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“Save America’s Pastime” Sheds Light on Minor League Baseball’s Struggles

“Save America’s Pastime” Sheds Light on Minor League Baseball’s Struggles

In late June, legislation was introduced to the House of Representatives titled “Save America’s Pastime.” Read that title and the natural reaction for baseball fans is panic: “Baseball is in trouble? Like the whales? Oh my goodness! We’ve got to save it! Where do I sign up?” The title, however, was exactly as misleading as it was meant to be.

A more accurate name would have been “Screw Baseball’s Minor Leaguers,” as that’s exactly what its purpose was. The whole idea was to give Major League Baseball the right to subvert the Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires things like minimum pay and limited hours for workers. Major League Baseball backed the bill, stating that minor leaguers should not be subject to fair labor practices. This is not a typical job, the league argued, but more like a “short-term seasonal apprenticeship.”

That’s a pretty far cry from the story–the dream, rather–that they sell the athletes themselves, which is that if they bust their asses every summer for years, they might someday have a shot at slipping on some big league stirrups. Instead, the real message, at MLB’s own admission, is, “Please come enjoy a summer internship with us. Hopefully we’ll find someone better to take your spot next year. We hope you didn’t expect us to pay for your bus fare home.”

The good news is that the bill has gone nowhere, as the reaction to this piece of trashy, manipulative legislation was so universally loud and outraged that one of its authors, Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) quickly withdrew support from her own handiwork.

Cheri Bustos

The bad news is that this doesn’t do anything to help minor league baseball players, it just keeps things from potentially getting worse.

 

Each MLB franchise has 25 men on their big league roster and roughly another 200 or so in the minors. Most of those 200 will never have a chance to, as Crash Davis might say, hit “white balls for batting practice.”

They work long hours, suffer endless bus rides and fight injuries all summer long, and they make about $1,150 to $2,500 a month, depending on what level of the minors they play at, for their trouble. Mostly these guys try to live off their signing bonuses, but only the high draft picks receive significant bonuses.

Torii Hunter was one of those guys. He was a first-round pick of the Minnesota Twins in 1993 who received a nice $500,000 signing bonus. He would eventually become an All-Star and a millionaire many times over while playing for the Twins, Angels, and Tigers. But it took Hunter six full seasons in the minors before he got his break, and not a moment too soon. His father’s drug addiction put a strain on the family, and that bonus was used up quickly to help his family.

Torii Hunter

A few years ago, Hunter told me about using his $11 in daily meal money to buy bologna and bread and put it on ice in his motel sink, just so that he could have something vaguely nutritious to eat.

“My dad was on drugs, the financial situation wasn’t right,” Hunter said. “I would have $30 in my pocket. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t eat … That’s how hard it was being in the minor leagues. I didn’t have that dad I could call and say, ‘I need some help with rent this month.’ I didn’t have that because they were struggling, too.”

Corky Miller had a far different story from Hunter, but perhaps a more common one. He signed as an undrafted free agent in 1998 for $1,000, most of which was gone after taxes and a big celebratory dinner with family. So much for living off the signing bonus.

Miller was a light-hitting catcher who fought his way to the big leagues, though he never quite grabbed a foothold the way he wanted to. For 10 straight seasons (2001-10) Miller played in the majors, but not once did he get a full season in, playing a career high 35 major-league games in 2009.

Every year for a decade he was on the AAA shuttle, splitting time between Cincinnati and Louisville, or Boston and Pawtucket, or Atlanta and Richmond. A native of Southern California, Miller faced the annual problem of where to put his family and how to pay for housing himself and them across multiple cities.

As sparse as those days in the majors were, they were huge for Miller. Every day in the bigs nets a player like Miller a pro-rated piece of the Major League minimum salary, which at the time was $414,000 for a full season (it’s now $500,000). Compare that to a minor league salary, and every single day in the Majors is precious.

“That’s why I’m pouring concrete or doing jobs here and there for extra money,” Miller shared with me. “If I spend a whole year in the big leagues then no problem, I’d be good. But I haven’t done that my whole career.”

These stories, or ones similar to them, are common in baseball. That’s what made the “Save America’s Pastime” legislation so galling. It was an example of a huge industry trying to protect its riches and avoid paying fair wages to its least powerful employees.

It would not be a burden to make things right. If each team paid its minor leaguers a $50,000 salary for the season, it would cost all of MLB about $300 million. That’s about three percent of the league’s $9 billion in annual revenue.

Save America’s Pastime? How about saving the minor leaguers? They’re the ones in danger.

Want to talk baseball in general or just share Bull Durham quotes with the author? Leave a comment or hit Bob Harkins up on Twitter at @bharks.

Featured Image: Tom.

Images: Carl Sandburg College, Keith Allison.

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