Playing For Peanuts

Somehow six players had crammed into the small two-bedroom apartment. Two slept in each bedroom, one slept in the living room, and another slept in a tiny den. All slept on air mattresses.

The apartment was in Norwich, Conn., then the home of the Giants’ Double-A affiliate. An X-box noisily projected itself on a TV still displaying Walmart stickers; it would go back to the store just before the 90-day return policy expired. Empty McDonald’s bags littered the floor, while an old Kara Monaco poster provided the only relief from the sterile whiteness of vacant walls.

To an outsider the setting might seem peculiar, but many minor leaguers live in such circumstances due to the strain of low salaries. If players choose not to cram together in an apartment, they often bunk with host families, as Barbara Rothstein can attest.

Rothstein, whose family served as a host for the Norwich club when it was a Yankees affiliate, lives with her husband in a ranch home on the outskirts of town. Their basement is littered with futons in various positions, monuments from their hosting days.

“We had 12 players, two wives and a baby staying with us all at once,” Rothstein says. “We didn’t charge them a dime. One month we had a $5,800 food bill and we tried collecting $20 from each, but some of them couldn’t even afford that.”

Rothstein is shocked there is less discussion about minor league salaries. Media attention focuses on major league salaries, which have risen exponentially in the last 35 years, but minor league salaries have barely budged.

“My first year in pro ball was 1974. I made $500 a month,” said former Red Sox pitcher Bob Stanley, who now works as a private pitching coach. “When I got to Double-A, I made $1,000.”

Today, many players receive only slightly more. In 2004, I made $850 a month. Fresh out of college, I thought I was rich. Then I realized that I had bills to pay. Luckily I had received a modest signing bonus that helped at first, but most players receive no such bonuses. Many are forced to ask their parents for help.

“My parents pay my phone bill, my car payment, and help us out with rent in the offseason,” one Giants farmhand said recently. “I’m 25, married and living off of them. I wouldn’t be able to play if they didn’t help me.”

With his wife on the team’s insurance plan, premiums are deducted from his check in addition to taxes and clubhouse dues, resulting in a bimonthly check of around $308. And he is paid only during the five-month season, netting approximately $3,000 for the entire year. After receiving only a $2,500 bonus three years ago, he now has little choice but to ask his parents for help.

Skyrocketing Major League Salaries

When free agency came to baseball in 1975, it changed the face of the game, and it made the Major League Baseball Players Association into one of the most powerful labor unions in the world.

Major league salaries have since skyrocketed, from an average of $44,676 in 1975 to more than $3.2 million today. The minimum salary has also increased, from $16,000 to $400,000. While the rich are clearly getting much richer, the minor league player has been left behind, forcing many players to live on the verge of poverty.

A multitude of reasons exist for this situation. Chief among them is the large pool of players willing to do anything just for the opportunity. “I’d play for free,” Giants minor leaguer Steve Palazzolo said. “It’s harder to have that opinion the older you get, but yeah, I’d play for free. But I don’t have a family to worry about.”

Before signing with the Giants, Palazzolo played briefly in the Brewers organization and for three independent league teams. In 2004, he earned $600 a month playing in the independent Frontier League. Other independent leagues pay even less, with salaries averaging as low as $300 a month in the Continental League. This league even uses development players—players who actually pay for the opportunity to play, hoping to get noticed.

With so many players willing to play for little or no money, there is little incentive for owners to provide relief.

“Baseball can do whatever they want with minor league players’ salaries,” one minor league official said. “There are so many players that just want a chance.”

Still, the situation may soon reach a breaking point. One minor leaguer in the Giants system could not afford to buy meals last season. Unable to pay his bills, he had resorted to credit cards, and the debt had piled up. So he forced himself to not eat until he reported to the clubhouse, stuffing down two mid-afternoon peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

“They bring in nutritionists and tell you to eat healthy. Sure!” Stanley said. “How are you supposed to eat healthy on $20 a day?”

Meal money will increase to $25 a day this season, but clubhouse dues are also increasing. Last year these mandatory dues reached $14 a day in Triple-A and $8 a day in the high Class A Carolina League.

Some officials are beginning to see problems. One minor league coach told me recently that he had two sons, one in the minor leagues and one in college. The one in college worked part-time at a grocery store, yet he made more money than the one playing professional baseball.

“It just doesn’t make sense,” he said. “They could easily afford an increase if they wanted, but they just don’t want to do it. They’d rather spend that extra $150,000 on a big leaguer’s salary.”

