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Minor Leaguers Deserve Better

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I haven't written much lately. Honestly, I haven't even read much lately. Not about baseball, anyway. There just isn't much going on that I'm particularly interested in. Sure, spring training has started, but they haven't even started playing spring training games, yet, so there just isn't much going on to capture my interest.

I'm pretty sure I'll get more interested when the Grapefruit League games get underway. I guarantee I'll be more than casually interested a month from now when I'll be actually on site at the Twins' training complex in Fort Myers.

However, for the past couple of weeks, it's been really hard for anything baseball-related to capture my interest; difficult, but not impossible.

The story that broke a couple of weeks ago about three former minor league ballplayers filing suit against MLB, the office of the Commissioner, Commissioner Bug Selig and the three MLB organizations that owned their rights interests me.

(This article was originally posted at Knuckleballsblog.com)

There were several stories written about the filing, but if you didn't happen to see any of them, this article from BleacherReport was one of the more thorough articles and former ballplayer (and author) Dirk Hayhurst had a pretty blunt take on the topic, as well.

I know it's hard for some of us to even fathom how guys who have the talent to play a game we love at a professional level... who have the opportunity to live a dream that so many of us can only imagine getting to live... could possibly not only complain about their working conditions, but even have the gall to file a lawsuit over those conditions.

It's a cliché you hear often. “I loved baseball so much, I'd have played for free.” Given that so many fans feel that way, it's pretty tough for us to empathize with these players who dare to clog our court system with a lawsuit that seemingly has little chance of success.

But saying you would have played the game for free and actually doing it for nearly exactly that amount of compensation are two very different things.

The attention fans play to their favorite team's minor league organization seems to grow every season. Even so, the percentage of baseball fans who give minor leaguers even a casual thought during the summer is pretty small.

Those that do follow the minor leagues focus most of their attention on the early round draft picks and the big money international free agent signings. Those players get signing bonuses in the millions of dollars, so it would be pretty easy for us to just assume that most minor league ballplayers are pretty comfortable financially.

But we would be wrong.

Yes, if you're among the first 50 or so players selected in the annual first year player draft, you're likely to pocket a signing bonus upwards of a million dollars. But that's not even the full first two rounds of a draft that goes on for a total of 40 rounds.

It's pretty safe to say that most minor league ballplayers are not concerned about who is watching over their investment portfolios. Their “portfolio” can be stashed in to the trunk or back seat of a car they hope will keep running for another year.

Last year, the first year minor league player salary was $1,150 a month and that's only for the handful of months during the year that they're actually playing minor league baseball. That's also before taxes, before food and housing costs. A player reaching AAA might double that salary. Whoopee, huh?

Just to be clear, it's not the local minor league organization that pays the players, it's the parent MLB organization that is responsible for minor league payrolls. In fact, some minor league clubs (including the Twins' Class A affiliate in Cedar Rapids) arrange host families for players to live with to eliminate the cost of housing during their time with the local ballclub. But not every player across the country has that option.

The players probably should splurge on some insurance, too, because they pretty much have no protection if they happen to incur an injury that precludes them from working. Good thing their work doesn't often result in that kind of injury, right?

Obviously, they need to get other jobs during the offseason. Of course, for some of them, there is no offseason. Their teams want them playing winter baseball somewhere. They want them to show up for offseason workouts, “fanfests” and other events. At the very least, they have to work out daily to make sure they're ready to compete for a roster spot in spring training (which, by the way, they don't get paid for, either).

It takes a pretty understanding employer to hire a guy that has that many demands on his time and will just be leaving in a few months, anyway. But I'm sure there are plenty of those jobs available.

“But wait,” you say. “Don't those professional baseball players have a union?”

Yes and no. For minor leaguers, it's mostly no and they'd be better off if it was totally no.

There is a union; the Major League Baseball Players Association. However, the MLBPA's sole use for minor leaguers appears to be to screw them over any time they can do so as a part of trade-offs to get something better for Major League players.

See, the MLBPA limits its membership to Major League ballplayers. But, for reasons that nobody has ever been able to explain to me in any way that makes sense, the MLBPA is allowed, as part of the collective bargaining process, to negotiate the compensation and working conditions of minor league players, as well.

Isn't that convenient?

So, if the MLBPA can get a little bit more for the millionaires it represents by allowing teams to implement lower bonus allowances for new draft picks or control their minor leaguers an extra year before they are entitled to free agency, no problem.

