It’s the fair thing to do, the right thing to do and the common-sense thing to do. It’s also long overdue.
Major League Baseball, an $11 billion industry, needs to pay its 7,000 or so minor-league players a living wage, one that will allow them to focus exclusively on the job they’ve been hired to do rather than worrying about how they’re going to pay their bills, which often means working one or even two jobs in the offseason.
It simply does not compute that an industry that pays its top performers in excess of $40 million a year will continue to shortchange the pool of talent that one day will populate its big-league rosters.
To pay a fair wage would not constitute an act of charity by MLB clubs. They would be acting in their own self-interest. Working 40 hours a week at Door Dash or UPS in the offseason is not the optimum way for a ballplayer to refine his game.
“Salaries are the lowest hanging fruit to improve player development outcomes,” argues Simon Rosenblum-Larson, a 25-year-old pitcher in the Tampa Bay Rays system who is in the vanguard of those working for change. “In Rays spring training, we had roughly 160 staff members for 180 players. You’re spending these inordinate amounts of money on analytics, on scouting, on data collection, on nutrition — teams are going all-out to improve their player development outcomes because that’s profitable for them.
“The thing they’re not doing that is the most obvious way to improve player development outcomes is improving player salaries. It makes no sense as a business decision. I’m happy to make the argument that it’s a labor rights thing, it’s a human rights thing, you shouldn’t be paying poverty wages. But it’s also a bad business decision and a bad business model for a company or a franchise that’s trying to produce more Major League Baseball players.”
This is an issue, it seems to me, we can all get behind. These minor-leaguers are like your own kids coming out of school looking for a job, willing to start at the bottom and work hard just for the chance to maybe one day hit it big, even when they know the odds are against them. They love the game they play, so much so that they will make whatever sacrifices are asked of them and keep whatever complaints they might have to themselves.
And Major League Baseball has taken advantage of that love — and that silence — to create a permanent subclass of players at the bottom of baseball’s economic ladder.
There are roughly 180 players per organization, Rosenblum-Larson says, that are making the minor-league minimum salary, which varies depending on what classification you play. Annual salaries for minor-league players, according to research by Rosenblum-Larson, range between $4,800 at the rookie-ball levels to about $14,000 in Triple-A. Those salaries all were recently adjusted by MLB this past winter, but the increases are modest, falling far short of a living wage. MLB won’t pay them more because they don’t have to.
But people are finally taking notice.
Advocacy groups, like More Than Baseball and Advocates for Minor Leaguers, are gaining traction, winning important concessions from MLB particularly in improved housing conditions. The media are paying attention, with The Athletic, ESPN and Baseball Prospectus (and Bally Sports), among others, devoting time and space to the issue. And players are finally speaking out — the Harvard-educated Rosenblum-Larson, program director for More Than Baseball, wrote an op-ed piece that was published this week by the Washington Post.
In a survey of more than 800 minor leaguers conducted by More Than Baseball, 83 percent of the players who responded expressed dissatisfaction with pay.
“But many are also unhappy with the ‘uniform player contract,’” Rosenblum-Larson wrote, “which denies players salary-negotiation rights and ownership of their images and likenesses — a right obtained last year by college athletes. On top of that, the nonnegotiable contract is binding for seven years, meaning a player who signs at age 21, as I did, will remain under contract until age 28.”
Players so far have been reluctant to complain for fear it will come back to bite them with the teams that employ them. But that almost certainly will change. If we know one thing about today’s generation, it will challenge existing norms. A kid who is willing to flip his bat or let out a scream after a strikeout is not going to stay silent forever. And social media has provided a framework for players to share their concerns far and wide.
“I talk to players about this every day,” Rosenblum-Larson said. “Almost every player we talk to is like, ‘I would love to give you a quote.’ I have 100 quotes on my phone right now, all from players who have asked to remain anonymous because of fear. I have a player who said straight out, ‘I’m terrified to say anything because anything I say can be used against me by the front office.’ There are players from Latin America who don’t speak great English who are especially scared to speak out. They say, ‘What if I misspeak? I’m just gonna shut my mouth and play.’
“It’s going to take leadership. It’s going to take bravery. It’s going to be players willing to take a risk in speaking out on their own. That’s a risk I’m comfortable taking, but not every player is ready to take that risk.”
Minor-league players are highly skilled at what they do. Only a tiny fraction of people on this planet can play the game the way they do. On the open market, they would almost certainly be able to shop their services and be paid better than they are. But baseball, because of its antitrust exemption, operates as a monopoly. It sets the rules for its workers, especially for minor leaguers, who don’t have a powerful association like major leaguers and don’t have mechanisms like arbitration and free agency working in their favor.
And here’s something for MLB to consider. If they don’t respond on its own to the concerns of their minor-league players — and the fans who support them — there are politicians who will.
Last month, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced a new bill, titled the “Save American Baseball Act,” to challenge MLB’s exemption to antitrust laws. Sanders primarily was responding to the behavior of the owners during the lockout, but in his statement, he also referred to “baseball oligarchs who continue to pay minor league players totally inadequate wages and want to eliminate the jobs of another 900 minor league players.”
Marty Walsh, the U.S. Secretary of Labor, was frequently found at Fenway Park when he was mayor of Boston, and he worked behind the scenes to help MLB and the players union end the lockout. It’s not a stretch to envision Walsh, who casts himself as a champion of the working man and woman, offering a sympathetic ear to minor leaguers.
By Rosenblum-Larson’s calculations, a $35,000 salary would be adequate — not ideal, but adequate — to allow minor leaguers to live without having to work in the offseason. As it stands now, any offseason training minor leaguers do — and most work out 15 to 20 hours a week — is paid by the players themselves. Clubs do not pick up the tab.
How much would it cost to pay minor leaguers $35K? Somewhere in the vicinity of $5 million a team, Rosenblum-Larson calculates, or what it might cost to sign a mediocre free agent. With even small-market teams receiving tens of millions in revenue sharing from lucrative national TV packages, and untold millions on the horizon from MLB’s new marriage with wagering, this would not be a burden.
And this should be said: Throughout MLB, there are people on the player development side who care deeply about minor leaguers who are dedicated to improving their living conditions with better housing, better nutrition and better pay. They know these are the factors that work in their favor to produce better ballplayers. Some teams have already gone beyond the minimum of what is required of them.
Now it’s time for the lords of the realm — and their bean counters — to come on board. It’s fair, it’s right, it’s common sense. And it’s overdue.