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Basic truth behind low salaries of minor leaguers

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In the wake of Congress moving to exempt minor leaguers from the protection of labor laws, a lot of people have commented or messaged me with observations and suggestions about how easy it would be for baseball teams to raise minor league salaries to a the level of a living wage. About how, for the price of a middle reliever per team, all minor leaguers could get something like a $10,000 a year raise. I’ve done the math on this and, yes, that’s basically correct.

I nod and agree with these observations and suggestions, but they miss the point entirely. Major League owners have zero desire to raise salaries of minor leaguers. They have no interest at all. It’s not a matter of ability to do so, it’s a matter of will. They have no will to do this and thus your appeal to how easy it would be for them to do so is meaningless.

In this they are no different than any other business owner, all of whom would love to pay as little as possible for labor. Every single one of them. In a capitalist system, labor is a commodity like anything else, and all business owners will do whatever they can reasonably do to reduce commodity prices. Your employer too. Maybe not your boss — a lot of us have nice bosses who would go to bat for us — but the people who make the ultimate decisions about labor costs and budgets and headcount do. They pay you what they pay you either because they are forced to by the law, like minimum wage and overtime rules, or they are forced to by the market. This is not a philosophical point. It’s a factual one. It’s literally how the labor market works in a capitalist system.

The problem is that those factors don’t apply in the case of baseball. The market argument is moot because major league teams quite literally control minor leaguers. While a worker at Acme, Incorporated could theoretically leave and go work for Consolidated Amalgamated, Incorporated if he or she does not like their salary, minor leaguers cannot do the same. At least not within their industry. To get a higher wage they have to cease being baseball players and do something completely different with their lives. As for baseball employers being compelled to pay more by virtue of the law, all of that will be over with tomorrow when the budget bill passes.

So, are there any other options for minor leaguers looking for a better break? Not that I can see.

Many of you have asked why the Major League Baseball Players’ Association doesn’t get involved here and stand up for minor leaguers. I can’t see that happening. The MLBPA is having a bad enough time representing who it’s representing. Calls for it to use its bargaining power to help minor leaguers are pretty unrealistic. And that’s before you acknowledge that it probably doesn’t even want to. Sure, we all can construct a logical or philosophical argument about why it should do so — the children are our future and all of that — but the MLBPA and most of its rank and file sees minor leaguers as the guys taking their jobs, not their brothers-in-arms. Heck, the MLBPA has, in recent years, not seemed to care all that much about what happens to its own members who aren’t yet arbitration-eligible.

Can the minor leaguers unionize independently? Theoretically, sure, but practically speaking it’d be insanely difficult for them to do so. Minor league careers are short. A players’ future is 100% in the hands of management, making retaliation a serious danger. While it’s hard to replace a big league talent who goes on strike, there are far more potential replacements at the single-A and Double-A skill level and competition is tremendous. Solidarity in the face of those pressures is possible, but it would require an unprecedented effort. And that’s before you figure that the sure-thing major leaguers — top prospects who got big bonuses and can assume they will be in the big leagues soon — are unlikely to join in lest they hurt their chances at being called up in a timely manner.

“Wait!” some have responded, “what’s to stop an owner from breaking from the herd and paying its minor leaguers more than another team’s as a means of achieving a competitive advantage?” I like the impulse — it’s very “Moneyball” to look for such inefficiencies, don’t you know — but it’s just as unrealistic as any of the other scenarios. Why would they? Sure, if minor leaguers are paid more they could live in better apartments, afford better food, have more time to dedicate to training and thus become better ballplayers, but that presupposes that baseball owners care about all of their minor leaguers and see them all as potential major leaguers. That simply is not the case.

Anyone who has spent time in the minors will tell you, it’s not a strict meritocracy. Roughly speaking, there are prospects and there is cannon fodder. Stars and jobbers. The prospects and stars are already doing OK. They got bonuses that will take them through their make-or-break years. They can afford healthy meals, a Tempurpedic mattress and can train all offseason rather than work at Safeway. Owners aren’t worried about them. The cannon fodder and jobbers can, and often do, through determination and sacrifice, make the bigs. But they’re doing it on their own dime. To an owner, it’s like having an employee who pays for his own work computer and chips in for office rent. Your company would love to have employees like this but can’t because of labor laws. Baseball does not have this problem. There is a seemingly never-ending supply of guys willing to, as it were, buy their own work computers.