Even the drug testing program is uneven, at best. For example, once you're on a Big League roster, you can test positive for pot regularly and chances are nobody will ever know, because there are no real consequences. If you're a minor leaguer when you test positive twice, however, plan on sitting out a couple of months' worth of games... without even that meager minor league paycheck to buy those Pringles chips you have to live on.

But if conditions are so bad, why have minor leaguers never unionized?

The obvious reason is that minor league players all dream of being Major League players and doing anything to antagonize the people who decide which players will and won't become big leaguers is probably not a wise career move. And if players with U.S. high school and college educations fear challenging baseball's power, how likely is it that even younger men (boys, really) from impoverished regions of Latin America will do so?

No, since even the Major League players that endured the same conditions on their way to the big leagues have long ago decided they have no interest in making life the least bit easier for the younger players coming up behind them to challenge for their jobs, there's almost no chance of minor leaguers ever benefiting from collective bargaining. The best they can hope for is for the courts to determine that they should at least not keep getting screwed over by someone else's collective bargaining.

I'm not a labor lawyer (or a lawyer of any kind, for that matter), so I won't opine about the chances of success for the plaintiff ballplayers in the suit they've filed in a Northern California court.

They claim teams are violating federal and state employment laws. I would imagine that players often work more than 50 hours a week and they are not paid overtime. At many minor league levels, the players are arguably being paid less than minimum wage on an hourly basis.

Logically, I think most of us know that these players are being exploited unfairly. We know the system is wrong. But the people who would benefit from righting that wrong have no power to change things and the people who do have that power benefit the most from keeping the status quo. And unless MLB concludes it is in their own financial best interests to make changes, changes may not happen for a very long time, if ever.

Things could be worse for these young men, though.

What if remarkable athletes like these players got paid nothing at all? What if they weren't even allowed to accept help from host families and other fans? What if they weren't allowed to work other jobs to make ends meet?

Those are silly questions, of course. If all of those things were true, these players wouldn't be working under the rules of minor league professional baseball.

They'd be working under the rules of the NCAA.

But that's another rant... and another legal matter(or matters)... for another day.

Of course, given the rediculous NCAA restrictions college ballplayers lived under, maybe it's understandable if they think getting $5-6,000 a year to play minor league baseball is a good deal.

It doesn't make it right, though.

- JC
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  1. jimv2's Avatar
    Leaving aside the question of fairness of NCAA rules--as you said, that's a rant for another day--I don't think you are fairly comparing NCAA and minor league comp. NCAA scholarship athletes get room and board. The room's not fancy, the board is. They typically don't NEED to pay for transportation, while minor league players need a car--or at least access to one-- and often have to pay their own room and board. (At least they did back in the old days. I haven't heard about teams providing full board for minor leaguers, but am not that close to it any more.) College campuses often provide virtually free entertainment of sorts to students, minor leaguers don't get that. ANd of course there's the value of the education. Lastly, scholarship athletes are allowed to work certain other jobs to make ends meet, but it's almost as hard to find time for that during the school year as it is for minor leaguers to find time to work another job during the season.

    I think the minor leaguers, especially the low level ones, have it financially tougher than the scholarship athletes.

    Your union comments are interesting. Eventually the power of the union is based on the ability to strike (or in the public sector, to get out the vote.) I just can't imagine minor league ball players getting together and refusing to play.
  2. johnnydakota's Avatar
    How about adding in the hours of bus riding?let alone the hours training and practicing.
    I agree the big leaques need to look out for those coming up, If they truely are a union , we take care of our young blood....so why not pay lower levels 20,000 and upper level 30-36 million for there work?,after all baseball is an industry that generates over 10 billion annually
  3. Outlier's Avatar
    While I don't necessarily disagree, and my thoughts since first hearing about the suit have been along the same lines, my mind has come up with a few possible arguments to the other side. I'm sure others have more knowledge than I, but here they are?
    Do MLB organizations profit from minor league teams and games? My assumption is no, not directly. Obviously, these minor league teams are their farm systems from which they hope to garner major league talent, but do they make any profit from these players while they are in the minors? I assume any profits gained go to those minor league organizations, so shouldn’t they be at least as responsible for their players’ compensation? Why would an organization that profits nothing be expected to pay higher wages to players who will never benefit them at all. And don’t forget, if they believe that player may, possibly, have a chance to benefit them in the future they receive signing bonuses.
    Looking solely at the issue from the perspective that this is a business, increased pay from MLB teams may not make a lot of sense. Should they all get bonuses when they first sign? Perhaps, but continuing pay (or an increase in the current pay)? If the games were better attended, if ticket prices were increased, if the minor league organizations made more profits, perhaps players should be paid from them. But if minor leagues make very little money, shouldn’t the players? Granted, I don’t know what the minor league organizations take in, but if the margins are slim, then is that reason the players pay is so low? And, if the margins aren’t slim, then perhaps those organizations need to compensate those players one way or another.
  4. Jim Crikket's Avatar
    Thanks, all, for your comments on the article.

