Kyle Johnson brought his wife and their two young daughters with him to spring training this year, here in Port St. Lucie, Florida. It was about $3,000 more expensive than in 2016, when he crashed on a friend’s couch in Jupiter, 35 miles south, to save money.
A speedy 27-year-old outfielder, Kyle—like all baseball minor leaguers—did not get paid to work here. He did not get paid for extended spring training either, or for the fall instructional league.
But Kyle didn’t care anymore. He’d given so much of himself to baseball, perhaps nothing more than the six months he has sacrificed, each of the last five years, working away from Susan and the girls, seven-year-old Adelyn and two-year-old Channing. Cost be damned—this year, Kyle wanted some semblance of work-life balance. He wanted his girls with him because this year felt different.
For one thing, he’d finished last season at the top of the Mets’ farm system, as the starting left fielder for the Triple-A Las Vegas 51s, and more than once, he felt like any day he would walk out of that minor league locker room for the last time, the old buses and grind traded in for the dream he’d been chasing all of his life.
For another, hey, at least having his daughters here saved some money on daycare.
And then there was the part where he’d done what agents have been advising minor leaguers not to do—at least not if they want anything to do with the bigs ever again: Kyle had just become the first active minor leaguer to publicly declare his part in an ongoing class-action lawsuit against Major League Baseball over unfair wages and unjust labor practices.
So, yeah. Spring training would be a little different this year.
Walk around the stadium here during a big league Florida Grapefruit League game, ask the fans how much they think the minor leaguers scrimmaging on the back fields make, and they’ll guess anywhere from $50,000 to $500,000 per year. Ask 14-year-old Liam Turner from Perth, Ontario, who dreams of pitching in the bigs one day, how much they’d have to pay him to pitch in the minors, and he’ll say, “Nothing.”
Anyway, Liam is closest at the guessing game: In five years as a minor leaguer, including his time in Triple-A, Kyle Johnson has never been paid more than $11,500 a season by a baseball team.
Not unlike young Liam, a player with a pro baseball contract doesn’t care about the money in the beginning. A player with a shot at the bigs—a player like Kyle Johnson—just wants to play.
The Los Angeles Angels selected Kyle in the 25th round of the 2012 MLB draft. They gave him a $5,000 signing bonus, which came to $3,100 after taxes, most of which he spent on an engagement ring for Susan. He was 22 years old.
Right away, he got shipped to the Angels’ short-season team—the entry-level tier of any MLB organization’s minor league system—in Orem, Utah (population: roughly 91,000) and began his professional baseball career. He played well that summer, but the reality of what lay ahead of him quickly snapped into focus: His first paycheck for two weeks of work was about $420.
Back home, old college classmates were starting their careers in finance, pulling down $60,000 a year. By the end of his first season as a pro ballplayer, Kyle had made maybe $2,500.
Kyle did the math. His salary worked out to around $35 per game—maybe 12 bucks an hour.
This, he said to himself, is not anything close to what I thought it was going to be.
It almost never is for any of the 1,200 minor leaguers drafted every year, even though MiLB.com spells it out clearly: $1,100 a month is the maximum contract for every first-year player.
That offseason, Kyle interned at Northwestern Mutual and seriously considered never playing baseball again. He graduated from Washington State after a good college career as an outfielder—he hit over .300 his senior year as the Cougars’ leadoff man and was second in the Pac-12 in stolen bases—and left with an economics degree and a minor in business. He was smart. So was Susan. And she was big-hearted, too, serving as an outreach coordinator who helped victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse.
Kyle and Susan talked. Should I keep playing? And they decided, yes, he should. He should see where it went and show their daughter how to chase dreams.
Call around minor league baseball, ask dozens of guys for their war stories of trying to get by to make it to the show, and you’ll hear tales both funny and sad, all at the same time. Stories of six guys cramming into a two-bedroom apartment. Stories like the one about the 6’4”, 230-pound pitcher sleeping on an air mattress, looking forward to the long, cramped bus rides just because, if nothing else, a hotel with a real bed waited at the end.
