Today in Things That Ought to Get the Union’s Attention: Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton made a case for the continued exploitation of minor league ballplayers. We have written here at length about the issues. When you math it all out, minor leaguers often make less than the federal minimum wage, something that many MLB lobbyists and lawmakers fought to ensure with the Save America’s Pastime Act. That legislation exempted minor leaguers from the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, codifying that they were not entitled to a minimum wage and overtime pay. The conditions that minor league players exist in are incredibly substandard given what teams are asking of their bodies. Many of them stay with host families or group up with teammates in small tenements, sleeping on fold-out couches, air mattresses, and even floors. They also often subsist on ramen noodles, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and whatever fast food joints are nearby.
Kelyn Soong of The Washington City Paper spoke to some members of the Nationals, past and present, to get their thought on minor league conditions. Unsurprisingly, all of them thought that the conditions should be improved, though there was no consensus as to exactly how that should be done. Current Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton had the most shocking quotes in Soong’s article, essentially arguing for the status quo. The Lerners are very pleased to hear that.
Eaton said he wouldn’t be where he is right now if not for the “very dog-eat-dog world” that is the minor leagues. Eaton is against making minor league conditions better, saying, “If you do, complacency sets in. I think it’s difficult, yes, and it’s easy for me to say that because of where I am, but I wouldn’t be where I am without that … If I financially am supported down there and financially can make a living and not have to get to the big leagues, I think I’m a little more comfortable. I think that I might not work as hard because I know I’m getting a decent paycheck every two weeks, and may not push myself nearly as hard.”
Eaton added, “I don’t disagree with [the notion] that they’re being exploited, but I think it’s for the betterment of everybody,” he adds. “I know it sounds crazy … I think there’s a middle ground … There’s ground to be made up, but I think it still should be rough.”
This is, to put it bluntly, garbage thinking. Without acknowledging the moral aspect of this debate, it is objectively true that it is better business for teams to improve conditions throughout their minor league system. An athlete who eats healthier and more consistently will perform better than an athlete who does not. An athlete who sleeps consistently and more comfortably is much more likely to perform well than an athlete who does not. An athlete who doesn’t have to work a second job in between games and during the offseason to make ends meet will have more time to take reps, work on mechanics, and study video/stats. An athlete who doesn’t have the specter of debt looming over him constantly will be more present during games and thus more likely to eventually pan out as a prospect.
The owners have successfully convinced players through the decades that their exploitation is a feature, not a bug. A parallel example would be the fetishization of trauma in show business. Why are these the exceptions to the rule? Is a fry cook better at their trade for having to cram themselves into a three-bedroom apartment with six other people, sleeping on an air mattress? Is a grocery store cashier more likely to get Employee of the Month because they eat nothing but ramen noodles due to their low pay? Of course not. It’s silly, illogical garbage fed down to players from ownership decades ago and it has managed to persist.
That a player is publicly championing his own and his peers’ exploitation — though at the minor league level — for the financial benefit of ownership should worry the MLB Players Association. No, minor leaguers aren’t represented by the MLBPA, but if Eaton feels this way about this issue, how might he feel about labor issues that actually affect major leaguers? Players are still not all on the same page on baseball’s labor issues. The negotiations for the latest collective bargaining agreement and comments from some players in the time since have illustrated this. For example, the players gave up significant leverage to ownership in exchange for minor quality-of-life changes like scheduling. Not all players were happy about that at the time and more have become unsatisfied after seeing the effects of those negotiations.
Eaton’s comments are misguided, but I believe they are borne of ignorance, not malice. And I think it’s a great opportunity for the MLBPA to take initiative, educating major leaguers on the issue of minor league exploitation. That may even result in the union opening its arms to minor leaguers, or helping minor leaguers form their own union. It makes sense: one is more likely to build lasting union solidarity by starting earlier, showing how a unified labor effort can improve the lives of everyone across the board.