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The minor leagues are what's ‘Saving America’s Pastime’

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After his last All-Star Game, David Ortiz uttered that “the face of baseball are guys that are 21, 22, 23 years old.” If this is true, why is legislation in congress aiming to counter this spout of growth for the league? If we want to “Save America’s Pastime”, we need to preserve and fund  its minor league.

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

As the second half of the season begins, now seems as good a time as any to examine the health of most major league franchises. Last week, Dave Dombrowski traded for three players with the intention to apply some necessary band-aids to the Sox’ latest bruises and bumps.

When attempting to ameliorate an ailing roster, general managers are faced with the choice of either taking a chance on a mercurial prospect or gambling within the trade market. Putting aside Dombrowski’s recent (and unavoidable) moves, Boston has maintained its organizational health with its young core of talented current and former minor league prospects.

According to current managing editor of FanGraphs, Dave Cameron, the ascent of minor league prospects in recent years is due to a cultural change suggesting "[we’re] finally reaching a point of shedding the false label of the proven big-league veteran."

Keeping this assertion of a shifting player valuation in mind, I’d argue the recent Save America's Pastime Act (SAPA) might do everything in its power to bury the game rather than to save it.

Breaking Down Both Sides:

On June 24, Reps. Cheri Bustos (D-IL) and Brett Guthrie (R-KY) introduced SAPA to congress in an attempt to stonewall the recent 2014 lawsuit Senne et al v. Office of the Commissioner of Baseball. The class action briefed the congressmen on the fine print of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which was responsible for formally establishing minimum wage and child labor standards as a normality in the United States.

Before the proposal of SAPA, Minor League ballplayers didn’t fit underneath the minimum wage exemption distinction of "creative professionals," which is a classification including workers possessing "originality or talent." Since there was no original indication of any exemption, Senne et al argued for the rights to minimum wage payments and demanded the development of a union separate from the MLBPA.

It wasn’t shocking that a mere week after introducing SAPA, Democratic Rep. Bustos removed her name from sponsoring the legislation with Guthrie. After researching the Illinois Congresswoman, historically she’s been very connected to MLB.

Bustos is the daughter of recently deceased Gene Callahan, referred to as "MLB’s First Lobbyist." Although some referred to Bustos’ involvement as baseball cheaply "phoning a friend" to successfully thwart Senne et al., the congresswoman abandoned her support for the bill because of the current values that are so prominently pushed on the American political agenda.

Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-IL)

"While it’s important to sustain minor league baseball teams that provide economic support to small communities across America, I cannot support legislation that does so at the expense of the players that draw us to stadiums…." Bustos said. "…I strongly support raising the minimum wage and the right to collective bargaining for fair wages."

This 2014 lawsuit stands as a testament to some of the more important issues surrounding the year’s current presidential race that is producing rhetoric such as the "Fight for 15" and "the top one percent" as the driving mantras of the lower and middle class.

For minor league players, this fight for a living wage and some small reduction in the income inequality running rampant in America is at the crux of Senne et. al. In this case, the "top one percent" are the most talented prospects from the draft or overseas. For example, Red Sox untouchables Yoan Monaca and Andrew Benintendi pocketed signing bonuses of millions of dollars before even stepping onto a minor league roster. On the other hand, for those without these major signing bonuses, given the average minor leaguer’s current potential salaries, many of these young guys cannot stay above the poverty line and "achieve their god-given potential."

Within this flawed system lies an inability for some of these "middle to lower class" prospects to improve their game in the event that they might receive an opportunity to live their dream in the majors. Mets left fielder Curtis Granderson clearly remembered his minor league experience and addressed the barren benefits these rising professionals have access to.

"…the meal money — especially now since there’s a big movement toward eating healthy, maintaining weight or either gaining weight or losing weight," Granderson said. "In the cities you’re traveling to, your options are very limited. So trying to make 20 or 25 dollars stretch, on top of the fact that you’re not getting a meal at the stadium at certain levels, makes it very difficult for you to do the things that the team requires you to do."

