MLB Must Finally Answer for Exploitation in the Minor Leagues

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterFebruary 13, 2014

Jul 21, 2013; Scranton, PA, USA; A general view of PNC Field during the fourth inning of a game between the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders and the Louisville Bats at PNC Field. The Bats defeated the RailRiders 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

"It's about darn time somebody did something, and it's about darn time that's changed."

You can take that sentence and apply it to just about any instance in which somebody has challenged some sort of status quo that's been ripe for challenging. But today, we're going to apply it to Major League Baseball's handling of minor leaguers because a) it fits and b) we have an opportunity to do so.

The word via Hardball Talk's Craig Calcaterra is that a class-action lawsuit has been filed against Major League Baseball by a trio of former minor leaguers. According to CourthouseNews.com's Cheryl Armstrong, the lead plaintiff is Aaron Senne, who played in the Miami Marlins organization from 2010 to 2013. The co-plaintiffs are former Kansas City Royals farmhand Michael Liberto and former San Francisco Giants farmhand Oliver Odle.

What the suit alleges, in a nutshell, is that MLB extorts minor league players in how they're treated and paid. Specifically, the key points are:

  • The best young players may get big bonuses to help carry them through their minor league careers, but most get much smaller bonuses (i.e., $2,500). That's an issue because...
  • Minor league wages are peanuts. The suit notes that the wage for low-level minor leaguers is $1,100 a month. MiLB.com says that's the maximum, not the minimum. And while the pay does escalate as players climb the ranks...
  • It's only to a degree. At Triple-A, the highest minor league level, the typical monthly wage is $2,150 a month. That's not a lot of money, especially when you consider...
  • That the minor league season is only about five months long. Minor leaguers aren't paid outside of the season, even though...
  • They report to spring training, participate in various workout programs and do other such things that require them to commit time to their baseball careers. They do these things without pay. And if they want a better deal...
  • Tough. Minor leaguers are at the mercy of their MLB superiors, unable to leave for a better offer without being subject to discipline. And while salary negotiations are allowed...
  • They're really not. Salary guidelines are in place, and minor leaguers can't escape them until they hit free agency—that typically happens when they're released or after they've outlasted the six-year life of their initial contracts, at which point they're free to shop their services and finally find much better pay. And nobody's fighting for their interests because...
  • Minor leaguers aren't represented at negotiations between MLB and the MLB Players Association. This despite the fact it's those negotiations that determine how minor leaguers are handled.

In short, playing in the minors may mean a shot at making a dream come true, but it's no way to make a living. It's hard to disagree with the notion that change is needed.

If anything, it's long overdue.

Maybe nowhere else is that more evident than in the maximum wage of $1,100 per month for low-level guys. Bob Stanley told Baseball America's Garrett Broshuis he made $500 per month in his first year in pro ball at the Low-A level in 1974. You'll cringe when you realize that, yeah, that was 40 years ago.

Plug a few numbers into an inflation calculator, and you'll see that $500 in 1974 is worth over $2,300 today. The maximum monthly wage for low-level minor leaguers is less than half that. 

Sep 18, 2012; Durham, NC, USA; The Reno Aces celebrate their win over the Pawtucket Red Sox in the 2012 Gildan Triple-A National Championship Game. Reno won 10-3. Mandatory Credit: Liz Condo-USA TODAY Sports
Liz Condo-USA TODAY Sports

You can do even more math. Since the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, a typical 40-hour work week at minimum wage is worth $290 per week and, thus, $1,160 per month. That's better than the maximum for low-level minor leaguers.

Factor in that they're only being paid for about five months, and working a full-time job at minimum wage sounds like an even better deal. You could earn close to $14,000 per year doing that, whereas a low-level minor leaguer making the maximum is going to make less than $10,000 per year. 

There's also this: A Triple-A player making $2,150 per month will fall a little short of $12,000 over a five-month season. Therefore, even the best players in the minor leagues are making peanuts every year.

It's no wonder so many players take jobs during the offseason to help make ends meet. 

Case in point, Dirk Hayhurst wrote in Out of My League about how he worked at Circuit City during the holidays in between seasons once. A 2013 story from MLB.com's Corey Brock on San Diego Padres prospects told of how Cody Decker had worked as a bouncer, how Maxx Tissenbaum had found a temp job in an office and how Matt Chabot worked as a stocker at Costco.