Make It To Triple-A

Players who prove themselves at the Triple-A level can earn a comfortable living. But getting there can be a true battle of attrition. For every veteran who thrives in the upper minors, many others fall by the wayside before graduating from A-ball.

While players under complete team control make relative peanuts, those whose services are in demand make enough that they might not even need to secure offseason employment. The biggest earners among the minor league set fall in to two categories:

• Members of the 40-man roster. Players sign split major league/minor league contracts once they’re added to the 40-man, with their pay rate dictated by the Collective Bargaining Agreement. While those in the big leagues earn at least the minimum of $400,000, those on the minor league side are paid based on their experience. First-year members earn a minimum of $32,500 in the minors, while second- and third-year members earn a minimum of $65,000. However, if a player spends time with the big club in one season, his pay rate the following year must equal at least 60 percent of his total earnings from the year before. Factoring in the higher big league pay rate, a player’s minor league salary could be two or three times more than the minimum.

• Minor league free agents. To fill the gaps in Triple-A, organizations often turn to the minor league free agent. The most coveted free agents can make as much as $12,000-$25,000 a month, depending on the organization. That works out to a cool $60,000-$125,000 for five months of work.

“That’s a competitive market, the six-year free agent market,” a former major league general manager said. “You can go from that $2,150 a month, and if you become a six-year free agent, you have a chance to at least double or triple that right away.”

For the rank and file, though, the struggle continues, and most people in the game say that players should simply be happy to have a job given the state of the economy. Complicating matters, players receive no paychecks while attending instructional leagues or spring training. These events effectively turn the five-month season into seven months, giving players only a few months in the offseason to find a job and earn supplemental income.

Another factor in maintaining such low salaries is the lack of labor organization for minor leaguers. The rules of the MLBPA recognize “major league players, and individuals who may become major league players” as members, but this is interpreted as only major leaguers and players on a team’s 40-man roster. All other players are on their own, working at the pleasure of their organization.

Without a union, and with baseball’s minor league reserve clause upheld by court decisions, minor league players have no way to challenge the decisions of baseball management. The 2006 Collective Bargaining Agreement, for instance, tightened eligibility for the Rule 5 draft, but minor leaguers lacked representation in negotiations that directly affected almost every one of them.

“On one side you have a group that is essentially impotent, and on the other side a powerful group that is making decisions based on what is best for their business,” says sports economist Andrew Zimbalist, most recently the author of “In the Best Interest of Baseball? The Revolutionary Reign of Bud Selig.” “There’s very little bargaining leverage on the part of the minor leaguers.”

Minor league hockey players and minor league umpires have unions, but baseball players remain skeptical. Erik Stiller, an Indians pitcher out of Princeton, recognizes the utility of a union, but isn’t sure he would join one.

“Joining a union is no small decision,” Stiller said. “I would want to understand how effective and well-organized it would be.”

Many players echo the same sentiment, worried that any action upsetting the status quo would prompt owners to take punitive actions against those involved. The prospects for change seem unlikely, as owners will be reluctant to alter the structure on their own.

“It’s beneficial to baseball owners to keep (salaries) where they are at,” Zimbalist said. With no pressure from players, they’re likely to remain stagnant.

While minor league salaries have remained low, the business of minor league baseball boomed over the past 20 years. Attendance has risen and franchise values have soared, though profit margins for most teams remain thin.

This has little effect on the players, however, because minor league owners pay no part of their salaries. That remains the sole responsibility of the major league teams. Some players have suggested changing this, but minor league owners have already taken on a lot more development costs in recent years.

“Tremendous amounts of cost have already been shifted to the minor league system in the past 10 to 15 years, and there would be a great amount of pushback,” said Charlie Dowd, the former general manager of the Connecticut Defenders.

Players have also suggested that teams help them pay for housing, but Dowd and others say this too remains unlikely because it would be an additional cost for minor league teams. Representatives from both MLB and MiLB said they have heard no talk of this plan or any plan to increase salaries, and to their knowledge there is no talk of alleviating the burden on players in any manner.

With no change in the foreseeable future, minor leaguers will continue to cram into apartments and host families’ houses—and perhaps skip meals—to save money. Their air mattresses will sit in rooms decorated only by mold. And they’ll gladly accept this sacrifice. They’re chasing a dream.

Garrett Broshuis is a former minor league pitcher in the Giants system and a frequent contributor to Baseball America.

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