Pic (Getty Images).

‘The Minors’ are a Major League scandal

THE JONNY GOULD COLUMN
IRC, ALTERNATE WEDNESDAYS

“Hello fellow baseball nuts and a big warm welcome to Channel 5 Baseball – live and exclusive every Wednesday and Sunday night midnight through ‘til 5am!” For 12 wonderful years from 1997 to 2008, those were the opening words to my job-of-a-lifetime as the face and voice of Major League Baseball in the UK.

We hosted upwards of 65 shows per year, and I was paid in my prime £500 per episode. It was a tidy sum for a lowly TV Presenter of little standing – I was quite literally living the dream. Mind you, if only I could play the game rather than just talk about it, then I would have truly been in financial heaven.

The minimum salary in Major League Baseball (MLB) is now set at $700,000 per annum. That’s a 25% raise from the previous figure of $563,500 set in 2020. Obviously the average wage is far higher, and as of this year stands at $4.14 million. To give you some perspective on this figure that compares favourably even to the average wage of a Premier League footballer which is currently $3.9 million per annum. MLB also comes out on top when it comes to their highest paid stars. LA Angels superstar Mike Trout is MLB’s top earner on a whopping $37.1 million per annum as part of his $426.5 million 12 year contract. By comparison the top earner in the Premier League is Cristiano Ronaldo who banks a mere $32.08 million per year from his Manchester United Contract – which by the way is almost a third more than his nearest rival, Manchester City’s playmaker Kevin de Bruyne who earns $25.09 million per annum.

So at first glance it seems the financial realities of pursuing a career as a professional baseball player are pretty tasty. Yet scratch away beyond just those playing at the top level of the Major Leagues, and suddenly the story is not so rosy.

Minor League baseball has long been a story of attrition. In short the playing field is designed to be as tough as possible. Tough to survive, tough to compete and tough to progress. In response to an ever-growing call for MLB to address the problem, prior to the 2021 season, 43 minor-league affiliates were cut, and MLB promised that the additional funds raised from this cull would be used to better the conditions for Minor League players still playing. The league then raised the minimum weekly salary at rookie and short-season levels from $290 to $400; at Class A, from $290 to $500; at Double A, from $350 to $600; and at Triple A, from $502 to $700. $700 per week is therefore the average wage of a Triple AAA professional baseball player (the equivalent of a Championship footballer), whilst most Minor League Baseball players will earn less than $15,000 per year.

Now compare that to the “Minor Leagues” of professional footballers hoping to make it to the Premier League. In League 2 – the equivalent of Single A Ball – the average wage is $1200 per week ($62,400 per annum). The average wage in League 1 – the equivalent of Double AA Ball – is $2500 per week ($131,000 per annum). Whilst the average wage in the Championship – the equivalent of Triple AAA Ball – is $42,000 per week ($2.18 million per annum). In fact the highest paid player in the Championship is earning $90,000 per week ($4.68 million per annum). No wonder they call them the MINOR Leagues, and this is only half the story!

Minor League Baseball players only get paid their poverty line wages once the regular season has started. I kid you not. In 2018 Congress passed the Save America’s Pastime Act, which deemed Minor League players “Seasonal Workers”, and therefore exempt from minimum wage requirements. They are also not paid overtime – despite consistently working well in excess of 40 hours a week at their jobs – nor are they paid during Spring Training, attendance of which is a mandated work requirement if they are to be signed (and therefore earn) for the season. This all came about after a 2014 lawsuit brought about by 45 Minor Leaguers who alleged MLB and its team owners violated the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and other State laws. In response to this lawsuit MLB hired a lawyer for $775 per hour to argue that players in Spring Training should not be paid since they are getting experience! That’s right, MLB is doing their future stars a favour letting them ply their Trade during Spring Training.

This analysis prompted one of the best Tweets I’ve ever seen from a Minor Leaguer called Nick Kuzia who wrote: “I wish I could go to the grocery store and pay with “an opportunity”, but I think most places only accept US dollars. Will keep you posted!”

Inevitably the problem centres around money. The general consensus is that it takes college drafted players 4 to 5 years to reach the big leagues, and high school players 5 to 6 years. Add into this mix the reality that most Minor League players never even make it to the big leagues, and team owners are far from keen to invest heavily in the system. Yet that makes no sense. The Minor Leagues are where the stars of tomorrow polish their skills and learn their trade – and if MLB paid all 6500 MiLB players just $2000 to cover Spring Training, it would cost the League just $13 million which equates to $433,333 for each of the 30 MLB teams – which is significantly less than the cost of one major league player on minimum wage.

So why don’t the owners just do it you might ask? The simple truth is that whilst MLB is complicit in this abuse the owners will never be required to act. Compare that to the attitude of the other leading US Sport administrators. The American Hockey league pays a minimum round the year wage of $51,000 whilst the NBA’s G-League pays $37,000 per annum. Not exactly Get-Rich-Quick wages, but at least enough to survive on without having the need to sleep in your car or work three other job to make ends meet.

The situation is even worse for foreign-born players trying to make it to the Major Leagues. Their work visas only cover their baseball activities so come the off-season they are forced to seek work that they have no legal right to do. MLB and the team owners conveniently turn a blind eye to this reality – in essence encouraging the law to be broken.

Truth be told it would be such a simple fix to just pay all Minor League players a year-round living wage, and the cost to each team owner would be no more than they shell out a year on a bullpen Relief Pitcher. As a former player said recently: “If baseball wasn’t an old sport that puts “America’s game” next to their marketing, when in reality it’s the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my life when it comes to taking care of their own, people would lose their shit over this treatment.”

And so they should. It’s a national disgrace when a lowly UK TV Presenter can earn more working two evenings a week for 7 months, than a potential future superstar of America’s favourite pastime.

Until next time. – IRC.

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