Over the last couple of years, the status of Minor League Baseball players has come under scrutiny. People in power, like commissioner Rob Manfred, want them to be classified as “seasonal” employees so they don’t have to pay them minimum wage and various benefits. H.R. 5580, introduced in 2016 by Congresswoman Cheri Bustos (D-IL) and Congressman Brett Guthrie (R-KY), aimed to amend language in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to allow minor leaguers to continue being vastly underpaid. That was in response to a lawsuit filed by some minor leaguers a couple years prior. That was recently recertified as a class action lawsuit.
Manfred and others have come out every now and then with some spin on the issue. In October 2016, Manfred disingenuously claimed that the whole mission behind classifying minor leaguers as seasonal workers is an administrative issue because it’s too hard to keep track of their work hours. Manfred said, “A young man decides that he wants to take extra batting practice. Is that overtime or is that his voluntary undertaking? Another young player decides he wants to go to the gym. Are those working hours or are they not?”
Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner did much of the same in an interview with Baseball America’s Josh Norris, published today.
JN: I’ve seen Stan Brand and other people characterize minor league players as apprentices or interns. Do you agree with that characterization?
POC: Well, yeah. In a technical, legal sense we can debate what that title is. I don’t think that minor league baseball is a career choice for a player. Anecdotally, I tell people all the time, if I’m a scouting director and I sign a player and ask him, ‘Son, OK, what’s your career goal?’ (and he says) ‘I want to be a career minor leaguer.’ We’re tearing the contract up. You’re not here to stay long. When I ran ball clubs, my opening comment to my clubs, my opening comments to my clubs is ‘I’m glad each and every one of you are here and I hope I don’t see any of you next year because you’ve gone to play in Double-A.’ So, look, the average life or the average career of a minor leaguer is less than three years. I do think that it’s time for an adjustment in salary, but the issue of putting them into an FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act)-protected position where they’re entitled to minimum wage and overtime is complicated.
O’Conner stunningly insults a rather large portion of his employees here. Most minor leaguers will never reach the major leagues. Many of them will spend years in the minors chasing that dream. And with one comment, O’Conner delegitimizes them entirely.
The “average career” of a minor leaguer is relatively short because many can’t afford to chase their dreams any more. Especially in the lower levels, playing in the minors means earning less than $10,000 per year, eating food of poor quality, and cramming in tiny apartments with a bunch of other people. (Or relying on the kindness of strangers to subsidize your expenses.) Much in the same way unpaid internships push minorities out because they can’t afford the sacrifice, playing in the minor leagues pushes many people out who aren’t privileged to begin with. Some of them have sacrificed furthering their education to play baseball and when the chase is over, they have to enter the real world without the requisite skills to reenter the workforce. Minor leaguers aren’t represented by a union, so they don’t have safety nets like health insurance and a retirement fund.
O’Conner wants to paint minor leaguers’ short stints as their own fault, but it’s the fault of the economy at large and decisions made by people in power not to pay them enough to help them overcome obstacles like electricity bills and car repairs.
POC: What’s a (minor leaguer’s) workday look like, Josh?
JN: It’s long. It’s very long.
POC: But is it? OK, you come in at 2:00. You don’t have to be there till 3:00, but you come in at 2:00. From 2:00-3:00, you play cards. And at 3:00 you go out for infield or extra hitting or whatever, and then you come back and you take an hour. While the other team’s hitting, you take an hour and you get a sandwich that I (the club) pay for and you eat it. Are you working?
JN: Perhaps not, but at a lot of places where workers are paid an hourly wage, lunch breaks are paid.
POC: But not in all cases. There are people who clock in and clock out for lunch. My point is: We know what minimum wage is, that’s easy.
O’Conner again diminishes the hard work his employees put in on a daily basis. He disingenuously characterizes their work days as mostly leisure time. “From 2:00-3:00, you play cards … then you come back and take an hour … you take an hour and you get a sandwich.” As if it’s reasonable that his players should be doing something productive nonstop. Even if they did, he would find some reason to delegitimize their stature anyway.
Then, O’Conner acts like paying for his employees’ lunches makes him the patron saint of generosity. In reality, it’s the least he could do. Imagine rounding up some of the world’s best athletes and then only perform the bare minimum to ensure they’re eating well. The Phillies were such a departure from this modus operandi in 2016 when the organization invested approximately $1 million to make sure minor leaguers ate healthy food, as Matt Gelb reported for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Catcher J.P. Arencibia said at the time, “They’re going to pay millions of dollars for players and then have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?” Gelb himself wrote, “Poor nutrition can beget weight gain or inadequate physical conditioning. It can lead to more injuries.” Even if the cause doesn’t strike one from a humanity standpoint, it still makes perfect sense from a business standpoint. O’Conner, though, thinks his employees should take their substandard sandwich and be happy with it.
JN: It varies from state to state.
POC: Yeah, but you can go to the national level and keep everybody happy. How do you figure out overtime?
JN: Is there not a medium somewhere between making them full-time hourly workers and raising the pay.
POC: That’s it. Like I said, I think it’s time for an adjustment, and that’s it. This is not a career choice, and people want to debate about the fact that McDonald’s worker make more than minor league baseball players, and that’s a fact. But I don’t think that somewhere there’s a major league in French fry prep that makes $550,000 (as its) minimum wage or starting wage.
This is also disingenuous. O’Conner is the president of Minor League Baseball, not Major League Baseball. To infuse MLB’s minimum salary is to obfuscate the issue. MLB players have union representation, and good union representation at that. It’s good enough that it has collectively bargained for them a decent minimum salary along with a host of benefits and labor protections. Minor leaguers have historically not had that privilege, so they have nothing to show for it. Only a small percentage — about 10 percent, according to Mother Jones — of players who play in the minors will ever reach the majors. O’Conner wants us to focus on that 10 percent as if it applies to everyone and ignore the plight of the other 90 percent.
JN: If that’s the analogy, then the top is the manager of the McDonald’s?
POC: How about the analogy that you’re chasing the brass ring and this is not a profession. I think an adjustment’s due, no question about it. And I wouldn’t be surprised if in this process you didn’t see one.
I’ll believe it when I see it. If minor leaguers are finally compensated fairly, it won’t be because people like O’Conner have seen the error of their ways. It will have been because of the mounting pressure put upon them. If O’Conner intended to pay his employees what they deserved to be paid, he wouldn’t have used this interview with Norris as a smear campaign against them.