Living the hard life has long been considered a rite of passage for playing minor league baseball, just one of the dues for the chance to someday make it to the major leagues.
Long bus rides to play in small-town ballparks before few fans is the stuff of legend, a tradition across generations that most players are aware of before their first Rookie-ball road trip. It's the other reality of being a ballplayer—the sleeping on air mattresses in cramped apartments or host-families' basements while earning barely enough to supplement meager meal money—that makes advancing to the big leagues a challenge not limited to the playing field.
This financial hardship has long been part of the journey. If a player is good enough, he'll be making millions in the majors after a few years. If he's not, he'll know it's time to get a real job. Either way, playing minor league baseball is not a career in and of itself, and that's why the pay is so meager.
It's a tradition that has gone on for decades. And it's one that could be coming to an end if a group of former players is successful in changing the minor league wage scale.
A federal lawsuit filed on behalf of 20 former minor league players against Major League Baseball, Commissioner Bud Selig and 17 major league teams (the organizations the 20 individuals played for) not only could change the current structure of minor league player salaries, but could ultimately alter the structure of minor league baseball as an industry.
“This is a big deal, potentially a big deal," one baseball insider said, “because it could change the economics (of professional baseball)."
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, claims that major league teams have suppressed minor league player salaries in violation of federal and state labor laws, and calls for minor leaguers to be paid a salary that meets minimum wage requirements. It does not seek to turn minor leaguers into millionaires, the plaintiffs contend in their complaint, but rather to make working in minor league baseball less of a financial burden for players. The Chicago-based law firm Korein Tillery filed the lawsuit and is in the process of trying to get it certified as a class action.
“The reality is when you get drafted out of college or high school, you feel lucky to have gotten drafted and you're excited about the opportunity and you don't look at it the same way as when you're done," said Tim Pahuta, a former Nationals farmhand and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “You're 21 and getting paid to play baseball and all you think is, 'That's great.' But when you turn 30 and you've been playing for 10 years and you've got $300, you look back on your 21-year-old self and think, 'You're an idiot . . . Why didn't you just go work at McDonald's?' "
Pahuta, a corner infielder who was an 18th-round draft pick out of Seton Hall in 2005, spent seven years in the Nationals system and topped out at Double-A in 2012 before the team let him go as a minor league free agent. He spent a season in the independent Frontier League before retiring this offseason.
Not Keeping Up With The Times
The problem, the lawsuit contends, is that minor leaguers like Pahuta “are powerless to combat the collusive power" of major league teams that are exempt from antitrust laws.
“This lawsuit is trying to better the lives of the average minor leaguer in some meaningful ways. It is not seeking to make the average minor leaguer rich by any means," said Garrett Broshuis, a former minor league pitcher turned lawyer. Broshuis has long raised issues about the plight of minor league players, and now is one of their attorneys. “We believe this lawsuit will give the needed push to owners to do something they should have done on their own several years ago . . .
“Major League Baseball and its teams are enjoying record revenue and profits, and taking just a slice of that revenue and devoting it to the developmental system should be an easy fix. It should be a solution to the problem."
Players drafted or signed by major league organizations are required to sign a uniform player contract that ties them to a team for seven years (unless the team decides to trade or release the player). That contract dictates that players are paid only during the minor league season, which generally runs from early April to the beginning of September. Players attend offseason activities like spring training and fall instructional league without additional compensation. “While major leaguers' salaries have increased by more than 2,000 percent since 1976," the lawsuit says, “minor leaguers' salaries have, on average, increased only 75 percent since that time."
That leaves minor league salaries typically ranging from $1,100 a month in short-season leagues to $2,150 a month for Triple-A, figues asserted in the lawsuit and confirmed by two major league front-office officials. One team official confirmed that first-year player salaries are set by the commissioner's office. After that, salaries vary by team, though not significantly. The same official also noted that the U.S. Department of Immigration tells clubs what the minimum salary has to be for players coming over on a visa, and that the current minor league wage scale meets that standard.
“Immigration has a formula for a living wage," he said.
A minor league player's salary can increase significantly when his initial contract expires after seven years, with Triple-A veterans potentially earning low six-figure salaries. That is not the norm, however, as a player must progress on the field while making do off it.
Apprenticeship Or Career?
Major League Baseball declined to comment on the lawsuit, both through its attorney of record in the case, Laura Reathaford, and Matt Bourne, MLB's vice president of business public relations. MLB had yet to file a response to the suit, which would provide insight to its defense strategy.
Bill Gould, an emeritus labor and sports law professor at Stanford, said he does not see an obvious defense for MLB. Gould, who served as an arbitrator and mediator between the MLB Players Association and MLB in 1992 and '93, said he does not believe that MLB would qualify for any exemptions in the Federal Labor Standards Act, like the one granted to seasonal amusement or recreational establishments.
“This is the sleeping giant in terms of employees in baseball," Gould said.
Interviews with both current and former front-office and league officials did not shed any light on a potential defense approach for MLB, but it did reveal how teams view minor league players' careers. Several officials said teams view minor leaguers as serving in an apprenticeship, learning on-the-job skills that could pay off with a significant salary if they reach the major leagues or could lead to a non-playing career in the sport when their playing days are over.
“Everybody sees this role as a kind of apprenticeship," one team official said. “It's a great opportunity to become a major league player. The only way you're going to do it is getting the (experience) . . . I think baseball gives them a lot. Baseball gives them the ability to do something in the offseason based on what they learned during the season. It's opportunity. That's what they get."
Defining that opportunity as a replacement for compensation could be difficult in court, Gould said. The Department of Labor has specific guidelines and registered fields of occupation for apprentices—and baseball is not one of them. And, as Gould pointed out, “You still have to pay them. You can't violate the wage and hours for an apprentice. An apprentice is going to get lower rates of pay and they work below-market, that's true, but I never heard anybody say that because you are an apprentice you don't have to adhere to wage and hour laws. Goodness no."
Major league teams obviously invest in their farm systems, with one team official estimating that a typical annual budget is in the “tens of millions" of dollars. So the relationship between major and minor league teams could be affected if big league clubs have to spend significantly more on their farm systems.
Minor League Baseball is not a party to the lawsuit, but that doesn't mean officials aren't watching closely. MLB and MiLB will have enjoyed three decades of harmony when the current Professional Baseball Agreement, which guides their relationship, expires after the 2020 season. But it's reasonable to expect that major league teams would want their minor league partners to share any additional costs that could result from this lawsuit.
“The model that we work under is time tested, but it's fragile from a standpoint that anything that could change that model would concern us," Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner said. “Beyond that, it's too early and too much supposition. We're constantly aware of the economics that challenge us on our side."
But while major and minor league officials are loathe to mess with a system that has worked well for them, change is exactly what the players are looking for.
“My main motivation is just to change the system," Pahuta said. “If you are a professional athlete, minor or major league, you should be earning a decent living. I understand that minor leaguers are going to earn less than major leaguers . . . but should you really be scraping by to the point where you can't pay rent on an apartment?
“I just want things to be better for players. I don't want these guys to leave the game broke like I did."