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BtBS Roundtable: Why won't MLB pay its minor leaguers?

The "Save America's Pastime Act" would ensure that minor league players continue to earn less than minimum wage. BtBS writers explain the numerous problems with the proposed legislation.

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[Editor's note: Welcome to a Beyond the Box Score roundtable discussion, where several of our writers discuss MLB's minor-league pay policy and its ramifications.]

Ryan Romano: Low pay for minor league players has been an issue for a while now — the players don't like it, obviously, and a growing amount of fans have voiced their discontent. Unperturbed, two U.S. representatives decided on Wednesday to put forth a bill that would preempt any attempts at increased minor-league salaries.

Minor League Baseball came out in favor of the bill, which responded to a pending lawsuit in California that would make minor leaguers eligible for overtime. MiLB said the suit "would jeopardize the skill-enhancement role of the minor leagues and the existence of Minor League Baseball itself."

Henry Druschel: It’s a preemptive strike, of sorts; there’s a good chance MiLB prevails in the suit, and minor leaguers would continue to make below-minimum wages (when calculated on an hourly basis).

Amusingly, one of the sponsors has already withdrawn her support after the vociferous and mostly negative response, so it’s possible the bill will not have any practical impact at all, and only bring the abysmally low pay of minor leaguers back to the forefront of everyone’s mind.

Ryan: It's also worth noting (as Mike Bates did in that column) that both of the representatives sponsoring the bill have received campaign donations from MLB's political action committee. According to Open Secrets, Steve Guthrie and Cheri Bustos got $3,000 and $2,000, respectively, during the 2014 election cycle, and they've each received at least $1,000 this cycle as well.

As Henry said, Bustos withdrew her support after people justifiably excoriated her over it. Still, that doesn't make the bill go away, and while this doesn't seem like a quid pro quo thing, it's not as though the bill came out of nowhere.

Jen Mac Ramos: Agreed with Henry — it’s a preemptive strike of sorts. And, also agreed with Henry, this might not even have a large, general impact at all if one of the sponsors has withdrawn her support for the bill. That being said, the fact that it was introduced will still have some ramifications on wages in minor league ball, I think.

I’ve been covering minor league baseball in California for four seasons now and honestly, this legislation is not surprising, especially with the timing. The MiLB wage suit is undergoing a motion to classify case on Jul. 8, so anything they can do to derail that from being a class action suit.

Henry: Right. It does legitimize the position that being a minor league ballplayer is a sort of leisurely, recreational pursuit, and not truly an occupation deserving of fair compensation.

Jen: Which, in turn, invalidates — at least mentally, maybe — the fact that ballplayers have chosen a profession in which they’re not considered to be serious pursuits. Baseball is a serious pursuit to these guys. They wouldn’t be putting in, like, 60 hours a week if they weren’t dedicated to the game. Just as a person does at their job if they need to work overtime hours. The difference is that these minor leaguers aren’t paid for those overtime hours, if they’re even fairly compensated for 40 hours a week.

Henry: I think that’s true, and I also don’t think it matters that much. The bill is trying to say this is just a fun thing for them to do, and therefore they shouldn’t be paid fairly, but regardless of how much they’re enjoying themselves, they’re also generating colossal revenues for the parent clubs.

By keeping a huge stable of underpaid minor leaguers, MLB essentially gets a ton of free lottery tickets, since they only pay the players who actually make it to the majors. A guy stuck in AA until he’s 30 doesn’t directly contribute, but in the aggregate, these minor leaguers form MLB’s entire talent pipeline.

So to me, it’s not really a question of how arduous their labor is. Their labor is creating huge amounts of value; the only question is how it gets distributed between the teams (employers) and the players (the workers).

Jen: I think that’s a fair point and a good one at that, Henry.

Nick Stellini: There's also a ton of older guys who stick around in the minors purely as filler players and near player-coaches. There's an older catcher on almost every single team who serves as a second pitching coach. Those older guys, along with guys like Mike Hessman or Guilder Rodriguez who spend nearly their entire careers in MiLB, aren't exactly getting paid a ton of money.

And they're pretty firmly not big leaguers. Hessman was up for a little bit so he gets that pension, but Rodriguez had to wait 14 years for a courtesy callup before he got his pension and first big league hit.

Eddy Rodriguez is another guy like that. I think he's been in maybe two big league games and he's still kicking around in the minors as a backup catcher.

Henry: When the teams are part of a unified front that can hide behind the anti-trust exemption, it’s not a surprise that the distribution is unbalanced.

Ryan: And this is where yesterday's statement from MLB itself comes in:

With this statement, MLB is basically playing poor. Even though they're earning nearly $9.5 billion in revenues this year, per Forbes, they apparently don't have enough money to pass a little down to the guys at the bottom of the food chain.

Jen: The fact that they’re calling this a "short-term seasonal apprenticeship" is laughable. Short-term seasonal could be like, one year, two years at most. Spanning six seasons or more even? That’s absurd.

