The $0 Baseball Player With the Priceless Contract

This Thursday, Major League Baseball’s 2024 season will celebrate Opening Day, the should-be-holiday where almost all the teams play their first game of the year. (The Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres played two games in Seoul, South Korea last week, but let’s not count that.) The off-season, though, was very active — and very expensive — for the Los Angeles Dodgers. The team committed to more than $1 billion in future salaries, signing superstar (and suddenly controversial) pitcher-and-batter Shohei Ohtani to a ten-year contract that will ultimately pay him $700 million. They also came to terms with pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto to a 12-year, $325 million pact. And they signed outfield Andrew Toles to a deal worth, almost certainly, $0.

Toles won’t be helping the Dodgers win any games this year. But the Toles contract will certainly earn them karma points.

Toles, pictured above, will never be a household name, at least not for his success as a baseball player. He was once a good if not great prospect — he was a third-round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Rays in 2012. He was known primarily for his speed but failed to develop much, and in 2015, the team unceremoniously cut him. The Los Angeles Dodgers picked him up and gave him another shot, and he made his major league debut during the 2016 season. He was pretty good — if you’re familiar with baseball stats, he had a .314/.365/.505 triple-slash over 115 plate appearances. (If you’re not familiar with baseball stats, that’s “pretty good.” Trust me.)

But Toles’ career took a downturn after that. His 2017 season was average at best, again as a part-time player. He barely got on the field in 2018 and was terrible when he did, striking out a quarter of the time. And when it came time for players to report to training camp prior to the 2019 season, Toles didn’t show up at all.

He wasn’t angry with himself or the team, or even ashamed at his on-field results. He was ill. As Sports Illustrated reported, Toles “was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. A year later, Toles was arrested and charged with trespassing after he was found sleeping behind a FedEx building at Key West International Airport. He was taken to a mental health facility after the incident.” Toles’ baseball career was, effectively, over. But that paled in comparison to the rest of Toles’ situation. In 2023, the Los Angeles Times reported on Toles’ condition as of a few years earlier:

Toles was in the care of his father, Alvin, who said Andrew is in a “zombie-like” condition. ”We are having challenges,” Alvin told USA Today in 2021, “but nothing that God and I can’t handle. Schizophrenia, it’s just so tough. I mean, he can’t even watch TV. He hears voices and the TV at the same time, so it’s kind of confusing. I’ve seen him looking at some baseball games on his laptop, but I don’t think he really understands what’s going on. I just want him to have a chance in life. That’s all. Just to be healthy, live a normal life.”

Given that he didn’t have much of an education and was struggling mentally, it was pretty clear that Toles was going to have a hard time making ends meet — and paying for the treatment he desperately needed. That’s where the Dodgers stepped in.

Major League Baseball’s rules allow, in some cases, for teams to offer a contract to players but then place them on the “restricted list” and not pay them for their services. (It’s complicated, and as a lifelong Mets fan and baseball nerd, I can explain it to you, but it doesn’t matter for our purposes.) Toles’s situation fit under those rules. So in 2020, the Dodgers signed Toles to a $0 contract, and by doing so made him eligible for the league-covered health insurance that all ballplayers enjoy.

And then the Dodgers did the same in 2021. And 2022. And 2023. And again about two weeks ago. Andrew Toles may never set foot on a baseball field again, but the Dodgers are helping him win regardless.

Bonus fact: The Dodgers are called the Dodgers due to a dark period in the history of New York. In the 1800s, Brooklyn — which at the time wasn’t yet part of New York City — had horse-drawn trolleys that roamed the streets, transporting people around. Toward the end of the century, those trolleys gave up their horses in favor of electricity-powered vehicles which were faster but, as a result, a lot more dangerous. As Gizmodo reported, “In the first year [of electrification], 1892, five people died after being hit by trolleys, [ . . . ] There were 51 deaths in 1893 and 34 in 1894.” The city transit’s reputation spread far and wide and the phrase “trolley dodger” became a euphemism for someone who lived in Brooklyn. Ultimately, fans began to use it as an unofficial nickname for the ball team, and it stuck. When the team left Brooklyn for Los Angeles in 1958, they took the trolley-related name with them.

From the Archives: The Padre for Life: The team that plays about an hour south of the Dodgers is doing right by one of their ex-players, too.