“Guys are afraid to unionize. ... These guys are chasing a dream, and they are afraid to stick their necks out.” — Garrett Broshuis, attorney
Sometimes, to save money, minor leaguers will stay with “host families” in their team’s city, which breeds its own genre of stories. There are tales of delightful, grandparently hosts. But then there are the stories of “cleat-chaser” cougars on the prowl, of Sports Dads. And most host family stories are always a little depressing. Because there’s no escaping the weirdness that is being a grown man and professional athlete—and yet also being so poor you have to live with a stranger just to do your job.
In each of Kyle’s five summers on the road as a pro player, for the Orem Owlz, the Savannah Sand Gnats, the Binghamton Rumble Ponies and more, he estimates he’s sent more than half of whatever he’s made back home for daycare alone.
The rest disappeared into rent and food and “clubhouse dues”—money for the clubhouse managers, known as “clubbies,” who handle player laundry and pre- and postgame food spreads, which are more like cheap sandwiches (peanut butter and jelly, maybe deli meat on a good day or perhaps a sloppy joe) and plain potato chips. Sometimes, these professional baseball players just ate leftovers from the concession stand. And the road food wasn’t much better, with just a $25 per diem.
When he finally came home to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, each September, Kyle worked whatever odd jobs he could find. He started a side hustle selling high-end baseball gear. He made most of his money giving kids baseball lessons.
As the years ticked by, 2012 becoming 2014 becoming 2016, mostly it was Susan who kept the family afloat, working two, sometimes three, jobs, making maybe $30,000 a year. Without her, Kyle couldn’t have kept playing baseball at all. Their friends didn’t understand why Kyle still drove a rusty maroon 1999 Subaru or why he wouldn’t pick up the tab at dinner.
So they did the math again.
Until this year, major leaguers—with an average salary of $4.38 million per year—were getting a per diem of $105, enough to eat steak for dinner instead of fast food or leftovers. (A new collective bargaining agreement cut that to $30 per day—though it also required home teams to provide their visitors with freshly cooked meals free of charge in the clubhouse, and all teams must use dietitians and full-time chefs to improve nutrition.) Players on the 40-man big league rosters make the minimum of $535,000 per year. If Kyle stayed in Triple-A, he’d make $2,400 per month for a grand total of about $12,000 for the season.
He didn’t even want to think about how much he could be earning if he’d just started in finance.
Stick with it long enough, with enough good luck, and maybe Kyle would see big league money, or at least the median Triple-A salary of $5,000 a month—but sometimes he felt like a fool.
Being a professional baseball player, the economics major said to his wife, is costing me money.
All of the math, the frustration and the heady questions led Johnson to Garrett Broshuis, a 35-year-old lawyer from St. Louis spearheading a class-action lawsuit against Major League Baseball over minor league pay.
Long before he was a lawyer, Broshuis was an All-American pitcher at the University of Missouri. In 2004, the San Francisco Giants drafted him in the fifth round and gave him a $160,000 signing bonus. Within two years, he was married and already watching his money slip away—but what bothered him most was what his teammates were going through.
Broshuis remembers one fellow player in the Giants farm system in particular. He arrived from Venezuela, a teenager riding high on promises made by a "buscone," an unsanctioned scout the likes of which prowl Latin American countries to prey on poor, young talent, convincing them to sign contracts and to fork over half their earnings. The boys sign them freely, having been promised millions, and their families and neighborhoods and villages send them off with celebration.
Broshuis watched his teammate struggle to find even $20 a month to send back to his pregnant girlfriend.
While he was still playing—Broshuis lasted about six years, the last of them in Double-A and Triple-A purgatory with the Connecticut Defenders and Fresno Grizzlies—he began studying for the LSATs, poring over law books during the long bus rides. He left baseball in 2009 and went to the Saint Louis University School of Law, where he finished as valedictorian.
In the years before he came back to baseball to sue it, Broshuis learned a lot.
He learned that minor league working conditions and salaries may well violate the Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires employers to pay workers at least minimum wage up to 40 hours per week, then overtime beyond that.
He says he learned that MLB “would likely argue that it can do this” in part because it classifies minor leaguers as “seasonal workers.”