Nick: Oh absolutely. It's a direct reference to feudalistic society, basically.

Henry: Agreed Jen, I found some of the language in the statement pretty telling. Traditionally, apprenticeships were a big way for craftsmen to use unpaid labor, somewhat like indentured servitude, and lots of apprentices would never "graduate" to their own independent businesses. The parallels seem obvious, and ugly.

The comparison to artists and musicians is also ridiculous. There’s no government-sanctioned monopoly in the recording business, and no bosses telling artists when and how to work.

Jen: Agreed with Nick about it being a direct reference to feudalistic society. MLB is a business, yes, true, but the business involves human beings. Human beings cannot and should not be treated as if they're another item on the manufacturing line. But alas, that’s the nature of the beast at the moment.

Nick: That's why broadcasters using the phrase "former [team] property" in regards to a player's history bothers me a lot.

Henry: It’s also a very short-sighted sentiment for MLB to have. Like Ryan said, they’re playing poor, but why? The league is swimming in cash; doubling the salaries of every minor leaguer is completely doable for them.

Nick: They're actively telling the minor leaguers to screw off. Imagine getting drafted in the 34th round and then seeing that statement come out.

You don't even have to be drafted that late to have a joke of a signing bonus. College seniors have nearly no leverage in their bonus negotiations. There are guys who go in the top ten rounds who get relative peanuts for their bonuses.

Think of guys like Jarrod Dyson who went really, really late in the draft and climbed out of obscurity. These are usually guys who wind up on top prospect lists who weren't big draft prospects at all and got tiny signing bonuses. Then all of a sudden they're subjects of national attention and scrutiny, so they have to deal with that in addition to bad living conditions and the pressures of the organization/coaching staff.

Then they get shipped off to the Futures Game and paraded around on national television. That's a big payday for the league. But they don't get much at all in terms of salary.

Ryan: Good point, Nick. It's kind of like college athletes with the NCAA, albeit not nearly on the same scale.

Jen: Also, in regards to signing bonuses: I did some research on this for my master’s thesis. Average signing bonuses get skewed due to the bonus babies, but most don’t get above four or five figures.

Henry: Right. There are certainly some minor leaguers who do strike it big almost immediately, but they’re not the norm.

Ryan: Income inequality is a growing problem in the major leagues as well. The Trouts and Cabreras of the world make nine figures on long-term deals, while the rookie minimum still isn't that much.

I think this is pretty stark, from SABR:


The guys in the bottom (of the majors, that is) have gotten a raw deal for decades; the guys in the middle are getting squeezed now too.

That isn't to say that the blame for this rests on the great players. They've earned every penny — they're not overpaid. Their colleagues are, however, underpaid, pretty much across the spectrum.

Henry: I actually do think some of the blame rests on the great players, Ryan. The MLBPA is an immensely powerful union, and has secured a lot of gains for major league players. None of that trickles down to the minor leagues.

I imagine it’s easy for a successful major leaguer to think he’s categorically different from the struggling minor leaguer, but he was there once too, and I think they do have a responsibility to advocate for their under-compensated peers.

I’d love to see some solidarity develop between minor leaguers and major leaguers, and for the MLBPA to take on some responsibility for the minors. It’s a lot to ask the 7,500 minor leaguers to develop their own union from scratch; getting the MLBPA on board would be a huge help. Labor agitation in the big leagues (including strikes and stoppages) have lead to some of the most dramatic gains for major leaguers; unless this suit succeeds, which seems unlikely, I can’t imagine any way other than organized advocacy for minor leaguers to make similar gains, and that basically requires a strong union.

In the past, they’ve directly taken advantage of minor leaguers, by giving the owners team-friendly rules around the draft and presumably getting something else in exchange. It’s not unreasonable to ask them to take some responsibility as well.

Nick: That's to say nothing of the kids who get signed out of Latin America as teenagers with no real marketable skills beyond baseball. If they wash out of the minors, they're monumentally screwed.

At least if you get drafted out of high school or college, you could theoretically pursue some sort of degree. At least you speak the language.

Ryan: And this doesn't even get into the awful shit that goes on in Latin America itself. For every player who ends up signing a (woefully small) deal with a team, several more will drop out of school and devote everything to baseball, then have nothing left when they come up short.

Nick: Between that and the buscons* taking a ton of the signing bonus as a kickback, it's awful.

*Latin American scouts who search for amateur players.

Jen: Also, with regards to the awful shit going on in Latin America — I’m surprised no one’s really reported on the fact that there’s a second MiLB wage lawsuit that involves 20 plaintiffs, with those who are player representatives for the lawsuit being mainly from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico.

This lawsuit is being consolidated into the big one (Senne et. al. v. MLB et. al.), but still. The fact that it exists is huge.

