Cooper: It’s Time For MLB To Handle Minor League Player Housing

Imagine you’re hired for a job with a company with multiple branches around the country.

Right after you accept the job, you get an email telling you to hop on a plane and get to Bowling Green, Ky., for an urgent work assignment. The job is probably going to take five months.

You’re a diligent, focused employee. So you drop everything and head to Bowling Green. You do the work. The job involves a lot of nights and weekends and a lot of travel, but you enjoy your vocation. You’ve long dreamed of doing this. So you do it.

And just two months into your five-month stint in Bowling Green, your company tells you that you’ve done a great job. In fact, you’ve done such a good job that they are now promoting you. But that promotion means you need to move to Midland, Texas. That job should take another three months of work. And they need you there three days from now.

A promotion is a promotion, even if it does mean picking up and moving, so off you go to Midland.

Things do not go nearly as well in Midland. Maybe the job is just beyond your abilities or maybe it’s just bad luck. But after a month in Midland, you’re not performing as expected.

You hear from your boss again. He tells you that your time in Midland is over. The bad news is they are now sending you to a smaller work assignment in Lakeland, Fla. Also, the bad news is this demotion comes with a pay cut. That job will probably take two months. And yes, they will once again need you there in three days.

So you pack again. You do a good job in Lakeland. But you can tell that in reality, the fact that you are in Lakeland is a pretty strong sign that the company doesn’t have the same faith in you that it used to have. Something has changed. It seems like you are there to mentor younger employees and help them get settled in their new assignments in Lakeland. They also hope to get to Bowling Green or Midland one day.

And at the end of the assignment in September, you are told that the company hopes to see you again next March. You are unemployed and unpaid until then and probably need to find some other kind of work to tide you over.

But come late February, you should be fit and ready to hit the road again. There are no guarantees that you’ll actually get a similar work assignment next April to September—the company can drop you at any point during the fall or winter—but if you do, they’ll invite you to unpaid training come March. And then your next work assignment will arrive in April. There’s no way to know yet where it will be, and how long you’ll be there.

Did I mention that the pay for this job begins at $500 a week? You can think of it as $12.50 an hour, if scaled to 40 hours per week, but in reality it will be more like 60 hours a week, and there is no overtime pay.

One thing I forgot to mention is that when the company sends you to Bowling Green, you’re responsible for finding your own housing. And even though it was the company that told you to pick up and move to Midland, you’re responsible for the remainder of your six-month lease in Bowling Green. The same is true about your apartment in Midland, the one they told you to leave just a month later. In that case, you got lucky and the person replacing you took your spot, even though if he fails to pay the rent, it’s your credit score that will be damaged.

You never found an apartment in Lakeland. With such a small income, and a lease for Bowling Green already hanging over your head, you just crashed on colleagues’ couches or in the office to avoid adding another expense.

I’m guessing some of you may be wondering why anyone would agree to a job with such low pay and high expectations. But if you’re a minor league baseball player, the allure of the dream and the potential payoff that comes with an eventual major league job ensures that a steady stream of teenagers and 20-somethings will put up with a lot to try to fulfill a lifelong desire.

But that doesn’t make any of what I just laid out logical. There are many aspects of the minor league system that can best be described as archaic, if for no other reason than that’s the way it has always been. In 2021, that doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The idea of not paying minor league players for spring training or extended spring training? It’s a pretty illogical idea.

MLB team officials described spring training and extended spring training as “non-mandatory practice sessions” in a class action lawsuit. It’s pretty easy to imagine what the response would be if a player who found out he was being sent to extended spring told the team he was headed home instead, but that he would be ready to go as soon as a spot in full-season ball opened up.

But it was a common practice for so many years that MLB teams were able to save a few bucks. No one seemed to know any better.

The same can be said for in-season housing. It’s illogical that minor league players are responsible for their housing when they have no control over where they will be sent to play, and that assignment can change from week to week. In the real world, most employers understand that if an employee has to travel from state to state without notice on your orders, then housing will be provided.

Things could get easier now that MLB controls the minor leagues. Among MLB’s provisions with minor league teams is a requirement that those teams to “make available reasonably priced apartments or hotel rooms.” But “reasonably priced” has a broad definition. And six-month apartment leases don’t mesh with a job that has a five-month time frame and may require moving on a moment’s notice.

MLB raised minor league players’ pay in 2021. But for many players, the hurdle of affordable in-season housing remains an even bigger issue than compensation. The Astros began providing housing for its minor league players for the 2021 season. Some other teams have followed up by providing housing stipends.

But the logical answer is for MLB teams across the board to contract for housing and provide it for the players. While individual players come and go, with their new 10-year Professional Development Licenses, MLB teams know where they will need housing every April to September for years to come. And an MLB team valued at $1 billion or more looking for housing for 30 players, plus another five or more coaches has negotiating leverage that far exceeds that of any individual player making $500 a week.

MLB has made strides in improving minor league player pay, and in some cases teams have improved player nutrition. But now that MLB has taken over the minors, it makes sense for MLB teams to  take on the responsibility of handling housing as well.

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