He learned that major league salaries increased by 2,000 percent since 1976, while minor leaguers’ increased by just 75 percent. Meanwhile, the United States inflation rate in that time was 400 percent, meaning minor leaguers now effectively earn less today than they did 30 years ago.
He learned that this is possible because Major League Baseball has what’s called an antitrust law exemption, which means, effectively, that MLB’s authority over the terms of minor league contracts and working conditions is absolute, which keeps wages low.
“We’re over here, fighting for scraps.” — Kyle Johnson
He learned that no other sport has such an exemption. Boxing, football, basketball, hockey and golf have all tried to get exemptions of their own over the decades, and all have been denied. In 1972, the Supreme Court noted in a related case that MLB’s antitrust exemption was “an anomaly” but said it was up to Congress to change. That never happened.
He learned that were it not for this exemption, minor leaguers could sue MLB for using the draft to artificially depress salaries and signing bonuses.
He learned that, as it stands, minor leaguers “can’t sue MLB and its teams under antitrust laws for colluding” to keep wages low.
And, he says he learned, “Exploitation is a strong word, but I think it can be used.”
In time, Broshuis and his St. Louis law firm, Korein Tillery, with help from another firm, had at least one former minor leaguer from every MLB organization join the suit as plaintiffs, and in February 2014, they filed a class-action lawsuit against MLB. Among the allegations: labor practices that “remain stuck in the 19th century” and a system that has been “artificially and illegally depressing minor league wages.”
Since then, as the case continues to evolve, named plaintiffs have increased to more than 40 in number—and some 2,300 additional current and former minor leaguers have signed on as “background class members.”
Citing ongoing litigation, several officials from MLB teams, as well as the league office, declined to be interviewed for this story. The league referred B/R Mag to a 2016 statement: “MLB pays over a half a billion dollars to minor league players in signing bonuses and salary each year. Minor league clubs could not afford these massive player costs.”
Do some more math, Broshuis says, and that’s not quite as true as it might sound: To pay the 175 to 200 players in a given minor league system an annual salary of $30,000 would cost a team upward of $6 million, which is about the going rate of a decent fourth outfielder. Cut it down more, even to minimum wage, and Broshuis says, “You’re probably talking around $1 million.”
According to a source familiar with the legal issues in the case, “One of [MLB’s] arguments is these employees should be covered by an exemption—like artists and musicians—because they’re more similar to that than an hourly worker who works in a factory.”
“The logistics for what these players are asking for, paying athletes by the hour with overtime, is a mess,” the source says. “Paying these guys a salary is a lot more workable than trying to treat them like hourly workers.”
Part of the problem, the source says, is the lack of a union with which Major League Baseball can negotiate. Before major leaguers built the Major League Baseball Players Association in the 1950s and '60s, wages were depressed below market value. Now, decades of legal battles later, they have nine-figure contracts.
Minor leaguers who are not—or not yet—on 40-man MLB rosters, however, have no protection under the MLBPA. (An MLBPA spokesman said: “We support their right to organize, to unionize, and fight for their rights. We most certainly support the efforts of minor league baseball players.”)
What Broshuis and Johnson have found, though, is the Minor League Baseball Players Association does not exist yet for one simple reason: “Guys are afraid to unionize,” Broshuis says. “Long term, I think it would be a great solution. The short-term part is these guys are chasing a dream, and they are afraid to stick their necks out.”
And indeed, although thousands of former minor leaguers have signed on to Broshuis’ lawsuit, virtually no active players want anything to do with it. When Kyle talked to guys about it, they repeated what their agents told them: Man, we can’t be part of that. We’re going to get blackballed.
But for Kyle, risks aside, he felt like he had to get involved. “Everybody is so afraid to say anything,” he says. “Whoever you play for, this kid’s going against the grain; we’re just going to release him. And everybody’s so afraid that’s going to happen to them. And now that I’m older, and I’ve been around it more, if that happens, OK.”
On a Friday afternoon in mid-March, in the middle of spring training, Kyle went to his bosses and asked them what they had planned for him.
Triple-A. Vegas. Fifth outfielder.
Kyle said he needed more money.
