Forget Right or Wrong — Refusing to Pay Minor Leaguers is Shortsighted and Stupid

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I’m not here to talk politics. I think everyone whose business card doesn’t have the word “Congress” on it agrees that a 2,232-page spending bill is not the place to stick a random, unrelated paragraph that strips the rights of minor league baseball players to receive fair wages. But I’ve watched enough of The Good Wife to know that the legal system and the lobbying system are incredibly intertwined in a way that would make Stormy Daniels blush.

So I don’t want to talk about that. I want to talk about how shortsighted and stupid it is that major league teams don’t want to pay their minor leaguers living wages.

That’s right: For Ian Kennedy money, a team could pay all of its minor leaguers a living wage.

The Uniform Players Contract, which every minor leaguer signs, contains these two stipulations:

  • “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.”

The contract also dictates that the player’s salary — already woefully small — is to be paid only during the “championship season,” meaning “games that count in the standings.” Right now, as I am typing this, there are thousands of baseball players in Florida and Arizona, waking up at the crack of dawn, putting in a full day’s work, and not getting paid a single cent for it. For the ones who have reached the big leagues, it’s not as big a deal, because the paychecks — once they do start rolling in next month — will be somewhere between substantial and massive. But for minor leaguers, the paychecks they will earn once they start the “championship season” in mid-April will be somewhere between $1,100 and $2,200 a month, and they will only last about five months.

As pitcher Andrew McKirahan, who has bounced between the minors and the majors the past few years, told me in 2016, “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. I don’t think I netted one dollar — you pretty much pay to play in the minor leagues.”

So, to summarize: a player is bound by contract to keep himself in first-class physical condition, make himself available to the team for any promotional activities, and play baseball from mid-February to early September (or later, if the team sends him to the Arizona Fall League or one of the various winter leagues). In return, the player receives somewhere between $5,500 and $11,000 for the year.

So let me ask a question: If you were going to earn $5,500 this year, how would you go about keeping yourself in first-class physical condition?

How messed up is it that a professional baseball player depends on coupons for free Western Bacon Cheeseburgers just to stay fed?Click To Tweet

When I was a junior in high school, my little hometown of Lake Elsinore, California, got a minor league baseball team. The Anaheim Angels moved their High-A team from Palm Springs to Elsinore and renamed it the Lake Elsinore Storm. As a diehard baseball fan, I was thrilled, and I went to nearly every home game from April 1994 until I went off to college in August 1995. I became friendly with several players on the team, and a few of them who didn’t need their allotment of free tickets for family or friends would leave me tickets to all the games. There was just one stipulation: I had to give them the ticket stubs. Why? Because there was a coupon for a “Buy One, Get One Free” Western Bacon Cheeseburger from Carl’s Jr. printed on the back of every ticket, and they needed those coupons.

After “talk politics,” add “sully the good name of the Western Bacon Cheeseburger” to the list of things I’m not here to do. It’s a fantastic burger. But how messed up is it that a professional baseball player who is contractually obligated to keep himself in first-class physical condition depends on coupons for free WBCs just to stay fed?

It doesn’t take a genius to know that it is less expensive to eat unhealthy food than healthy food. Lettuce is pretty cheap, but the elements that turn lettuce into a healthy, protein-packed meal — things like fish or other lean meats — are quite expensive. But with the coupon from the back of a Storm ticket, for just a couple bucks, you can get two Western Bacon Cheeseburgers.

Two Western Bacon Cheeseburgers. Source: https://www.carlsjr.com/menu/nutritional_calculator

Unfortunately, you also get this: 1,500 calories, 70 grams of fat, 150 grams of carbs (including 32 grams of sugar), 3,300 milligrams of sodium, and 160 milligrams of cholesterol.

I use the Western as an example just because that’s what was on the back of the Storm tickets in 1995. But the list of inexpensive, unhealthy foods is endless: boxed macaroni and cheese, ramen noodles, Pop Tarts, etc. etc. ad nauseam.

The question I can’t figure out is: Why don’t professional baseball organizations want to pay their players enough money to eat healthy food? Sure, their bases are covered by putting it in the contract that the player has to be healthy. But if you don’t pay a guy enough money to eat healthy food, he either has to eat unhealthy food he can afford or get the money to eat healthy food from somewhere else. That often means that players spend their offseasons working construction or substitute teaching or anything else they can find to bring in a few extra dollars. But don’t forget that they also need to find several hours a day to exercise and take some swings in the batting cage and stay in first-class physical condition.

