Indy Ball Play For Love
After allowing too many runs in a demoralizing loss, a North American League pitcher sullenly walked to the clubhouse. Famished and exhausted from the oppressive Texas heat, he was ready to eat heartily. But the cold hot dogs from the team's concessions that closed an hour earlier were all the team would offer.
His unrelenting appetite overcame his tastebuds' objections as he devoured all the food provided. It wasn't enough, but his emaciated bank account dictated it would have to do. Physically exhausted and feeling his eyelids heavy, he needed rest. Instead of retiring to a comfortable bed, he laid down to sleep on the concrete floor of the small, cramped clubhouse. It was home.
He was thankful he wasn't alone. He was joined by five other teammates who also live in the clubhouse.
"We asked if they offered housing or host families but management said 'We don't offer that here,' " said the player, who requested anonymity.
The players enviously knew many teams in their league offered host families, as did other leagues, but took solace knowing another North American League clubhouse housed three players. These conditions are atypical for the majority of independent league players, but many believe these hardships are the price they have to pay to play the game they love.
They make $600 a month. Teams mandate players arrive two hours prior to the game, which typically lasts three hours. Coupled with required early day workouts, players often spend up to nine hours at the ballpark. Solely using the five hours required for their 28 games this month, they make $4.29 an hour. The United States federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.
How is this possible? Section 13(a) (3) of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 provides an exemption to federal minimum wage and overtime laws for "any employee employed by an establishment which is an amusement or recreational establishments." Such establishments must operate for less than seven months a year and generate less than one-third of their receipts in their six lower-earning months.
The independent league teams qualify on all accounts, as the teams play for less than five months, and almost all of the teams' revenues come during the season.
Most independent leagues don't have league-mandated minimum salaries, but operate under an annual salary cap.
Could a player be paid only $1 a month?
"Yes, absolutely," a North American League executive said.
In practice, most leagues operate with a monthly salary minimum, ranging from $300 (Pecos) to $850 (Atlantic). But all of these rates annualized (seasons are five months) fall below the $11,170 federal poverty line. Admittedly, the average Atlantic Leaguer is making well above the $850 minimum (one executive said his team's average salary is $2,100), but in many leagues an offseason job pays to allow a player to pursue his dream during the baseball season.
Since the Northern League became the first viable independent league in 1993, many leagues' minimum player wages have only changed "slightly, by maybe a hundred dollars" according to one longtime executive, although some leagues have increased their maximum salary.
One league that started in the mid-1990s has never changed its salaries. Since its inception, inflation has increased 45 percent and the average major league salary has increased by 321 percent.
With this sluggish wage growth, the total salary expenses from all six leagues and 57 teams in 2012 will be just over $6 million, less than Casey Blake's 2010 salary. In 2010 (the most recent year with available data), 146 major leaguers made more than the combined 1,366 jobs in independent baseball.
Despite these meager salaries, money is an afterthought to many young men playing the game they love and pursuing their dreams.
"There are a ton of guys that would play for free," a player said. "Many guys tell me to talk to my manager because they would play for free, so many guys would love to be where we are."
With an overabundance of available players willing to play for scraps, teams have no incentive to pay higher wages.
"Businesses pay somebody as little as they can get away with and that holds true in virtually every business, not just independent baseball," sports economist Andrew Zimbalist said. "Given the supply and demand conditions, teams can pay guys peanuts."
Although initially eager to pursue their passion, some players are overcome by the harsh quality of life and everyday realities.
"Many guys get so worried about everything on the side, kids living in the clubhouse and when that late paycheck will arrive, that it messes with their game and the game is actually forgotten about," former player Chris Thompson said.
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The Atlantic League is moving back the mounds at the request of MLB halfway through the season, and this time it really means it.
Cash-strapped players are required to pay clubhouse dues. Atlantic League clubhouse dues are nearly 10 percent of a rookie's pre-tax wages. A North American League team volunteered to maintain the clubhouse and handle laundry to avoid dues. Management rejected their offer.
"Simply put, we don't make enough money to maintain a healthy lifestyle," a player said. "Road games get done at 11. What is open that is healthy to eat? Domino's doesn't make a healthy pizza."
To supplement their unpaid spring trainings and measly season wages, players take offseason jobs, often providing pitching or hitting lessons. Over time, some players go into debt when these financial reserves run dry. Although clubs may look like villains for paying low wages, oftentimes clubs operate on razor-thin margins.
The graveyard of deceased independent league teams is expansive, as over 20 leagues have opened and folded since 1993.
Another harsh reality is that very few players reach affiliated ball, let alone their dream of the major leagues. In 2011, less than 4 percent of independent players reached affiliated ball.
Despite the long odds, players are not dissuaded from trying to fulfill their dreams.
"I pretty much played for free off the bat and I would do it again to achieve my goals," former player Steve Palazzolo said.
As the clubhouse-dwelling pitcher slept, he dreamt of being the next Raul Valdes, Dylan Axelrod, or Steve Delebar—former independent pitchers in the majors. It was hard to sleep on a hard floor, but but he doesn't mind.
"If I could get picked up by an affiliated club, all the tough circumstances would be worth it because I'll be taken care of," the player said. "I am chasing my dream."