Minor League Baseball

In an interview, Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner diminishes the work of his players

25 Comments

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.

How long do you stay a fan of a team that left town?

Getty Images
5 Comments

File this under “not a really deep thought, but there isn’t much going on this morning, so why not?”

I was catching up with the latest, and final, season of “The Americans” over the weekend. I will give no spoilers and ask that you do the same, but I want to talk about something that came up in the second episode.

The episode takes place in October 1987 and a character is listening to a Twins playoff game on the radio. He later talks about baseball and the Twins with some other characters. The context is not important, but the guy — probably in his mid-late 40s, living in the Washington D.C. area — makes a point to say that he has been a Twins fan since the beginning, and then says he was, in fact, a fan of the franchise back when they were still the Washington Senators.

In case you are unaware, the original Washington Senators moved to Minnesota following the 1960 season and became the Twins. At the same time an expansion team, also called the Senators, was placed in D.C. to replace them. That franchise would stay in D.C. for 11 seasons before moving to Texas in 1972 to become the Rangers.

In light if that, am I the only one who has a hard time buying that such a man actually existed? How would the character, who was a kid when the original Senators moved, be a Twins fan some 26 years later?

There were relatively few televised baseball games back then. Just a game of the week and some out of town coverage of local teams. There was obviously no internet. Outside of the 1965 World Series, it’d be a shock if more than a couple of Twins games were broadcast to the D.C. area during the rest of the guy’s childhood. Maybe he kept up with the Senators players like Harmon Killebrew and Bob Allison via box scores, baseball cards and The Sporting News, but I couldn’t imagine a D.C. guy raised on the Senators keeping up with the Twins through the 1970s and 1980s. Would he not become a new Senators fan or, eventually, a Rangers fan? Maybe, like so many people on the D.C. area, he picked up the Orioles as his team due to their 1960s-70s dominance? Any number of things could happen, but I’m struggling to imagine the existence of a Senators guy who becomes a hardcore Twins fans up to and including 1987.

All of that got me thinking about other relocated teams.

The Dodgers are the most famous example, of course, with the narrative being that Dodgers fans in Brooklyn felt betrayed by Walter O’Malley and thus turned their back on the club, later adopting the Mets as their rooting interest. The betrayal narrative is less pronounced with the Giants, but that’s the same general story with them too. I mean, there’s a reason the Mets picked orange and blue as their colors. They wanted to, and largely did, co-opt the old NL New York fans.

I’m sure a lot more Dodgers and Giants fans continued to follow their teams in California than would let on, given that many of the same players starred out there in the ensuing years, but that likely died out as those players retired. Bob Aspromonte was the last Brooklyn Dodger to play in the bigs, retiring after the 1971 season. Willie Mays played through 1973. I assume NL fans in New York kept some nice thoughts for them — particularly because the Mets picked both of them up for the tail end of their careers — but I can’t see those guys rooting for, say, Steve Garvey and John Montefusco in 1979.

Others:

  • There likely aren’t many St. Louis Browns fans left — they last played in Missouri 65 years ago — but even if the ones they had in 1953 felt like rooting for the Cardinals was impossible, I bet most of their kids and grandkids became Cards fans;
  • The A’s fans in Philly — and later Kansas City — probably have a similar story. I mean, there’s a reason that franchise skipped town twice, so to expect undying love over the decades, with the Phillies and Royals around, is a bit much. The Philadelphia A’s glory years were like 90s years ago now anyway, and all of those fans are dead. The A’s modern glory years have all come in Oakland. No one in Philadelphia or Kansas City is looking to the California with an aching in their heart;
  • I could imagine someone’s grandfather in Milwaukee still thinking that the Braves are his team, but not many other people. The Braves won a World Series and two pennants in Milwaukee, but that was an awful long time ago and they moved to Atlanta before the A’s moved to Oakland. Don’t even get me started about Boston Braves fans. They all have to either be dead or have long since moved on. Following a team to a new city is a big ask, but following them to two new cities over 66 years seems pathological. UPDATE: OK, there are some pathological people out there.
  • I have some Nationals fan friends and they tell me that there is a small, weird contingent of Expos fans who root for Washington now. I get that since it wasn’t terribly long ago, but was Brad Wilkerson really a good enough reason to carry a torch? I’d like to talk to some of those people and ask them about their value system;
  • The only other team to move was the Seattle Pilots. They played one season in Seattle and no one would remember that if it wasn’t for Jim Bouton’s book, “Ball Four.” If you find someone claiming to be a Pilots fan in Seattle, you’ve found yourself a hipster peddling revisionist b.s.

Anyway, that’s a lot of words wasted on a couple of lines from a TV show, but as always, your thoughts are appreciated.