Shawn Lagana, who spent three seasons in the minor leagues with the Anaheim Angels and the Arizona Diamondbacks, put it pretty succinctly to me: “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. 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.”

The number of players who have “flamed out” who had the talent to be big league superstars is probably pretty small. Mike Trout got a $1.215 million signing bonus when he was drafted. Anyone picked in the top 200 spots in the draft is going to get a bonus of at least $200,000, which is probably enough to get them by.

(I know that $200K sounds like a lot of money, but remember three things: 1) A payout that large puts the player in the highest marginal tax bracket, so a player can expect about 40 percent of that bonus to go straight to the federal and state governments; 2) Young ballplayers often don’t have the financial literacy or the self-control to make wise money decisions the first time they get a big check; and 3) That bonus has to last from the time he gets drafted until he makes a 40-man roster. So when I say it’s “probably enough to get them by,” it sounds like I’m being snarky, but I mean the “probably” quite sincerely.)

Most players who eventually become stars in the big leagues got some sort of substantial signing bonus. But we have no real way of knowing how much of that is due to survivorship bias (“the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking those that did not”).

Simply put: While it’s true that the lack of a large signing bonus is often indicative of lesser talent, it is also undeniably true that the lack of a large signing bonus can impede a player’s development because he can’t afford to reach his potential. So while it is generally assumed that a player who didn’t get a big signing bonus was not good enough for the majors, we have no way of knowing how many players never made the big leagues because of the lack of a signing bonus.

What if Paul Goldschmidt had signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers when they drafted him out of high school in the 49th round of the 2006 draft? Would his $1,000 signing bonus have done him any good for his five years in the minor leagues? That’s why high school kids drafted in the 49th round go to college instead of signing.

Scott Robinson’s 2010 Modesto Nuts baseball card.

But what about Scott Robinson? He was drafted by the Colorado Rockies out of a Georgia high school 565 picks before the Dodgers took Goldschmidt. The 30th round is kind of tricky — it’s not in the automatic “I’m going to college” range like the 49th round, but it’s about 22 rounds below the “I’m getting a good signing bonus” range. For whatever reason, Robinson chose to sign with the Rockies rather than to play ball at the University of North Georgia. He had a very good season in the Class-A South Atlantic League in 2009 when he batted .309/.349/.415 with 46 stolen bases. During that season, according to the Denver Post, “Marc Gustafson, Rockies director of player development, says Robinson is ‘a tick’ below Rockies outfielder Dexter Fowler in potential.” Unfortunately, Robinson’s career stalled after that season due to injury and ineffectiveness. In 2012, the Rockies released him, and his career was over. He now works as an accountant in Atlanta.

I’m not saying Robinson would have been a superstar if he had made more money in the minors. I chose Robinson simply because the 30th round was the one I wanted to use as my example and he was the first player drafted out of high school in the 30th round of the 2006 draft who signed with the team that drafted him. Everything I know about him, I learned in the last 20 minutes through Google and LinkedIn. But two weeks after his 21st birthday, he was compared positively to a man who has gone on to become an All-Star and earned over $100 million in his career.

Could Scott Robinson have been the next Dexter Fowler if he'd been paid better? We'll never know.Click To Tweet

Could Robinson’s injuries have been prevented or lessened if he had been paid more? We don’t know.

Would Robinson’s development as a player have been more effective if he had been able to focus more time and energy on honing his craft rather than trying to make enough money to get through season after season, offseason after offseason? We don’t know.

I could ask a million questions, and the answer to all of them would be: We don’t know.

But if you were a professional baseball organization, wouldn’t you be interested? Wouldn’t you want to know? If you could turn one Scott Robinson into Dexter Fowler every five years or so, it would more than pay for the cost of paying minor leaguers a living wage.

So forget about whether it’s right or wrong to not pay minor leaguers — it’s just plain dumb.

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One Response

  1. Tw Hess

    How does the old saw go..?? Ah yes …penny wise, pound foolish.

    Excellent article. Have never really considered this aspect of the professional game.

    …tom…

    Reply

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