    jimv2, we'll just have to agree to disagree on the benefits of being an NCAA athlete. At the very least, that debate is better left for another place and time. The reference in this case was more of a way of wrapping up the article than any attempt to spark an in depth discussion of NCAA rules on this site.

    johnny, when I was younger, I know I had jobs that required anywhere from half an hour to an hour drive before work started. In one case, I wasn't clocked in until the work began, in the other I got paid for the travel time. I don't know how the bus rides would be treated if players were subject to legal work rules, absent that being determined by collective bargaining, but obviously, players spend a lot of time on the road. I agree that the way MLB players and their union treat minor leaguers in the negotiating process is indefensible. They should be ashamed.

    Outlier, I believe the answer to your first question is, "yes." Actually, MLB teams don't have to worry about sharing "profits" of minor league teams because they get their cut off the top in the form of a percentage of gate receipts. So even if the minor league team loses money, the MLB team gets their cut.

    Affiliated minor league teams have various types of ownership. There's been a growing trend lately for MLB teams to own their own minor league teams (I think the Braves own almost all of theirs now, for example). Some are privately owned, like MLB teams are. A significant number, however, are community owned. Those teams aren't in business to make a profit. They hope to generate enough revenues to cover expenses and put some money in to capital improvements for their ballparks. Their primary purpose is to provide an entertainment venue for the community that hopefully is viewed as improving the local quality of life.

    Under the agreement between MLB and MiLB, all responsibilities for field personnel is in the hands of the MLB organization. I doubt the minor league team could supplement the players' salaries, even if they wanted to.

    The "raising pay doesn't make business sense" argument is not new, nor is it unique to baseball. The debate in Washington over raising the federal minimum wage generates the same comments. The argument made is that raising minimum wage levels would cause some business owners to decide they can't make enough money to keep the doors open. That's undoubtedly true, but not the real point. The question is, at what point is it better for the greater good to have higher wages for those who do have jobs, even if it means some lose their jobs because a few low margin businesses close down?

    I don't think raising minor league pay would cause any MLB organization even a little bit of heartburn. But if it does, maybe MLB would decide it doesn't need as many levels of minor league ball. It's possible, though I would argue uneccessary, that teams would decide to reduce their number of minor league affiliations during the next round of MLB/MiLB contract negotiations in order to help offset the higher minor league pay. Maybe some communities would lose their minor league teams. But I doubt it.

    If the great minds of the game believed today that they could find and develop enough talent to field a competitive MLB team consistently even with 20% fewer players in their organization, they'd do it.
    Updated 02-25-2014 at 09:18 AM by Jim Crikket
  5. Outlier's Avatar
    Thanks for the great follow-up and additional information, Jim.
  6. jimv2's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Crikket
    Thanks, all, for your comments on the article.

    jimv2, we'll just have to agree to disagree on the benefits of being an NCAA athlete. At the very least, that debate is better left for another place and time. The reference in this case was more of a way of wrapping up the article than any attempt to spark an in depth discussion of NCAA rules on this site.
    Jim, I'm not sure we really disagree--at least on that. I wasn't arguing that NCAA rules were or weren't fair--as we've both said, that's a different topic. I was only disagreeing with your comment that NCAA athletes are much worse off than minor leaguers. As they say in a courtroom, if you assert an argument on direct testimony, it's fair game for cross-examination.
  7. Jim Crikket's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by jimv2
    Jim, I'm not sure we really disagree--at least on that. I wasn't arguing that NCAA rules were or weren't fair--as we've both said, that's a different topic. I was only disagreeing with your comment that NCAA athletes are much worse off than minor leaguers. As they say in a courtroom, if you assert an argument on direct testimony, it's fair game for cross-examination.
    I agree, it was absolutely fair game and you're probably in the majority that would feel NCAA athletes have it better. Frankly, the NCAA issue is far more complex than the minor league issue with far more mitigating factors. At some point, I may take the time to lay out my arguments against the NCAA over at Knuckleballs, but it probably won't be any time soon. Baseball season is about to begin, after all!
  8. Hosken Bombo Disco's Avatar
    There's Joe Nocera of the New York Times who regularly reports on (eviscerates is a more accurate and justified term) the latest NCAA shenanigans with respect to its labor forc-- er, I mean, its student athletes I will watch for it.
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