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July 1, 2016

Prospectus Feature

The 7,500 Apprentices

by Kate Morrison

Guilder Rodriguez played 14 years in organized baseball, and seven games in the major leagues. Nick Williams was just publicly humiliated by his manager for not showing whatever arbitrary amount of hustle was needed on an obvious out in a hum-drum game. The Frisco RoughRiders finished up a baseball game close to 11:00 PM CT, boarded a charter bus, and arrived in Midland, TX at 5:00 AM to play a game at 2:00 PM that afternoon.

Major League Baseball would have you believe that these are all well and good things for players who are, according to them, not actually “professionals,” but instead seasonal apprentices or interns, per their press release supporting the abomination that is H.B. 5580.

Let’s take a look at that press release, why don’t we? Nothing is more fun than breaking a piece of what one would assume is carefully constructed communication down line by line.

“There are approximately 7,500 players in Minor League Baseball.” True! Good, we’re off to a good start here. “MLB pays over a half a billion dollars to Minor League players in signing bonuses and salary each year.” Sure, that sounds about right. A lot of that is signing bonuses to the top five rounds or so, though, and there are 40 rounds of the draft. A lot of those guys get handed $5,000-$10,000 for six years of control. Some might get a plane ticket. “Minor League clubs could not afford these massive player costs.” Also true! However, minor league clubs have not been responsible in any way for these costs since Branch Rickey’s “farm system” strategy in the 1920s, and these costs are assumed as part of player development, something that is controlled completely by the big league club. As I said in 2014, the majority of baseball hasn’t been grassroots for a very long time, and this press release doesn’t mention anything about independent league ball.

“MLB heavily subsidizes Minor League Baseball by providing Minor League clubs with its players, allowing professional baseball to be played in many communities in the United States that cannot support a Major League franchise.” Here we run into the first sentence that really needs editing. Minor league clubs in small cities provide places for major league clubs to develop their players. Whether or not the community could support major league baseball doesn’t matter. No one goes to Arizona Rookie League games, and yet they still play them. Funny how that works. “Moreover, for the overwhelming majority of individuals, being a Minor League Baseball player is not a career but a short-term seasonal apprenticeship in which the player either advances to the Major Leagues or pursues another career.” Guilder Rodriguez spent 14 years as a “short-term seasonal apprentice.” Baseball Prospectus’ own Colin Young spent six years. The term “minor league career” appears on MLB’s own website about 30,200 times, something that MLB now suggests is an impossibility.

“Minor League Baseball players always have been salaried employees similar to artists, musicians and other creative professionals who are exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act.” So baseball is a creative profession now? Baseball, where shooting an imaginary arrow into the air is decried as making the game about yourself, where having swag and individuality and cool hair and bat flips and fun and being a personality is seen as detrimental to the game? Everything we’ve seen from baseball so far is devoid of creativity. If baseball players were treated as creative professionals, then we wouldn’t have Bryce Harper wanting to make baseball fun again. Of course, this also neatly side steps the fact that maybe instead of arguing to pay minor leaguers less, we should pay creative professionals more. Or does baseball magically stop being creative the second you get a call-up, the second it becomes a “career” and a living wage is paid?

The last line in this release really deserves its own paragraph.

“Like those professionals, it is simply impractical to treat professional athletes as hourly employees whose pay may be determined by such things as how long their games last, when they choose to arrive at the ballpark, how much they practice or condition to stay in shape, and how many promotional or charitable appearances they make."

This is absolutely hilarious, so funny that it’s difficult to break it all down. The sheer audacity of this argument is astounding. Major League Baseball doesn’t want to pay players hourly due to the hours they put in, and yet, at the same time, they don’t deserve to make minimum wage, much less a living wage.

These players don’t have a choice in how long their games last. They don’t have a choice in when they arrive at the ballpark, they don’t have a choice in working out or conditioning, and sometimes, they don’t have a choice on promotional or charitable appearances.[1] Keeping their job is part of their job, and yet, getting paid somehow isn’t.

Then, there’s the word “professional.” In one sentence, baseball claims minor leaguers are “seasonal apprentices,” or someone still in training to be a professional. In the next, they say they’re “professionals,” but ones that don’t deserve to be compensated for their time and effort. Baseball loves to talk about acting “professionally,” and evaluate based on “being a professional,” and talk a big “professional” game, but at the same time claim that these players just aren’t just that, for all that they have to act like it.

That’s where the press release ends, an insipid two paragraphs of nonsense put out by a league that just made $1.16 billion dollars off selling part of itself to Disney. Two paragraphs that insult every one of the 7,500 players that toil away in anonymity. The 7,500 players that absolutely deserve better.

[1] Some of these appearances will be extra cash for the players, anywhere from an extra $20 to $100.

Kate Morrison is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kate's other articles. You can contact Kate by clicking here

Related Content:  Professionals,  Apprentices

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Prospectus Feature: Th... (07/01)
<< Previous Column
Prospectus Feature: Th... (07/01)
Next Column >>
Prospectus Feature: Bu... (07/03)
Next Article >>
BP Milwaukee (07/02)

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