How Minor League Baseball left its players in poverty and tried to save itself instead

MLB columnist
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

“The farm system, which I have been given credit for developing, originated from a perfectly selfish motive: saving money.” – Branch Rickey

All great cons start with a lie, and the one blasted out in an email Wednesday afternoon came right out of sports’ scurrilous, fear-mongering playbook. Major League Baseball pulled this sort of nonsense when it wasn’t making as much money as it desired. The Bowl Championship Series used it as the ace of spades in its house of cards. And now Minor League Baseball, venerable purveyor of cheap family entertainment, wants to sell the public on an idea so desperate, so deeply fallacious, that it almost hurts to type: If players start making minimum wage, Minor League Baseball could cease to exist.

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The email was sent to lavish praise on a proposed bill from the House of Representatives called Save America’s Pastime Act, even if it only saves money for the rich, is entirely un-American, espouses ideas long past their time and acts on behalf of an organization that on a daily basis sees thousands of kids scraping by, living in cramped quarters, and instead of supporting them chooses to spend its time and energy lobbying Washington to cripple their cause.

That the cause – a lawsuit aimed at lifting the salaries of minor league players, some of whom get paid as little as $1,150 a month – is noble and redeeming and worthwhile makes the email all the more odious, and yet there it was, in all of its fetid glory, peddling this bit of Beltway spin.

“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,” the email said. “As a result of this lawsuit filed on behalf of thousands of current and former players, many cities would be in jeopardy of losing their Minor League Baseball teams, resulting in the elimination of tens of thousands of jobs nationwide, shuttering taxpayer-funded ballparks and creating a void in affordable family-friendly entertainment.”

The forceful wording and scare tactics can’t hide the truth: MLB and MiLB are frightened enough of the litigation to do everything they can to maintain a status quo that should’ve changed years ago. The suit, filed in 2014 on behalf of three players and expanded to more than 2,300 after a district court judge certified it as a collective action in October 2015, charges that Major League Baseball – which pays the salaries of all minor league players – should abide by the Fair Labor Standards Act, which sets the national minimum wage. House Bill 5580 wants to amend the nearly 80-year-old FLSA by specifically exempting minor league baseball players from the law.

“The whole premise of the proposed bill is just so outrageous I’m still shocked,” said Garrett Broshuis, a former minor league pitcher and now one of the lawyers working with the plaintiffs in Senne vs. MLB, the players’ suit. “It starts with the title. This isn’t about saving America’s pastime. This is about billionaire major league owners working with millionaire minor league owners to keep their pockets fat and keep minor leaguers living in poverty. The vast majority make salaries that place them below the poverty line. There’s nothing in here that’s going to bankrupt minor league teams.”

The argument from Minor League Baseball goes something like this: If MLB loses the suit and not only is forced to raise wages for current players but give back pay to past players, the losses could pile up to nine figures. Gut-punched by the financial hit, MLB would start insisting minor league teams help pay the salaries of the players. Financially strapped teams, unable to bear the burden, would fold. Jobs disappear. Stadiums turn into ghost towns. Ballplayers are to blame.

Here’s the problem with it: MiLB is a wildly successful endeavor for MLB. Depth in today’s game is paramount, and the idea any major league franchise would willingly neuter its farm system fundamentally ignores the reality of just how vital player development truly is. By trying to argue this point, Minor League Baseball is essentially calling Major League Baseball too stupid to know how to run its business in a way that has behooved it for more than a century. The affiliate system works, and blowing it up would be among the nose-cuttingest, face-spitingest things they’ve done.

Minor League Baseball still sees the threat as exceedingly realistic. Its vice president, Stan Brand, a longtime lawyer and Washington power broker, told a group at the 2014 Winter Meetings “to heed the clarion call, man the battle stations and carry the message to Congress loudly and clearly: The value of grassroots baseball and our stewardship of the game needs to be protected.” Brand, in an email to Yahoo Sports on Wednesday, said: “Our 100-year-old relationship with MLB almost ended in 1991 when they imposed a ticket tax and other financial obligations on the minors. We worried after we finally came to an agreement after an acrimonious negotiation, but it took years to adjust to the new economic reality. Many of these teams operate at low or no profit margins so we are extremely sensitive to such swings that threaten our viability in many small markets.”

Such fear is reasonable, and it’s part of Brand’s job to look out for those cities. At the same time, acting like paying kids a few thousand more dollars a year each would turn all of Minor League Baseball into the Sept of Baelor is hyperbole on the order of MLB threatening to contract teams in the early 2000s and the BCS arguing for its existence by saying if it shut down, the rest of the bowl games would falter without it. Consider this from the email:

“Should the California litigation be successful, teams like the Louisville Bats, Bowling Green Hot Rods and Lexington Legends may well disappear, along with a source of wholesome entertainment for Kentucky families, and an economic generator for those cities.”

Those are the words of Bats president Gary Ulmer. It’s rich that Ulmer, of all people, considers this lawsuit important enough to speak out about it. Because the Bats last year took in $12 million in revenue, according to Forbes. Of that, they ended up with $4.3 million in operating income, one of the highest numbers in a MiLB industry that has grown increasingly lucrative for the best teams. The Sacramento River Cats last season operated nearly $10 million in the black, better than a quarter of major league teams, according to Forbes.

Ticket sales dovetail with MiLB’s growth. With next to no overhead – teams’ costs are essentially limited to running the stadium during a game – the upper minor leagues have turned into cash cows. For more than a decade, minor league teams have drawn at least 41 million fans combined. The number jumped to 42 million last season, all to see players whose monthly salaries range from $1,150 a month for short-season teams to $2,150 per month for a Triple-A player – and in-season only. There are exceptions – players on 40-man rosters and those with major league service time get better wages – but the depression of salaries is real, it’s intentional and it leads to embarrassing consequences.

Professional players needing to ask their parents to help pay the rent. Student loans unable to be paid. Teammates cramming into one apartment to save on rent. Broshuis played with one teammate who ran himself so deep into credit card depth: “We’d be riding the bus and all of a sudden the debt collector would be calling him.”

It’s not like the money is lacking in baseball. Industry revenues are approaching $10 billion. Baseball, in fact, is flush enough to reward about 60 players $1 million-plus signing bonuses every June after the draft. The other 95 percent of kids drafted ends up far shy of that. Some get as little as $1,000 to sign, then need to survive with below-minimum wages. Minor league teams see this. They know it’s true. And they choose instead to fight for it.

It’s not like the United States is fundamentally opposed to people being paid a living wage, either. Polls regularly show around 70 percent of those surveyed wants to raise the minimum wage. Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-IL), a co-sponsor of Congressman Brett Guthrie’s bill, withdrew her support Thursday after overwhelming backlash against the Save America’s Pastime Act.

The outcry was telling: Even if these are ballplayers, who literally get to play a game for a living, MLB and MiLB do not need to deliver them into poverty. Minor league players are mistreated far more than their major league counterparts already, whether it’s harsher PED suspensions or guinea pig usage with new ideas.

“These people are trainees,” MiLB president Pat O’Conner once told Baseball America. “This is a long internship, for lack of a better word.”

Trainees.

Internship.

This is the rhetoric MiLB chooses. Inflammatory and deriding and wrong. Minor league baseball players are professionals, not trainees. However many qualities they may share with interns, to call Minor League Baseball anything but a job – a really difficult job at that – is fundamentally disrespectful toward those on whom the system is built: cheap labor, the glint in Branch Rickey’s eye.

The case could go in so many directions. The House Bill could pass and render the lawsuit moot. If it doesn’t, MiLB could argue for an exemption from the FLSA based on the business being a seasonal and recreational activity – an argument that has won in court but generally meets defeat. The sides could settle. The players could win a monstrous victory by getting a raise to even minimum wage. If that happens – if players are compensated for 2,080 hours at $7.25 an hour – that’s around a $15,000 salary. Give that to about 6,000 of them, and the result is about $90 million total. Even if major league teams pay minor leaguers a third of that today, it’s only $2 million for each team to full fund its farm system.

Sorry. That’s not going to kill Minor League Baseball.

“This is something I don’t even think Donald Trump would say,” Broshuis said. “Next thing you know they’re going to say we’re trying to take away apple pie and can’t have fireworks on the Fourth of July.”

Even if Broshuis’ whole lawsuit succeeds – the minimum wage, the back pay, the damages, all awarded in a trial expected to start in early 2017 – MLB will stand by MiLB, and if compromise is necessary, compromise the sides will get. The institutions, as Brand said, date back a century. No alternative exists.

Which makes the bloviating on Wednesday all the more egregious. Minor League Baseball tried to steer the narrative and ended up careening into a retaining wall. This is not about teams disappearing. It is, at its simplest, about rich people not wanting to pay those without, kids chasing a dream even if it keeps them from what’s fair and right, and the complicated place at which they intersect. It’s where feckless politicians get lobbied into the moral wrong, where players stand up for their rights, where the con built upon lies lives to see another day.

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