At least Chabot's job took care of some of his training for him.

"I would stock the shelves, lifting water, paper, dog food...it was lots of lifting," Chabot told Brock. "Before I'd go to work, I would get all my baseball stuff done, go to the gym, throw some and then go to Costco."

There's also the reality that, according to MiLB.com, meal money only comes when teams are on the road. And it's only $25 a day, about a quarter of what major league players are allowed under the most recent collective bargaining agreement. They're playing the same game, but they get steak money while minor leaguers get fast food money.

Not everyone gets a $6.25 million signing bonus like the one Bryce Harper got.
Not everyone gets a $6.25 million signing bonus like the one Bryce Harper got.Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Sure, the bonuses players get do help. But since those payments only come once and it could take several years before a player reaches the major leagues, they have to last. And if you're one of the guys who only gets a $2,500 bonus, well, good luck.

What's worse is that the amount of bonus money in the minor leagues has gone down rather than up. As the suit correctly points out, Major League Baseball is to thank for that.

In 2012, new rules in the CBA that restrict spending on both draft picks and international amateurs went into effect. As The Associated Press reported, spending on draft bonuses in the first year of the new rules fell to $207.7 million from $233.6 million. Bonus spending rose in 2013, but only to $219.9 million.

Baseball's intentions aren't in the wrong place. It's after competitive balance with these new rules, and competitive balance is not a bad thing. We've also seen teams take the money amateurs are missing out on and use it to make established players richer. That's not a bad thing either.

It is—or at least, it should be—a bad look, however, that the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer. This is, after all, a day and age when baseball isn't hurting for money.

The league's business is booming. Maury Brown of BizofBaseball.com reported that the league's revenue reached $7.5 billion in 2012. In 2013, Brown reported for Forbes that baseball's revenue finished somewhere between $8 and $8.5 billion. 

Say what you will about Bud Selig so long as you grant he's been good for business.
Say what you will about Bud Selig so long as you grant he's been good for business.Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

With revenue having already skyrocketed and still going up, the league can afford to throw some extra money at minor leaguers. It doesn't have to be much, as it frankly wouldn't take much to elevate them from dirt poor to less dirt poor. A couple of million out of baseball's $8 billion pot for several thousand minor leaguers isn't that much to ask. 

At the least, upping the in-season monthly wages would be a good start. That would right (if not quite erase) a longstanding wrong, and it would help make up for the money that's being denied to young players by the new bonus allotments.

Paying players year-round would be another nice step forward. If baseball would prefer to ease into that by first making the various offseason baseball activities players participate in worth their while, so be it.

It's possible this wouldn't be good for business right away. That's money that would be going from the major league level, something a lot of people have interest in, to the minor league level, something a lot less people have interest in. The corresponding move might be for some teams to increase minor league ticket prices, which could drive fans away.

But in the long run? Well, it's possible that taking better care of players means they'll take better care of themselves. That could increase the quality of baseball's product at all levels, something that baseball should always be striving for. That possibility, therefore, is one that MLB shouldn't blow off.

Does MLB have to do anything? Obviously not, since things are the way they are. As Michael McCann of Sports Illustrated points out, this is partly because baseball's exempt from the antitrust law. It's allowed to set salaries and working conditions for minor league ballplayers, and it does.

And hey, as McCann wrote: It's the players who sign the contracts. Nobody's ever been forced into playing minor league ball.

But since baseball is not exempt from federal wage and overtime laws, the class-action lawsuit might have a chance. The players behind the suit do have ground to argue that minor leaguers are not being paid minimum wage or overtime, and McCann suggests the fact that they could make the case stick long enough for baseball to consider settling.

Whether that's what it takes or not, a settlement is the outcome worth hoping for here. Major League Baseball has gotten away with feeding minor leaguers cheap wages for long enough already. With the league's business doing better than ever, the timing has never been better for MLB to throw minor leaguers a long overdue bone.

Note: The initial version of this column failed to mention that the general minor league pay structure only applies to players who haven't achieved free agency yet. That omission has since been corrected.

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

Follow zachrymer on Twitter


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.