First Pitch: MLB’s Continued Exploitation of Minor League Players

At 2:00 in the morning I pull over into a rest area. It’s cold, dark, pouring rain, there are tractor-trailers clogging the mountain road I’m driving on, and I am exhausted to the point of dozing off at the wheel.

I don’t know what state I’m in. I know it’s either West Virginia or Virginia, but I can’t tell if I’ve crossed the state line yet.

I pull into a spot far enough away from the lights to have quiet, but close enough to the one other car to allow the chance for someone else to witness my murder (assuming the murderer wasn’t in that car). I put the car in park and leave it running to keep the heat going. I recline my seat all the way, but it’s not going to be enough to provide any comfort for this 6′ 4″, “non-athletic but still projectable in the wrong ways” frame.

I drift off, relieved that I’m safe from the road. I’m maybe 2-3 hours from home. I could be home before 6 AM if I kept going. I don’t think I’d make it though.

I don’t know how it happened, but I’m behind the wheel asleep again, only this time I’m back driving on the interstate. I start to realize that I’ve drifted off right around the time that a tractor-trailer loudly thunders by.

I jump up in my seat, heart racing with a combination of fear, surprise, and confusion. My car is stopped in front of a tree, and I don’t know where the road is. I don’t know where I am.

I realize I’m still parked in the rest area, and I was only sleeping for five minutes.

The other car is gone. The sounds of the trucks passing by on the interstate are still too loud. I’ve been driving non-stop from place to place for two weeks, and I realize that I won’t be able to sleep comfortably in the driver’s seat, even if I’m parked in a rest stop.

It’s still pouring outside, so I try to climb from my seat into the back of this Volkswagen Jetta, which still isn’t comfortable for my previously mentioned large frame, but at least allows me to sleep without waking up in fear every five minutes. (Pro-tip, the passenger’s side in pretty much every vehicle is way better than the driver’s side for sleeping if you’re tall like me).

I finally get to the back seat and get as comfortable as I’m going to be. As I try to fall back to sleep, a thought crosses my mind.

“Why the fuck am I doing this?”

The answer to my question is common: I need a job.

But why this?

Maybe I’m selfish by chasing a dream. I don’t need to be a sports writer. I don’t need to write about the Pirates to be a sports writer. I certainly don’t need to get murdered in a random rest stop trying to cover an A-ball pitcher live.

I did this because it was the best chance I had for a job that would pay me enough to live, or in other words, to pay me enough to survive.

It’s easy for me to say this now. The story I’m telling happened almost a decade ago. It was the night of Jameson Taillon’s pro debut in West Virginia.

I had given up on finding work in my small town. I had been laid off from my sports writing job during the recession. I didn’t have the years of experience for any good job that was available. The only job I could get was in a factory, and I was quickly refused for that job because of the work impact of my lifelong constant migraines. I did part time work when I could find it, but this site was largely my best shot at a career.

I also had enough experience working for other people to know the deal on the other side. My salary won’t be enough to live on, my opportunities for advancement will be limited with little personal influence over that process, and when things go bad, I’ll be among the first on the chopping block so that the person at the top can maintain their standard of living. If I’m going to be in a job where my wages and future employment status are uncertain, I’d rather be in control.

I had to sleep in cars at rest stops, drive thousands of miles a year, and scrape by to pay my bills. Two years later I found myself able to rent my own place in Bradenton without a roommate. I still had to sleep in cars in rest stops while traveling at that point, and I had to sell pretty much everything that I owned that wasn’t necessary to live in order to remain in Bradenton that first year.

Across the parking lot from my building was a two bedroom apartment that was occupied by six people. It was always six people, but never the same six people. The furniture was mostly mattresses. I’d say about half of the people at all times relied on someone else in the apartment for transportation.

They loaded up on free food when they could get it. After splitting rent six ways, they only had money for fast food, and barely had that.

The six people crammed inside that two-bedroom apartment were minor league baseball players in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ system. Just like when I was starting up this site, you could say they were chasing a dream. You could point out that they didn’t need to pursue a job in this career.

That’s always the argument against minor leaguers getting paid a fair wage. They’re chasing a dream. They’ve got options for work, but they’re choosing to play baseball.

The truth is that they’re just people looking for a job. Yeah, it’s a good job, but it’s not a crime to pursue a good job. Any of us would do the same thing if we had the specific skills needed to be a professional baseball player.

Minor league baseball players obviously have the skills to be a professional baseball player. Because of this, professional baseball is one of their best chances at a job that pays them enough to survive.

