The ridiculously low pay that Minor League Baseball (MiLB) players have to endure has been a stain on professional baseball for many years. Casual fans see the massive salaries being paid to some Major League Baseball (MLB) players and assume that all professional baseball players are riding that gravy train. It is simply not true. Most Minor League players live in poverty or get help from their parents while they work on their craft and try to make it to “The Show”. Many simply give up their dreams of playing in the MLB because they can’t afford to live on poverty pay.
Attempts to address this problem have been going on for many years but they have all failed. Lawsuits and union talk by Minor League players simply go nowhere for a number of reasons:
- MiLB still “enjoys” an exemption from US Anti-Trust rules
- Lobbying by MLB and MiLB resulted in an MiLB exemption to the Fair Labor Standards Act in 2018 as well
- Finally, and most importantly, MiLB players are essentially indentured servants who serve at the pleasure of ownership. Any “troublemakers” can simply be released, ending the problem for MiLB and the MLB dreams of the player at the same time. Speaking up about pay is a dangerous thing in the Minors.
Despite the fact that this has been going on for many years with little change, some recent events may have begun to move the needle toward getting achieving better pay for a Minor Leaguers.
In my opinion the FIRST event, although it might not seem directly related to this issue, was two-sport phenom Kyler Murray’s February 11, 2019 announcement on Twitter that he was choosing Football over Baseball. Because of Baseball’s continued approach of starving players in the Minors and then paying them less than they are worth for the first 6 years of their careers in the MLB, Murray really had no choice. As SB Nation pointed out in a recent article…
Baseball would’ve let Murray have nearly $5 million off the hop, sure, but he’d have had to play for almost nothing for a year or three in the minor leagues. Then he’d have had to play for a few hundred thousand dollars a year for his first three full seasons in the majors. Or, he could do this:
If he’s a first round NFL Draft pick, at minimum he’s looking at a four-year, $10 million deal with a $5 million signing bonus up front, based off projections at each pick slot. If he’s a top-10 pick: $17 million, $11 million signing bonus. Rookie NFL deals for first round players are guaranteed for four years.
Here’s the money in the immediate future of each path:
- Three years of baseball under his current agreement (excluding the bonus he’s already been given): about $1.66 million (unless he’s so good in his first two years that he’s a special case).
- If he’s taken 32nd in the NFL Draft, he’s guaranteed more than that before throwing a pass.
Despite the NFL being a more dangerous path injury-wise, it made complete sense for this extremely gifted two-sport athlete to walk away from most of a $4.66 Million signing bonus from the Oakland A’s for being a first round MLB Draft pick. “Oh, but they would take care of him if he is really that good”, you say? Ask Blake Snell about that. The Tampa Bay Rays recently renewed his salary with a 2.8% raise, the lion’s share of that coming from an increase in the Major League Minimum salary that was already in the collective bargaining agreement. That less than cost of living bump for Snell was despite the fact that he just won the Cy Young award as the best pitcher in the American League in 2018.
The SECOND event came on March 15, 2019. On that day, Emily Waldon, Minor League reporter on the Detroit Tigers system published an article on The Athletic titled “‘I can’t afford to play this game’: Minor-leaguers open up about the realities of their pay, and its impact on their lives”. The article was extremely well researched and written and it got a lot of attention. It had to embarrass the MLB and MiLB as it very clearly spelled out their shameful behaviour and the impact it is having on those whose are supposed to be the future of the game.
For many minor leaguers, that long-term payout never arrives.
“You know what sucks? If I don’t do well this year, I can’t afford to play anymore and I’m done,” an AL High-A player said. “I can’t stick it out an extra year. And it’s because of pay.
“I can’t afford to play this game,” he continued. “I put my body on the line and I work really, really hard and I show up early and I stay up late and I might have to end my dream, because I financially can’t afford it.
“To say that we’re not worth it until we’re putting on a major league uniform … why the fuck are we here?”
The THIRD event happened a couple of days later on March 17, 2019. On that day Emily Waldon and Ken Rosenthal broke the news that Canada’s team, the Toronto Blue Jays are planning to increase the minimum salaries of their Minor League players by 50%.
Although the Blue Jays’ move was hailed by the MLB Players Association the MLB itself initially had little to say publicly and were rumoured to be very unhappy about it behind closed doors.
Despite all that has happened, it seems like these three events, and especially the Blue Jays announcement, may finally result in some broad-based change. On March 18, Jeff Passan posted an article on ESPN titled Sources: MLB eyes higher salaries in minors.
As much as officials across baseball might agree, few have taken steps to renovate a system that treats players much the same as it has for decades. Even with Toronto increasing Class-A pay by more than 50 percent, players still will receive less than $12,000 a year, far from a living wage. The praise for Toronto across the industry was nonetheless notable, and bumping minor league salaries — whether it takes the form of across-the-board changes or becomes a merit-based system — would have benefits in both public relations and player wellness.
Let’s hope that Major League Baseball finally realizes that treating their Minor League Players with respect is not only the right thing to do, but also makes good business sense.