At this point, I get responses like this one:

No, I didn’t make that case. I made the case as to why the current situation for minor leaguer persists and why, for the foreseeable future, it will continue to persist. I am not making the case that it is “fair” in any objective way. As I argued with respect to the Ronald Acuna case the other day, just because something happens through logical operation does not make that result morally or ethically justifiable. It makes total sense that minor leaguers get boned and there is nothing I can see that will change the system any time soon, but it’s still an unjust system that forces young men to endure a lot of crap in order to ply their trade. A system that persists not because of economic imperatives, but because the very, very rich men who run it can get away with it.

Any of you who have read my work for any length of time know that I don’t tend to strike a defeatist tone about many things. I’m normally not accepting of injustices and sharp practices. In this case of minor league salaries, however, those are the facts. The owners had always won this fight in the past. The moment they got pushback in the form of a lawsuit, they doubled down and made sure they’d win by lobbying Congress to change the laws. There is no workaround here. There is no incentive for those with the power to change the system to actually change they system. Indeed, they just moved heaven and earth to stop it from changing. There is likewise no reasonable means to force change.

It’s a bad state of affairs imposed by men who don’t give a crap about the people who work for them, aided by a government which chooses to side with the rich and the powerful over those who are exploited. That’s not an uncommon dynamic in human history. In this instance, we all get to see how that dynamic plays out in the pastime we love.

Derek Jeter calls Bryant Gumbel “mentally weak”

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Derek Jeter has not covered himself in glory since taking over the Miami Marlins. His reign atop the team’s baseball operations department has been characterized by the slashing of payroll in order to help his new ownership group make more money amid some pretty crushing debt service by virtue of what was, in effect, the leveraged buyout of the club. A club which is now 5-16 and seems destined for five months more and change of some pretty miserable baseball.

Jeter has nonetheless cast the moves the Marlins have made as good for fans in the long run. And, yes, I suppose it’s likely that things will be better in the long run, if for no other reason than they cannot be much worse. Still, such reasoning, while often accepted when a lesser light like, say, White Sox GM Rick Hahn employs it, isn’t accepted as easily when a guy who has been defined by his hand full of championship rings offers it. How can Derek Jeter, of all people, accept losing?

That’s the question HBO’s Bryant Gumbel asked of Jeter in an interview that aired over the weekend (see the video at the end of the post). How can he accept — and why should fans accept — a subpar baseball product which is not intended to win? Jeter’s response? To claim that the 2018 Marlins are totally expected to win and that Gumbel himself is “mentally weak” for not understanding it:

JETER: “We’re trying to win ball games every day.”

GUMBEL: “If you trade your best players in exchange for prospects it’s unlikely you’re going to win more games in the immediate future–”

JETER: “When you take the field, you have an opportunity to win each and every day. Each and every day. You never tell your team that they’re expected to lose. Never.”

GUMBEL: “Not in so–”

JETER: “Now, you can think — now– now, I can’t tell you how you think. Like, I see your mind. I see that’s how you think. I don’t think like that. That’s your mind working like that.”

. . .

DEREK JETER: “You don’t. We have two different mi– I can’t wait to get you on the golf course, man. We got– I mean, I can’t wait for this one.”

BRYANT GUMBEL: “No, I mean–”

DEREK JETER: “You’re mentally weak.”

I sort of get what Jeter was trying to do here. He was trying to take this out the realm of second guessing among people who know some stuff about sports and subtly make it an appeal to authority, implying that he was an athlete and that only he, unlike Gumbel, can understand that mindset and competitiveness of the athlete. That’s what the “get you on the golf course” jazz was about. Probably worth noting at this point that that tack has never worked for Michael Jordan as a basketball executive, even if his singular competitiveness made him the legend he was on the court. An executive makes decisions which can and should be second-guessed, and it seems Jeter cannot handle that.

That being said, Gumbel did sort of open the door for Jeter to do that. Suggesting that baseball players on the 2018 Marlins don’t expect to win is not the best angle for him here because, I am certain, if you ask those players, they would say much the same thing Jeter said. That’s what makes them athletes.

No, what Gumbel should have asked Jeter was “of COURSE you tell your players to win and of COURSE they try their hardest and think they can win every night. My question to you is this: did YOU try YOUR hardest to get the BEST players? And if not, why not?”

Question him like you’d question Rick Hahn. Not like you’d question Future Hall of Fame Shortstop, Derek Jeter.