Granted, if you make it to the majors you only have to work for a few years at league minimum salaries to make enough to survive on over a modest lifetime. But that’s the end goal, and it’s not guaranteed. In fact, it’s very far from guaranteed when you look at the low success rates of players entering pro baseball.

Those things are ignored. It’s easy to get the public to turn on baseball players. They’re pursuing a job that pays millions to play a children’s game in a country where half the population can’t afford a $400 emergency.

The truth is that baseball is just a job. You can’t call it a “dream” when you don’t want to pay the people at the bottom, and then call it a “business” when the owners at the top don’t want to spend.

If it’s a dream, then it should also be considered a dream to own a baseball team, and owners shouldn’t worry about making profits or taking a loss. If baseball isn’t about money for the guys at the bottom, the same rule needs to apply at the top.

But if it’s a business, where owners focus on budgets over competition, then there’s no argument for those owners not paying their employees a fair wage.

I write all of this today because I woke up to the following tweet:

That’s a common story inside the game. Minor league players are exploited for free or greatly reduced labor.

They’re only paid during the months of the regular season, but expected to show up early for Spring Training, during instructs after the season, and during camps in the offseason. They are given things to focus on during the offseason, expected to stay in shape on their own dime, and expected to keep training and improving for the job the following year.

The story that Joshua Kusnick shared reminded me of those early days in Bradenton, with those six minor leaguers crammed in that apartment across the lot. It wasn’t just that year. There was always at least one apartment packed with minor league players.

A player would get promoted from Bradenton to Altoona, leaving a spot open in the apartment. That spot would typically be filled by the guy promoted from West Virginia to Bradenton. He’d step in with his 1/6th of the rent and the process would go on. Two bedroom apartment. Six people. Never the same six people, but always six.

Some players avoid this process through the booster program. That’s where private citizens and fans of the local team will open their home to a player to live and eat rent-free, all because he can’t afford to live on his own while playing professional baseball.

I’m torn on this process, because I know a lot of the boosters in the Pirates’ minor league cities. They’re great people who go out of their way to help out these young players while they’re being exploited by MLB.

I’ll point out here that I’ve been sharing my experiences covering the Pirates, but this takes place all across the league. Minor leaguers are exploited because they’re not members of the MLBPA union, and yet the MLBPA has negotiated away their earning rights and power without that representation. On the other side, MLB has worked to pay millions in lobbying fees to retain their anti-trust exemption that allows them to pay these players a below-poverty wage.

The talks by MLB to increase minor league pay have come attached to the elimination of 42 minor league teams. That currently includes those boosters in Charleston, West Virginia who opened their homes to players in the Pirates, Brewers, Reds, and other systems for years, all to make up for the lack of financial support from the league. Now that the league is considering raising wages for minor leaguers, their team in Charleston is being proposed to be eliminated.

This is a league that makes over $10 billion in revenue a year. It’s a league where the biggest free agent this past season received $36 million a year for nine years. And that’s only the league’s fourth biggest contract. It’s a league where each team receives tens of millions of dollars in local TV revenue, and even more from national deals, all before selling a single ticket.

I am very passionately against MLB teams paying their minor league players below a living wage. I’m that way because I’ve seen it up close for a decade. I’ve seen prospects packed into an apartment, all while the organization talks up their future impact for the club, and while fans pencil them into future MLB lineups. I’ve talked to prospects who have been told to get in better shape by the Pirates, all while not being able to afford the food needed for this assignment. Again, this happens with every team.

I am also against minor leaguers being exploited because I’ve been where they are. I was making below-poverty wages when I started this site up. I had my own booster program, living rent-free in my grandma’s house for a few years until I could afford to live on my own. I knew what I was getting myself into, and I knew why.

I was doing this because it was my best chance at a job that pays enough to survive. I might not reach that carrot in the end, but this was the best use of my skills and experience to date.

I think most of us have the same experiences in our lives. We’ve all had to work our way up from a lower rung at some point in our lives. Maybe some of us are doing it now. Maybe you’ve fallen at some point, and you’re trying to make your way back up again. That shared experience we have is often used as an argument against minor leaguers making more money. “I didn’t have it easy, so you shouldn’t either” is the common sentiment.

My feeling is that our shared experiences climbing life’s ladders should provide the perspective needed to side with the minor league players, and not the MLB owners. I know how tough it is to climb your way up the ladder, which is why I think we should focus on helping everyone up, rather than pulling the ladder away from them once we’re above them.

