The United States’ Senate passed a new $1.3 trillion spending bill last week, and it, for some reason, included legislation on regulating Minor League Baseball salaries. We’ve gone over why that’s awful for Minor League Baseball players, who now have a more official cap on their salaries because the bill will harm active lawsuits against Major League Baseball. There is another form of baseball the bill affects, though, and that’s the independent variety.
Independent leagues like the Pacific Association and the Atlantic League are also considered minor league baseball by the law in all its seasonal, short-term employment glory, and therefore, they’ll also be subject to the new law of the land. Unlike players in the MLB-owned and operated Minor League Baseball, who saw a minimal raise from $1,100 per month to $1,160 per month under the bill, many independent-league players are actually looking at massive increases to salary — and it could very well mean the death of most of independent-league baseball in America. And if those independent leagues that can’t pay players a living wage do die off, that’s OK.
While MiLB players were looking to make more than minimum wage from an enormous company set to make $10 billion in revenues this year, one that their labor is a significant piece of, independent-league players are part of what is basically the small business side of baseball. The profits aren’t counted in the billions (or even the millions), and the salary caps for entire teams could very well be less than what some people reading this sentence make in a year.
The Pacific Association was planning on a $25,000 salary cap for the 2018 season. The Frontier League’s cap is $75,000, and the average salary per month is $725. Splitting those figures up among 25 baseball players — sorry, part-time seasonal employees! — means anyone actually playing the baseball isn’t making bank: they aren’t even being paid minimum wage. Players play there because there is nowhere else: if you aren’t in the majors or the minors and you still want to play professional baseball, the indies are the last opportunity to do so.
Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper wrote that The Atlantic League is the only independent league unlikely to see its salary structure altered significantly under the new setup the spending bill introduced, and warned that all of this means many leagues are likely going to have to cease to exist because of it.
You’re going to see stories describing this as a negative outcome of the spending bill. Yahoo!’s Jeff Passan likened what Congress and MLB just did to independent leagues to “murder” while lamenting that fewer people will now get to see baseball because of said murder. If independent teams and leagues can’t afford to pay their players even the minimum wage, though, they should not exist. Cold, maybe, but it’s also true.
The looming death of the indies is about the only positive to come from Congress deciding to listen to MLB’s lobbyists, because while for minor leaguers the bill is severely anti-labor, for those who on the independent scene, it’s an attempt to limit worker exploitation. Was this attempt made purposefully? Absolutely not! Rob Manfred, the handpicked successor of anti-labor commissioner Bud Selig, has been on the owner’s side in labor negotiations since he first joined the league during the 1994 strike, and Baseball’s owners and lobbyists would literally rather starve their minor league players than pay them more. The independent leagues aren’t a threat to MLB in any meaningful sense, especially in today’s reality where attendance is so divorced from profits thanks to billion-dollar regional television deals around the game. MLB’s lobbyists likely never gave a thought, positive or negative, to what would happen to the Sugar Land Skeeters or Sonoma Stompers following the passage of their anti-labor plea to “save” America’s pastime.
If an independent league cannot afford to pay even minimum wage to its players, then they shouldn’t be in operation. They’re a failing business propped up solely by the exploitation of their workers, and if that’s the only way they can exist in the world, then they should cease to be. This is no different than when arguments about raising the federal minimum wage come up, so that people in minimum wage jobs can come much, much closer to a livable wage. Enormous entities like McDonald’s or Walmart suggesting they can’t pay their workers like that and survive as they are is akin to MLB saying they’ll need to shut down some Minor League Baseball teams if they’re forced to pay minor leaguers overtime, in that it’s 100 percent bullshit. A small business saying they can’t survive if they pay their workers a higher minimum wage can certainly have more truth to it, but that brings us back to the initial point of whether they should exist or not.
Yes, it’s a shame that fewer people will be able to see live baseball across the country, especially families who might not have other baseball around them. However, the baseball they were watching only existed because the teams were paying players $4 an hour. MLB’s mistreatment of minor-league players shouldn’t be used as justification for exploitation elsewhere in the industry.
Independent baseball as a whole won’t die, not when, as Cooper suggests, the Atlantic League is still succeeding because it generates enough revenue to pay players and deal with workmen’s compensation insurance. If anything, the league could grow as independent baseball competition begins to die, because now there will be voids around the country to fill. If a stronger independent baseball scene emerges, one able to pay players at least the minimum wage across a wider spectrum, one with a higher average talent level than the indies have now, then the bill has very accidentally created a second benefit in its existence.
Even the small portion of the Save America’s Pastime Act that got through Congress remains a river of molten sewage, as Grant Brisbee so eloquently put it back in the summer of 2016. However, none of that has to do with its impact on independent baseball in America. You can mourn the loss of low-level independent leagues and inexpensive live baseball and the romantic dreams we as fans attach to each, while also understanding that removing the conditions that allowed them to exist in the first place is a positive — even if it wasn’t on purpose.