As fans of the game, it is sometimes difficult for us to distinguish the line between athlete and person. When a pitcher is lighting up the radar gun with blistering fastballs, we don’t generally think about his wife and two children at home. When a cleanup hitter belts a hanging curveball over the center field wall, it’s hard to imagine that after the game he’ll be considering how the bills are going to be paid during the offseason. These are common themes among the lives of minor league baseball players – and it appears that Major League Baseball wants to keep it that way.
Save America’s Pastime Act
H.R. 5580, better known as the “Save America’s Pastime Act,” is a bipartisan bill that was introduced to the House Representatives last week by Brett Guthrie (R-KY) and Cheri Bustos (D-IL). Bustos has since rescinded her support for H.R. 5580. The bill is designed to be an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which would exempt Major League Baseball from adhering to the guidelines of hourly wages and overtime pay for its minor league players.
The bill is a response to Senne v. MLB, a class-action lawsuit filed by several minor leaguers against Major League Baseball in 2014. The suit alleges the league is exploiting minor league ballplayers and violating federal law in the process.
Minor League Baseball expressed its full support of the bill in a statement last Wednesday, citing the future of MiLB could be at risk if the players were to see a salary increase.
“This suit threatens baseball’s decades-old player development system with an unprecedented cost increase, which would jeopardize the skills-enhancement role of the minor leagues and the existence of Minor League Baseball itself,” MiLB President Pat O’Connor said in the statement.
Major League Baseball followed suit by showing its support for the bill. The league released a statement last Thursday comparing minor league ballplayers to artists and musicians, arguing that their hours fluctuate so much that it would make little sense to pay players by the hour.
“Minor League Baseball players always have been salaried employees similar to artists, musicians and other creative professionals who are exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act,” MLB said in the statement. “Like those professionals, it is simply impractical to treat professional athletes as hourly employees whose pay may be determined by such things as how long their games last, when they choose to arrive at the ballpark, how much they practice or condition to stay in shape, and how many promotional or charitable appearances they make.”
“Short-term seasonal apprenticeship”
MLB goes on to say that being a minor league baseball player is a “short-term seasonal apprenticeship,” rather than a career. That must be why 18-year-old boys forego college opportunities – to begin a professional baseball “short-term seasonal apprenticeship.”
If minor league ball is truly a short term seasonal apprenticeship, it should be a requirement for players to at least go through two years of college before becoming draft eligible. This would give a player greater prospects for a career after baseball. But MLB’s contention simply rings false.
The fact is that an 18-year-old out of high school is generally more valuable to an organization in the long term than a 21-year-old that played in college. The problem becomes this: for every Mike Trout in the game, there are hundreds of high school draftees that the game kicks to the curb by age 24. No pension, no insurance, nothing. And with the way the system is set up now, there is not a single thing these players can do about it.
This situation becomes more complicated for the minor league ballplayers because they do not have an organized labor union. The Major League Baseball Players’ Association (MLBPA) only represents players, coaches and trainers that are already in the big leagues. According to Senne v. MLB, the thought of minor leaguers unionizing may be nothing more than delusions of grandeur under the current system.
“Efforts to unionize minor leaguers have been unsuccessful because minor leaguers fear retaliation by the seemingly omnipotent Defendants. Striving towards a lifelong dream of playing in the major leagues, minor leaguers are reluctant to upset the status quo.” (Senne v. MLB, p. 3, 22-24)
Below the poverty line
The plight of the professional baseball player can be hard to grasp until one understands that most minor leaguers could make more money working a minimum wage job in their hometowns. According to Senne v. MLB, the average minor leaguer makes between $1,100 and $2,150 per month during the season. Throw in the fact that MLB doesn’t pay its players during Spring Training, Instructional Leagues after the season, or the Arizona Fall League, and it becomes a sad picture in which most minor league players (many with families of their own) are bringing home wages under the poverty line.
Major League Baseball approached $9.5 billion (with a “b”) in revenue in 2015, according to Forbes. Throwing around numbers of that magnitude, MLB’s arguments against paying its workforce a livable income will fail to convince most people.