rent directly or putting food on the table. We send applicants reloadable debit cards so that we can track the purchases to ensure the money is being spent on what was approved by the grant committee. We also have a lot of people coming that tell us that their electricity or water is about to be turned off, so we pay the utility bills, medical expenses, health insurance, and prescriptions. We’ve also had cases where we’ve taken care of funeral expenses. We have many different resources on our staff and our board in addition to our consultants. One consultant by the name of Tim McDowell deals with our addiction recovery program. For the people who require it, we send them to 30 day rehab centers, IOP treatments and try to help them get back on their feet. A member of our board is a bankruptcy attorney who deals with our recipients on various debts issues including bankruptcy, credit card debt etc…Basically, if there’s a need out there, our grant committee and board will be very receptive to helping someone get back on their feet.
Our mission statement is to be a short term bridge to help someone get back on their feet. A lot of the times, someone will need just a little jumpstart to get caught up with their expenses so they can become self-sufficient again.
GMs: Where does the majority of the financial assistance come from?
EN: MLB covers the office overhead expenses. They cover the office space, salary, travel expenses…We go out every spring and solicit MLB players for contributions. This year we raised $2.8 million. With the $2.8 million it allows us to help as many people as possible. The money we raise goes directly to our applicants.
GM’s: I read the testimonials (Michael Jackson, Ramon Tatis), but how do you explain your mandate to people and the impact you have on someone’s life when they see players making upwards of $20 million a year (The perception of people who don’t truly understand what you do)?
EN: The general public is not really our constituency. Our constituency is the baseball family, but if someone from the general public wanted to understand or justify how we’re able to give grants, the majority of our applicants are the minor league players who didn’t make the millions of dollars. They’ve struggled during minor league baseball life and are trying to work on the transition from playing minor league baseball to actually going out in the real world and getting a full time job with benefits and health insurance. Every case is unique and based on its own merits. Our President, Randy Winn likes to say, “B.AT. is there when bad things happen to good people”.
There’s been instances where someone has come to us where either, themselves or their kids have been diagnosed with cancer and they need support with treatment not covered by their health insurance. Or even a MLB player who played a while ago needing a prosthetic leg. His medicare doesn’t cover the entire thing and he doesn’t have the funds to cover his expenses. Obviously, sometimes people make bad decisions surrounding themselves with people who are trying to take advantage of them. We don’t judge people by their past, we’re there to help them get back on their feet. The grant application is very extensive where we ask for information that pertains to someone’s income, their expenses, any assets they may have, outstanding debt, and of course what they’re looking for help with.
We take everything into consideration. If someone has a million dollar house, our suggestion would be to downsize and make some lifestyle adjustments. We’re a last resort for someone who has nowhere else to turn.
GMs: Do you provide life training or anything similar?
EN: We concentrate on the applicants that come to us because we’re so busy as is. Some things we are currently in the process of looking at is vocational training for our applicants. We’re also looking at financial education to assist our applicants at working with a budget, being able to save and having professionals work with them on how to get rid of some of their debt.
GMs: If the general public or anyone wants to assist or donate, how would they go about doing that?
EN: They can visit our website at baseballassistanceteam.com. There’s a donate tab you can click on and it will ask you for the pertinent information.
B.A.T has assisted many people, and the story of Andy Lane, encompasses everything that the assistance program is about. In October of 2015, ESPN wrote a story, “Former Cubs bullpen catcher sees benefits when money from fines goes to charity.” He played in the minors for the Washington Nationals and later became the bullpen catcher for the Chicago Cubs. His little boy was diagnosed with a heart condition and they didn’t have the money to support all the medical bills and living expenses in two locations. As the headline mentions, when Major League Baseball fines a player for misconduct, the money will go to humanitarian groups like the Baseball Assistance Team, which can provide financial relief to those in their time of need.
B.A.T. was there to cover some of the expenses so that they could focus on the important things like the health of young Jackson Lane. Jackson will still require some surgeries going forward, but can now, at the age of 1, begin to enjoy the life every young child should have. In the article, Lane told the B.A.T. staff that he would represent the foundation. He toured Cactus League and Grapefruit League clubhouses with his son during spring training with the hope of spreading the word about the amazing work that has been done on behalf of his family.
“It hits home because a lot of the guys have children at home,” Lane said. “[I told them], ‘There’s a good chance this kid would not be there if we didn’t have your help.’ This program is real. This program helps people that need it. … I used to be in those clubhouses thinking, ‘I’m never gonna be that person. I’m never gonna be the guy who comes in and speaks [about charities].’ You know what? Life happens. You just roll with it.”