Like most things worth arguing about, the Save America’s Pastime Act is more complicated than it looks at first glance. The name is hilariously overwrought, and the general idea is to suppress wages at the lowest level to protect the profits of millionaires, but there’s more to it than that. It’s not just about limiting the salaries of minor leaguers. It’s about the Fair Labor Standards Act, a lawsuit in the state of California, and how to shoehorn an entirely irregular industry into a framework designed to help the typical American worker.
There are legitimate issues to consider when considering the issue of baseball players and overtime. There’s a reason why this is being hashed out by highly paid lawyers who spent years sharpening their lawyer sticks. There’s a reason why it will be decided in a format that’s a little more complicated than a high school debate.
However, like almost all of you, I’m pretty sure I know exactly where I stand on the issue already. This, from Patrick Redford at Deadspin, is a good start. While I’m unprepared to argue the specific text of the bill, and everyone else has already pointed out how comically underpaid minor league baseball players are, considering they’re the lifeblood of a multi-billion dollar industry, I’d like to remind everyone of an often overlooked point about minor leaguers. It might be the most important point of all.
Cats are fuzzy, beer will get you drunk, and minor leaguers aren’t paid much. The scale is always surprising — about $8,000 a year for a Class-A prospect, are you fu — but we’ve all gotten used to it. It’s just one of those things, ha ha. It’s a lot easier to swallow when it affects someone else, that’s my motto.
It’s not just about the money, though. It’s not like every writer starts at $40,000 a year with benefits, then works his or her way up, so I’m acutely aware of the idea of sacrificing short-term salary to impress people who might pay you a larger salary later on. It’s the standard in a lot of industries. What I want you to consider is what it means to be a career minor leaguer, chasing a dream that never arrives. That’s what’s going to happen to 90 percent of minor leaguers. They’re never going to make that sweet, sweet major league minimum. The vast majority will never even get the money that comes with being on a 40-man roster.
We’re talking thousands of kids. Over 1,200 are drafted every year, and the ones who sign will push at least a few hundred out of affiliated ball. Consider what it really means to be one of the kids who is told that baseball has determined that he needs to find another career, and compare it to what a friend from high school has been doing. Start with the friend:
|19||Student||Deadlines, networking, book stuff|
|20||Student||Specialized information applicable to a chosen field|
|21||Student||How to open a beer with your toes|
|22||Student||Applying learned knowledge|
|23||Worker||General work skills; specialized work skills|
|24||Worker||General work skills; specialized work skills|
|25||Worker||General work skills; specialized work skills|
|26||Worker||General work skills; specialized work skills|
|27||Worker||General work skills; specialized work skills|
|28||Worker||General work skills; specialized work skills|
|29||Worker||General work skills; specialized work skills|
This assumes the friend goes to college, which isn’t for everyone. Feel free to substitute a regular working stiff of a teenager in there. It doesn’t matter. The larger point remains the same. Even if the hypothetical friend switches jobs five or six times, he or she is still learning, still building a résumé, still acquiring a broad set of transferable skills. Without knowing the official statistics on this, most 20-somethings generally start pulling their head out of their dark, warm head burrow around 26 or 27, figuring out exactly what they want to do and applying their learned experience toward that goal.
Now we’ll move on to the minor leaguer:
|19||Baseball player||How to hit or pitch|
|20||Baseball player||How to hit or pitch|
|21||Baseball player||How to hit or pitch|
|22||Baseball player||How to hit or pitch|
|23||Baseball player||How to hit or pitch|
|24||Baseball player||How to hit or pitch|
|25||Baseball player||How to hit or pitch|
|26||Baseball player||How to hit or pitch|
|27||Baseball player||How to hit or pitch|
|28||Baseball player||How to hit or pitch|
|29||Baseball player||How to hit or pitch|
At the age of 29, the minor leaguer has been spit out on the other side. He knows one skill: how to baseball.
Foreman: Okay, listen, if this truss spar isn’t stabilized, and quickly, the entire spar might be screwed, so show me what you got, kid.
Ex-minor leaguer: [puts pine tar over absolutely everything]
Foreman: Uh, say, why don’t you wait up top and let me get someone else down here?
They’re going to be at an extreme disadvantage in the work force. This is where that writer analogy up there breaks down. That’s something you can work on while maintaining a 40-hour-per-week job. You can’t just float in and out of baseball and see if it’s for you. You have to let it consume you for a decade or so, and at the end of that, the odds are outstanding that absolutely nothing will come of it.
It’s in this framework that these players are also being paid less than teenagers working at a deli. That might be the biggest kick in the face, or it might be the cherry on the kick-in-the-face sundae. You decide.
Ah, but they do it for the dream, for the big payoff. That’s why people give up their 20s, because there’s a small chance of millions and fame on the other side. While the players aren’t selling tickets to their all-ages show on their own, they’re still pay-to-play participants, essentially. They’re just paying with their youth, with the opportunities they’re giving up to chase a dream.
Here, let me visualize it for you.
You see, the minor leagues are like a big pyramid. If everyone buys in, and they get 10 players to buy in, and 10 more players to buy in from them, then keep going all the way down, why, it’s almost indisputable that the people at the very top are going to get rich.
You might even call it a "pyramid blueprint" or a "pyramid schematic." I'll work on coming up with the right name for it, give me a few minutes.
If there were no other way for the industry to work, if there were just no possible way for a business to at least pay these players a living wage while they’re in this pyramid, I guess I would at least listen to an argument that this has to continue. If the argument is that paying minor leaguers more would devastate baseball, you would have to at least listen.
Except, baseball is swimming in money. Contrary to the arguments made in the bill — which has already been ditched by one of the representatives who introduced it — extra salaries for minor leaguers wouldn’t crush the poor, small town minor league franchises. They would take money away from Major League Baseball franchises, who are the ones paying the salaries.
Major League Baseball franchises are unconscionably rich. Paying minor leaguers a living wage, especially when most of them are going to be spit out on the other side, 10 years older and without any transferable job skills, shouldn’t be a radical concept.
I don’t know if the lawsuit in California that’s challenging the industry under the FLSA is the right approach. I don’t know what the perfect answer would be. The details are above my head. But in the eternal battle of nothing-aires vs. millionaires and billionaires, history seems to suggest that the millionaires and billionaires usually lack a little perspective. The minor leagues are a system that rewards a select few at the expense of a great many. The least baseball can do is pay them a living wage in the process.
When it comes to the specific methods of making that happen, I don’t care. I’ll let the smart people figure out the fine print. But I’m pretty sure that the Save America’s Pastime Act is utter trash designed to preserve the profits of an industry that doesn’t need any help preserving its profits. And it’s drawing attention to an ugly side of the industry that’s been overlooked for way too long.