He knew what he was worth. He was feeling the weight of what he’d given the game, the same way he felt the weight of what he could not give his family. Six months every year. A house instead of a duplex. A husband and a father building a life instead of chasing a dream that felt more every year like a cruel tease. He needed baseball to start giving a little bit back.
The Mets said no. (General manager Sandy Alderson and the Mets declined to comment to B/R Mag.)
Since the organization owned Kyle’s professional baseball rights for the next two years, that left him three choices: play until he became a 29-year-old free agent, retire or else ask for his release.
Kyle asked the Mets to release him.
To that they said yes.
And for that he was grateful. Kyle went to the clubhouse, packed his things and loaded them into his truck. (Well, not his truck, technically, but a truck he borrowed from an aunt and uncle in Orlando.)
Then it was back to the apartment, then more packing, then on to Orlando. Kyle, Susan and the girls crashed with his aunt and uncle for the night. The next day, they flew back to Coeur d’Alene.
“I understand, as far as social issues go, there’s a lot more broken in the world,” Kyle says. “But I also understand there’s a severe lack of education. If I can change this for guys in the future and guys that continue to play. That’s my goal: Make it so MLB realizes what they are doing is absolutely asinine.”
Kyle can’t help but also think, I don’t understand why somebody that’s made it into the big leagues hasn’t really spoken up and been vocal about this. “They get taken care of,” he says. “They get everything they need. And then we’re over here, fighting for scraps.”
Kyle didn’t know it then, but that week a conversation began in the Mets’ major league clubhouse, first about life in the minor leagues but then about the lawsuit. And though most of the major leaguers, indeed, wanted nothing to do with it, one did speak up.
Veteran outfielder Curtis Granderson received a $469,000 signing bonus when he was drafted in 2002 by the Detroit Tigers. But he remembers the struggles of minor league life. He remembers that first check in the show. Pulling in $850 a month before taxes, he says: “The first thing that popped out on our paycheck was, You worked 20 hours this week. It’s like, No we didn’t. I did 20 hours in the last three days. There’s absolutely no way.”
As he eats freshly prepared fruit, bacon and grits, with the kitchen 20 feet away smelling simply glorious, Granderson remembers going to mall food courts with his teammates and buying the specials. He was eating half for lunch, he was saving the other half for dinner—and, because the minor leaguers didn’t have refrigerators, he was praying that he and his teammates didn’t get sick after eating the leftovers 10 hours later. Granderson remembers guys struggling to put on muscle because they couldn’t get enough calories.
Now, if he gets injured and spends time in Triple-A for rehab, Granderson—like many major leaguers—will order catering for the team from some restaurant. Outback, Olive Garden, whatever. “It’s very inexpensive, for at least that one day, for me,” he says. “We’re talking 500 bucks to feed a whole team for a game. …That seems doable, especially for an $8 billion revenue business.”
Granderson did get one thing wrong there: MLB isn’t an $8 billion revenue business. In 2016, it made almost $10 billion.
As Opening Day approached, Kyle remained in Coeur d’Alene, in the northwestern tip of Idaho. Some independent, non-MLB affiliated teams have called, but he says he can make more doing something else now, “and provide for my family in a better, more consistent, more comfortable way.”
Some day soon, Kyle hopes to get some good news from baseball, but he knows the reality: He went against the grain, and there are a million baseball players happy to take his spot without complaint.
He’s felt scared and he’s felt sad and he’s felt many other things. Mostly, though, Kyle has felt glad to be with Susan and Adelyn and Channing, and he has felt at peace. Last week, while his old teammates were getting their assignments and shipping off around the country, he took his daughter to daycare and ate dinner with his family. And, some days, he went to a baseball field, where he taught lessons and helped dreaming young boys get better at the game that they love.
Brandon Sneed is a writer-at-large for B/R Mag and the author of Head In The Game: The Mental Engineering of the World's Elite Athletes (out now from Dey Street). His writing has also appeared in Outside, ESPN The Magazine, SB Nation Longform and more. He has received mention in The Best American Sports Writing. His website is brandonsneed.com. Follow him on Twitter: @brandonsneed.