MLB’s Negotiating Terms With Minor Leagues Are Dirty, and Hurt the Game

In an effort to cut costs earlier this off-season, Major League Baseball created a proposition to cut affiliations with up to 42 Minor League Baseball teams. That’s right. The same billionaires that are comfortable shelling out $324 million to Gerrit Cole over 9 years and $245 million over 7 years to Anthony Rendon are worried about their ability to cover the expenses of the Staten Island Yankees and the Burlington Bees (Angels affiliation).

They have brought this proposal to the negotiating table against the Minor League Baseball, as the agreement between the two parties is set to expire after the 2020 season. Eliminating the current affiliations would make the 42 teams independent, meaning they would no longer have a league or players. They would still exist as businesses, but they would be be fending for themselves and would have to find new independent leagues and their own rosters. MLB has taken what is usually a formality of negotiation and renewal and turned it on its head.

So why is this happening? Really, this began in 2014 when a lawsuit was filed in the State of California by minor league players alleging that their wages, which can run from $1000 a month to $3,000 a month depending on the level they play, were unfair and violated minimum wage laws. Major League Baseball is responsible for these wages and has benefited since 1938 from a government ruling that stated that minor league baseball players are seasonal employees, and therefore not protected under the minimum wage. This ruling was renewed in the US Government’s March 2018 spending bill, that was passed specifically with a statement that excluded minor league baseball players from federal labor laws.

Backing up though, that 2014 lawsuit was established as class action in 2017 at the Federal level. A US Magistrate Judge ruled that a collection of players who played in the California League could continue as plaintiffs. However, similar players playing in Arizona and Florida were ruled out until this past August when the US Circuit Court of Appeals in California ruled 2-1 in favor of including the players from additional states in the class action. This also means that even more players can join and ultimately, maybe be entitled to not just improved wages in the future, but damages resulting from their lack of pay in the past. While it has not been a huge story, this definitely has not been a great public relations situation for MLB and they have to figure that in the long run, this lawsuit might not turn out in their favor.

To their credit earlier this year, the Toronto Blue Jays (run by former Cleveland Indians President Mark Shapiro) announced they would be raising their minor league wages by 50 percent. However, they are the only organization to get out ahead of this issue and improve wages for their minor leaguers.

I’m sure the other owners can see this controversy brewing though. Its ultimately not a good look for the teams to be paying their farm hands so very little. Unfortunately, the solution they have come up with doesn’t seem very even handed either. It appears that they all aim to follow the example of the Houston Astros organization (since they’ve just been so classy lately) and cut minor league affiliates while banking on improved player development technology to account for the smaller talent pool. One aspect to not be neglected here is that technology. If teams can use Rapsodo to better measure spin rate or SwingTracker to better judge and correct flaws in a hitters swing they don’t have to play as much of a numbers game when hoping to find talent.

Are you with me so far? Because its about to get worse.

With all of this in mind, and the above mentioned Major League/Minor League negotiations going on, Manfred took it a step farther last Friday, publicly threatening to cut ties with Minor League Baseball as an organization entirely. The statement comes it seems from a point of frustration in negotiations. Manfred has been vocal recently about Minor League Baseball’s inability to be flexible in talks and further, how he did not care for how public the Minors organization has been with the press about the removal of 42 teams. The commissioner apparently decided the best way to take out his frustrations about his counterparts playing the press as a negotiating tactic… was to also play the press as a negotiating tactic. And he sure did swing for the fences.

To be clear, cutting ties would not mean the abolition of minor league baseball, but rather, Minor League Baseball. It would mean that MLB would be negotiating with the individual teams instead of all of them together in one organized entity. This set up with provide MLB with a huge amount of leverage to do whatever it wants in the talks, being able to throw its proverbial weight around since it would be working from such a great place of financial power.

So here we are. The billionaires club that is the MLB owners have grievances about having to make sure their employees are paid the minimum wage. So much so that they want to eliminate 42 teams worth of roster spots. Never mind that five full months of pay at $1700 a month for a first year AA player comes to $8,500. Add a little extra cash for how the season extends into September and that player is getting compensated about $9000 for their talents. For those of you keeping score at home, the poverty threshold for a single American under 65 years old is $11,770. It sure is a darned shame those poor billionaires can’t even muster up the extra $2770 just to get their AA players (never mind players below that level) to the poverty line without cutting teams out of the equation.

Additionally, minor leagues as an institution are a gambit that the largest growing sports league in America, the NBA, only recently has gotten into, but now nearly every NBA team has a G League Affiliate. Baseball has over a one hundred years of infrastructure working in its favor. Yet, the NBA is able to pay its G-Leaguers $35,000 salaries.

This all goes without mentioning each team of course has its own season ticket salespeople, game-day operations managers, and concessions workers among other occupations. With the fate of their teams in jeopardy, so are all of those jobs. Those jobs are in danger today based solely off of association.

And yet even further, not only would all these people be hurt, but the owners would likely be hurting the welfare of the game. One of the best marketing benefits that baseball has is its established network of minor league teams. If you just live in or around a small city there is likely inexpensive, professional baseball near you. There are 261 teams worth in America. You might not be able to afford lower level seats in the big city, but you’re likely to be able to watch the stars of tomorrow in that town nearby, all up close and personal. Maybe one or two of them will even make it to the show and that will encourage you to start watching their Major League club on television (queue baseball’s biggest money maker: the television contract).

To be fair, yes. Minor League Baseball should likely be willing to negotiate on some things. Maybe they can take on a greater portion of overhead costs or be less dependent on the Majors for improving their facilities. They could even take on a part of player salaries. But, there are 4 countries recognized by the United Nations that make less money in GDP than the New York Yankees just committed to Gerrit Cole (I keep mentioning Cole. This isn’t about MLB players. They are the product. They have earned their payday from the owners). The $209 million each team received in revenue sharing in 2018 would pay for nearly six-thousand $35,000 NBA G-League sized salaries.

For the MLB owners to work for the removal of 42 teams and all the jobs and economic impact that come with them though is dirty business. Dirty business that seems to be a positive for them and them only, with even the game itself possibly taking a hit.

And now they’re threatening to take their (probably juiced) ball and go home if they don’t get what they want.

If even the purveyors themselves aren’t looking out for the game, who is?

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