Every minor league player is the same as you and I when you get down to the basics of life. They’re pursuing a career that fits their skills and experience best. They’re trying to find a way to support themselves and survive in life. They’re chasing the carrot at the end, even if they know what they’re getting into in this industry.

I was building a company from nothing, so my earning potential had no floor. I accepted that risk. You might work for a company that is required to follow federal and state laws requiring a minimum pay to keep people above poverty wages.

These players worked for a league of owners who just didn’t want to pay them a living wage, all due to an exemption from the government that the league has fought hard to maintain.

There is only one thing that matters here in every case: The person and the goal.

Minor league baseball players are people, just like every one of us.

They’re trying to make a living in order to survive and support their family, just like every one of us.

They want a career that will provide them the most long-term security possible, just like every one of us.

They can’t survive on $6,000 a year, just like every one of us.

They deserve to be paid a living wage. There’s no good argument against this.

SONG OF THE DAY

DAILY QUIZ


RANDOM STUFF OF THE DAY

THIS DATE IN PIRATES HISTORY

By John Dreker

Three former Pittsburgh Pirates born on this date and there’s one event of note to cover.

On this date in 1948, Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Pie Traynor is elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He narrowly missed getting elected in 1947, falling two votes shy of the minimum 75% of the votes required to gain entrance into the Hall. Traynor played his entire career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, making his debut in September 1920 and continuing on through 1935, briefly making another five game appearance during the 1937 season. He was also the Pirates manager from 1934 until 1939. On the Pirates all-time list he ranks ninth in batting average (.320), seventh in games played (1,941) sixth in runs scored (1,183) tied for fourth in hits (2,416) with Max Carey, sixth in doubles (371), fourth in triples (164) and fourth in RBIs with 1,273. Traynor would be joined that year in the Hall by longtime AL pitcher Herb Pennock, who passed away four weeks earlier. During the 1927 World Series, Traynor broke up a no-hit attempt by Pennock with a one out single in the eighth inning of game three. There was no Hall of Fame ceremony in 1948, so Traynor actually went it with the 1949 class.

Craig Monroe, outfielder for the 2009 Pirates. He was originally an eighth round draft pick of the Texas Rangers in 1995. He made his Major League debut with Texas in 2001 before the Tigers picked him up off waivers in February 2002. Monroe played 672 games with the Tigers, hitting .259 with 101 homers. He topped the 20 home run mark three times, hitting a high of 28 in 2006, when he also set a career high with 92 RBIs. He was traded mid-season 2007 to the Cubs and spent 2008 with the Twins, where he struggled, hitting just .202 with eight homers and 29 RBIs in 58 games. Minnesota released him in August 2008 and he signed with the Pirates in January of 2009. He made quite an impression in Spring Training when he hit eight homers and drove in 16 runs. He was the backup corner outfielder once the season started, getting his share of pinch hit at-bats as well. In 34 games, Monroe had 87 plate appearances, hitting .215 with three homers and 16 RBIs before he was released on July 1st, ending his playing career.

Matt Stairs, outfield/first base for the 2003 Pirates. He was originally signed as an amateur free agent by the Montreal Expos in 1989, and by the time the Pirates signed him in December of 2002, he had already played with five different teams over his ten seasons in the majors. In 2002 for the Brewers he hit .244 with 16 homers in 107 games. For the Pirates in 2003 he mostly played right field until September when he saw more time at first base. He was often as a pinch-hitter as well and finished the year with a .292 average, 20 homers and 57 RBIs in 305 at-bats. He was granted free agency after the season and signed with the Royals. Stairs went on to play until August 2011 when he was released by the Nationals. He played for 12 teams in his career and he hit .262 with 265 homers, 899 RBIs and 770 runs scored in 1,895 games.

Bill Farmer, catcher for the 1888 Alleghenys. He made his big league debut on May 1st, catching Hall of Famer Pud Glavin in a 10-1 loss to Detroit, which was called early due to darkness. Farmer got his chance to play due to multiple injuries, including starting catcher Doggie Miller. Farmer played his second game in right field for four innings on May 12th, filling in for Cliff Carroll, who became ill mid-game. That would be Farmer’s final game for Pittsburgh. He played three late season games for the Philadelphia Athletics of the American Association in 1888, then never play in the majors again. He went 0-for-4 at the plate for the Alleghenys. His minor league career began in 1884 and ended six years later.

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