Henry: I didn’t know that Jen! The lawsuit is exciting, but as has been reported elsewhere, its odds of success seem slim, as there’s an exception in the Fair Labor Standards Act for seasonal "amusement or recreational establishments."

I think the best hope for all these players lies in organizing, and I’m hopeful this conversation pushes that process along.

Nick: Does the league feel the same way, though? They seem to be trying to cut the lawsuit off at the pass with this bill.

Ryan: I think, as Henry said earlier, this is really a preemptive thing. They don't even want to risk losing the racket they have going. If the bill fails, things don't get better, at least not yet. It just ensures things won't immediately get worse.

Henry: Notably, unlike some other recent suits around minor league wages, this doesn’t threaten the league’s antitrust exception. Even if it did get to trial, the worst that could happen to MLB would be higher wages, which as we said, wouldn’t really cost them that much.

Nick: But Henry! The poor, poor billionaires! They'd have to spend money! We can't have any of that!

We have to keep Kris Bryant down to work on his defense so that he doesn't have an extra year of arbitration! We have to have taxpayers foot the bill for unnecessary new stadiums! We have to make sure that minor leaguers have awful living conditions and then force them to do what we want in the offseason, all at their expense! And then we have to attack them in the press!

Henry: I believe you’re joking, but you (indirectly) brings up a good point. As fans, we’re taught to side with our team on everything, but there’s no reason that has to extend past on-field performance. I want my team to win; I don’t care how much money they make or spend.

Nick: And this is an entirely different issue, but then there are times where you're forced to deal with the question of "I like winning but it involves Arolids Chapman or Jose Reyes."

Or, you know, the Yankees routinely bashing poor people at press conferences, because money.

Henry: Or any number of other questionable or downright immoral acts that nonetheless boost the team’s chances of winning.

Nick: Or, to bring this back to the minors and money...

Ryan: Yeah, and beyond the moral and legal problems with giving your minor leaguers pennies, it seems like it would put you at a disadvantage. Without getting too capitalistic about it, I feel like the next market inefficiency will be minor league pay, or quality of facilities, or benefits, or something along those lines.

Nick: The Mets starting Jose Reyes off in Brooklyn instead of at St. Lucie or whatever because they were able to draw in a huge local crowd for ticket sales, and then get the media to listen to Reyes say he's sorry for 20 minutes.

Henry: Russell Carleton has done some research on this topic, showing how cheap and beneficial it would be for teams to simply feed their minor leaguers better.

Nick: I feel like it would be good to have minor leaguers eat stuff besides protein shakes, PB&J, the spread after the game and the occasional run to Chipotle, yes.

Ryan: Or to have them not have to worry about eating/where their next meal will come from, and focus instead on their baseball performance.

Nick: Minor leaguers are obsessed with Chipotle, btw. Is it because of cost-portion size efficiency or something?

Jen: One minor leaguer told me Chipotle is mostly because of cost-portion size efficiency and protein/calorie intake.

Nick: That's what I figured. Cripes.

Ryan: It seems like more MLB players than before come from upper-class backgrounds, and I have to imagine the low minor-league pay has a hand in that.

Henry: What that Hardball Times article and the Russell Carleton article show is that just because all the teams want to pay their minor leaguers pennies, that doesn’t mean it’s "efficient" or the best way forward.

MLB is a short-sighted, conservative organization, and I suspect it’ll take an exogenous shock to get them to change their behavior in this area.

Jen: If anything, both the bill and the lawsuit are points in which the conversation can keep going, and I don’t doubt that it will stop anytime soon.

And people will keep writing about it, regardless of the outcome, until something changes.

Nick: There's also an underlying sentiment of "Nobody's forcing you to play baseball, kids," in the statement. Which, well, tell that to the kid who took up baseball to play his way out of poverty in the DR, and to hopefully one day send money back to his family.

It also goes back to the fact that these guys give up a certain level of education/diplomas or whatever when they sign and it impacts their marketable skills that they'll have to fall back on if they wash out. Which is, you know, fairly common.

Jen: At least the Diamondbacks have a program in which players from the DR continue their high school education and get their diploma within the team’s org.

Nick: Well that's something.

Ryan: Funny that the organization widely seen as the most stubborn and regressive in MLB has been the most progressive in this area of player development.

Jen: Still, this doesn’t replace the fact that so many players don’t make it to the major leagues.

It’s a good start, but there’s so much more that can be done. I don’t know where to start, but there is a starting point.

. . .

An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the Diamondbacks' program was for players drafted under 18.

Ryan Romano is a contributing editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles on Camden Depot and MASN Sports, and about the Brewers on BP Milwaukee.

Henry Druschel is a below-replacement Contributing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.

Jen Mac Ramos is a Contributing Writer for Beyond the Box Score. Their work can also be found at Purple Row. You can find them on Twitter at @jenmacramos.

Nicolas Stellini is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. He also writes for Baseball Prospectus and BP Bronx. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets.