The Major League Baseball Uniform Player’s Contract (UPC) lays out the terms of employment for every player in every MLB team’s organization, from the lowest minor leagues to the big leagues. Generally signed by young players soon after they are drafted out of high school or college, it feels in many ways like the culmination of a lifelong dream: the first professional contract.
The UPC is not all good news, though. It lays out the team’s obligation in terms of payment, but also the player’s obligation to his team. Those two factors, in tandem, often work out to a pretty rough deal for young, starry-eyed athletes.
The UPC has a blank space for teams to fill in the monthly salary of a player, but the numbers that go in those blanks are not subject to much variation — or negotiation. Minor-league players make between $1,100 and $2,150 per month, depending on their level, and only during the “championship season,” meaning the games that count. For a minor leaguer, that is usually about five months, but sometimes as short as three months. So in a best-case scenario, a minor leaguer will make $10,750 per year, with the majority of players making closer to the $3,000-4,000 range.
“You have to pay for your own apartment, you have to pay for food, you have to pay for gas if you have a car,” says pitcher Andrew McKirahan, who made his major league debut for the Atlanta Braves this April. “I don’t think I netted one dollar — you pretty much pay to play in the minor leagues.”
“I don’t think I netted one dollar — you pretty much pay to play in the minor leagues.”
And the player’s obligations laid out in the UPC? They include:
- “The Player agrees … to keep himself in first-class physical condition and to obey the Club’s training rules.”
- “In addition to his services in connection with the actual playing of baseball, the Player agrees to cooperate with the Club and participate in any and all reasonable promotional activities of the Club and Major League Baseball, which, in the opinion of the Club, will promote the welfare of the Club or professional baseball.”
Translation: We will pay you peanuts for three-to-five months, but we expect you to stay in peak condition year-round and to do any promotional activities we tell you to.
When we think of “professional baseball players,” we think of the glamorous lifestyle lived by the richest major leaguers. Even in the major leagues, the minimum salary is about $500,000, which seems like a lot until you factor in relatively short careers and often the lack of a college education.
“When I talk to people outside of baseball, they think professional athletes eat very well, but they really don’t,” says Sarah-Christian Carlson, a Nutritional Performance, Health, and Longevity Coach for the athletic community who founded 365 Lemons, a company that works with several big league baseball players on their nutritional goals. “The locker room food spreads at the games aren’t great. Then the players eat at restaurants and on the plane, and those aren’t the most healthy foods, either.”
For minor leaguers, it is much worse. The pay is awful — not just compared to the salaries of big leaguers, but actually below the poverty level — and the conditions are lousy.
And that’s in the major leagues. For minor leaguers, it is much worse. The pay is awful — not just compared to the salaries of big leaguers, but actually below the poverty level — and the conditions are lousy. They spend eight or ten hours at “work” every day, six or seven days a week, and once or twice a week they spend several hours in the middle of the night on a cramped bus to the next city. All for the chance to be one of the very few who make it to the big leagues and make the big money.
A very small percentage of minor leaguers ever make it to the majors — a study from Baseball America in 2013 said that 17.2 percent of signed draft picks between 1987 and 2008 made the big leagues for at least one game. That number ranges from 73 percent for first-round picks, down to 6.8 percent for players drafted after the 20th round. Even among first-rounders, though, less than 40 percent of the players who make the big leagues stick around for three seasons or longer, and only 5.5 percent of all drafted players reach that mark. So once a player actually beats the odds and gets drafted by a major league team, his chances of sticking around long enough to ever see a seven-figure salary are about one in twenty. And while he fights the battle to beat those odds, he is living in poverty.
Once a player actually beats the odds and gets drafted by a major league team, his chances of sticking around long enough to ever see a seven-figure salary are about one in twenty. And while he fights the battle to beat those odds, he is living in poverty.
Obviously, the players drafted in the first round are generally going to have better skills than the players drafted lower, which explains the higher percentage making the big leagues. But there is another factor to consider: signing bonuses.
“The guys who make it through the minors to the big leagues are often the ones who got a big signing bonus or have rich parents,” says Shawn Lagana, who spent three seasons in the minor leagues with the Anaheim Angels and the Arizona Diamondbacks. “Talent is important, but so is money. I knew a lot of guys who were more talented than the guys who made the majors, but the financial grind caused them to flame out.”
McKirahan agrees, to an extent. “The best guys don’t always make it, that’s true. They’re not always informed on how to do things the right way, and they don’t always necessarily have the best work ethic. Sure, money makes it easier to have access to the right help, but I think there are ways to do it even without a ton of money. So I don’t think you necessarily have to have a big signing bonus or rich parents to make it, but that probably helps you get a little further and better training and nutrition.”
When you talk to McKirahan about this subject, he keeps coming back to one thing: education. He started working with Carlson during spring training this year, but he had already made it through the minor leagues by then. His big awakening came when he had Tommy John surgery very early in his professional career in 2012.
“God kind of threw me a curveball,” McKirahan says, “and that really put in perspective for me how quickly this ability to do what you love can be taken away. So I decided I wanted to do everything I can to be healthy, to recover as fast as I can, and to be strong. So I started researching, finding out everything I could, and talking to the best people about this stuff.”
As mentioned before, McKirahan describes the minor leagues as a “pay to play” system. During his time in the minors, he lived with his parents in the offseason and worked at a gym, gave pitching lessons, and worked in the student athlete athletic department at his alma mater, the University of Texas. Lagana worked construction in the offseason during his playing days, struggling through long work days and lousy food options, then heading over to the local university to get in a workout and try to put in some time in the batting cage.
The schedule during the season is not much better. Players work long hours and have poor food options. They spend many nights sleeping on a bus, often leading them to skip breakfast or grab something from a fast-food restaurant or a gas station market.
The point that both McKirahan and Carlson repeatedly stress is that poor nutrition does not just make a player out of shape — it leads to injuries. Carlson focuses on a mostly plant-based, anti-inflammatory diet, a menu designed around foods that naturally reduce inflammation in the body.
“It may not cause redness and swelling anymore, but it’s this low-level inflammation that contributes to things like heart disease and diabetes. And for athletes, that inflammation manifests itself in injuries — serious injuries.”
“Inflammation is how your body heals,” Carlson says. “But we have such a highly inflammatory diet that the body can’t switch off the inflammation. So if we don’t eat the things to switch that off, the inflammation becomes cellular and systemic. It may not cause redness and swelling anymore, but it’s this low-level inflammation that contributes to things like heart disease and diabetes. And for athletes, that inflammation manifests itself in injuries — serious injuries.”
The arm is the most prominent body part involved in the act of pitching, but the entire body is involved. If the body as a whole is not prepared to do its part, more of the workload falls on the arm, which leads to injury. According to Carlson, systemic inflammation is the cause.
“When you look at the graph of the prominence of polyunsaturated fatty acids — which is most restaurant foods, which is what these guys are eating — you can almost lay it on top of the graph of injuries and Tommy John surgeries,” Carlson says. “It’s not the only factor, but the graphs are almost identical.”
“People wonder about why there are so many Tommy John surgeries, why people’s arms are blowing out all the time,” McKirahan says, “and I think a lot of it comes down to education about nutrition. I think that’s where these [major league] organizations need to take more of an interest. Education is key, and no major changes are going to come until people really understand how important this stuff is.”
Carlson agrees. “We’ve been overwhelmed by marketing. A lot of these supplement companies don’t really have an interest in health, or even performance. They want it to look good, taste good, and have good marketing. So athletes are brought into that world, where it’s easy and convenient to take a supplement instead of eating real food. But many of these supplements are not healthy and they actually add fuel to the fire and make the problems worse, but the players don’t know any better. There is a place for supplements, but real food should always come first and it is important to be educated about what is in a supplement before taking it.”
Money can’t solve all the problems. In fact, McKirahan is quick to point out that money isn’t even the most important factor.
“You can find affordable healthy food at farmers markets and those places,” he says. “It really boils down to education and desire.
“I’ve seen some first-round draft picks who have resources to get the best trainers and best nutritionists, but they just don’t know about it, they’re not educated, so they don’t take advantage of it. On the teams that I’ve been on, there’s usually only two or three guys who really understand how important this stuff is and take it to the next level. If you want to play baseball and help out your family, you’ve got to stay healthy and stay on the field.”
One of that small subset of players who takes a great interest in his health is New York Mets top prospect Steven Matz. He has taught himself about nutrition over the past few years as he has ascended the minor-league ranks.
“I’ve always been interested in nutrition,” Matz says, “because anything that can help you can give you an edge. A couple years ago, it was my first full season, which can be really tough to get through. We were staying next door to a Borders one time, and I just went in there and found the nutrition section and started looking at some books, writing some things down. I didn’t get totally focused on it, but it was in my subconscious to try to eat as healthy as I could with what we had.”
Earlier this season, Matz began working with Carlson, which took his education to the next level. “The big thing I’ve learned from Sarah-Christian about inflammation is that even some things you think are healthy, like wheat bread, are inflammatory. So I’ve started avoiding bread, along with any foods with added sugar. It’s only been about a month, but honestly I can already tell a huge difference. My energy levels have been way up.”
There are aspects of minor league life, like travel, that teams probably can’t do much to change. But there is plenty they can do about educating their players.
“I think that over time, teams will realize it more and more, and that has to start in the minor leagues. It’s hard for guys to make a total lifestyle change once they’re in the big leagues, so it’s almost too late to start then. I don’t know it if will happen overnight or next year or the year after, but I think it will continue to improve, because it has to.”
“Teams are starting to realize that nutrition is more important,” McKirahan says. “The Los Angeles Dodgers hired Gabe Kapler to run their minor leagues, which is huge for them, because he knows a lot about this stuff. But guys are blowing out, more and more injuries are happening, and I think a lot of that just comes down to nutrition and education. I think that over time, teams will realize it more and more, and that has to start in the minor leagues. It’s hard for guys to make a total lifestyle change once they’re in the big leagues, so it’s almost too late to start then. I don’t know it if will happen overnight or next year or the year after, but I think it will continue to improve, because it has to.”
Carlson and McKirahan both stress the importance of education. Carlson has no opinion on the financial side of minor league baseball — she has only worked with a few minor leaguers, and her expertise is in nutrition, not economics — but McKirahan admits that the education process could be expedited by a better financial situation. “It’s hard to get your hands on quality food and nourishment,” he says, “and it’s often not cheap. It would definitely be nice if teams paid players a living wage. I don’t know if it will ever happen, but I would definitely push for that. These guys make nothing.”
Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball, which was later made into a Brad Pitt movie, focused on Billy Beane‘s early-2000s Oakland A’s and their efforts to beat the system and succeed in baseball without much money to spend on players. To do this, Beane’s A’s identified a market inefficiency — teams’ relative lack of appreciation for on-base percentage — and exploited it. He signed players whose main strength was getting on base, knowing that those players did not have much of a market with other teams, so he was able to put together a good team on a shoestring budget.
On-base percentage is no longer a market inefficiency — every team in baseball (if not every writer and broadcaster who covers the teams) understands the importance of getting on base. So teams are constantly looking for new ways to apply the Moneyball philosophy: where can we spend our money most efficiently?
Wouldn’t it make sense for some team to focus on educating their minor leaguers about nutrition and paying minor leaguers a living wage? If good, talented players are flaming out in the minors because of injury, poor conditioning, and financial strain, wouldn’t it make sense to remove those obstacles and get those players to the major leagues? Teams pump so much money into scouting and drafting the best amateur players, but then they fail to put them in position to succeed.
Unfortunately, there is only so much that the major league teams can do. According to “The Business of Minor League Baseball” on MiLB.com, “Minor League Baseball player contracts are handled by the Major League Baseball office.” So even if one team did want to spend extra money to improve the lives of their minor leaguers, they would not be able to, at least not without some creativity and willingness to upset the other organizations.
Combine valuable training with the availability of healthy food, and you have a recipe for health throughout the organization.
But there is plenty that can be done to improve education about nutrition for minor league players. As McKirahan said, the Dodgers hired noted health guru Kapler to be their Director of Player Development. His impact was seen immediately in spring training, where the locker room food spreads took on a much more healthy, organic feel. It would be nice to see teams take that to the next level, spending the extra money to have healthy food spreads in the locker rooms before and after games, even in the lowest levels of the minor leagues. Combine valuable training with the availability of healthy food, and you have a recipe for health throughout the organization.
As education improves throughout the organizations, a financial adjustment seems inevitable, too. After all, what is the purpose of education if not to spur change where it is needed?
Perhaps the needed changes will come in the form of a lawsuit, like the one filed by attorney (and former minor leaguer) Garrett Broshuis on behalf of three former minor leaguers, alleging minimum wage and overtime violations, unfair business practices, and a host of other claims.
Perhaps change will come when minor leaguers unionize. Coincidentally (or not), the last minor leaguer to seriously attempt unionization was Broshuis, back when he was playing for peanuts in Double-A. The main obstacle to unionization, though, is that no one hopes to be a minor leaguer for very long. As former MLBPA attorney Gene Orza put it, no one wants to “tick off” the major league club they are trying to join.
Or perhaps the change will come from within. George Steinbrenner turned the Yankees into a powerhouse by breaking every unwritten rule — and some of the written ones, too — consequences be damned. Might there be a similar owner in the league currently, one who is willing to risk sanctions and disapproval to gain the competitive advantage that comes from paying his or her minor leaguers a more comfortable wage? One such owner could spur change in the entire league.
Disruption on the major league level has come from all three sources — lawsuits, unions, and renegade owners — at different times. As organizations learn more about nutrition and its impact on overall player health, the change from within route seems plausible. Whether it is ownership as a group realizing that it is in their best interests to keep their young players healthy, or one owner making that realization and pushing the needle, it seems inevitable.
The only question is how long it will be inevitable before it happens.