Putting food costs aside, the MiLB website doesn’t fully present a direct answer to a FAQ re: employment benefits and health insurance. Instead providing only this ominous deflection:

Q. Who provides employment benefits for players? Do former players continue to receive health insurance coverage?

A. For the answers to these questions, please contact someone directly in Minor League Baseball's administrative office.

Even separate from employment benefits, the argument can be raised that the current system doesn’t give players a chance to pursue other endeavors. The knowledge of most minor leaguers is limited to the sacred rules behind stealing a base, hitting to multiple parts of the field and etc. This is remarkably poor preparation for the future careers that most of these players will have to pursue given how few minor leaguers ever make any significant money in baseball.

The main argument that both MiLB and MLB have for their support of SAPA resides in what farm teams provide to smaller cities and communities that do not have enough capital to support a major league franchise. In statements from both leagues, they find that increasing the wages of minor leaguers (that aren’t within the top percent of talent) would damage the aggregate profits from minor league organizations.


Loopholes and Questions For Their Logic

  • Are MLB and MiLB married or divorced?

It is imperative for both leagues to decide on a consistent relationship for both organizations rather than employing contradictory practices. How associated are these leagues? Are they even on the same page?

For example, via the Uniform Player Contract, a player is bound to his major league affiliate for seven championship seasons. A minor league player doesn’t have the ability to override the reserve clause that Curt Flood hastened to overturn. While this hints at marriage, the fact that MLB expects a potential increase in salary for players to come right from the minor league affiliate, suggests that maybe these two aren’t in holy matrimony.

Major league franchises have appraisals of between about $650 Million and $2 Billion, and paying minor leaguers the minimum wage rate per hour of service would only cost anywhere from 4.5% to 13.8% of their total current assessments. Wouldn’t it make sense for MLB to uphold its role in the marriage this time?

  • Comparing Minor League treatment and conditions to those of NCAAF or NCAAB

As I’ve mentioned in a previous piece, America’s greatest pastime can be a sport for the rich, and if we want to encourage more young athletes of color to pursue baseball, it shouldn’t be advertised or even close to visible that many minor leaguers are living below the poverty line. What makes this bill so perilous is that it might deter players from the game, therefore drawing young hopefuls toward basketball and football.

Not only are football and basketball players able to garner full scholarships once in college, but these young athletes are given proper meals, living quarters and are even mandated to some minor scholastic requirements. Although programs such as Northwestern argue that their players should be paid for their contributions to the University, it appears that MiLB, which is supposed to be one step above the college circuit for athletes, is really one step back. The minor leagues are almost teasing the athletes instead cultivating young talent, and when you’re making NCAA compensation look good, you’ve got problems.

  • The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) Has a Weekly Minimum

According to the official FLSA, qualification for exemption is permissible when "certain tests regarding job duties" are met and the employee must be compensated "on a salary basis at not less than $455."

The official MiLB website states that $1,100 per month is the overall starting salary of a minor leaguer. After completing some simple arithmetic, this value has the majority of our MLB hopeful earning $275 per week, which falls way below the required $455 minimum for any exemption.

With these numbers in mind, the proposers of SAPA appear desperate to foil a lawsuit that would accommodate the transformative baseball culture.


What This Shows Us

In last night’s 87th mid-summer classic, the Red Sox sent five players (minus the injured Kimbrel), three of them under 27 years old and first-time All-Stars. Half of the American league’s eight hits came from Boston’s three youngsters. Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Betts and Xander Bogarts are only a microcosm of MLB’s changing culture.

Younger players are succeeding at the major league level now more than ever. In addition to 2016 being the second straight year with the lowest number of 30+ year olds participating in the All-Star game, 83 players aged 23 or younger have played in the major leagues this season.

The numbers don’t lie; the future of baseball is in its youth. In order for this new crop of younger players to continue to thrive, MLB and MiLB must approach a partnership that benefits their future players and, importantly, their organizational guys who will never reach the majors but enable their more talented teammates to develop into Major League stars. Giving value to minor leaguers might mean permitting them an opportunity to form a union.

I’m not saying that minor leaguers should immediately be paid in six figures. However, what I’m hoping for is that both MLB and its peer organization can take the hint and find ways to keep the majority of their young talent above the poverty line. If this means even providing career services so players can transition to other careers more smoothly once the dream is over, this would improve the livelihoods of thousands of players who give their heart and souls to baseball for years directly out of school.

Although Stan Brand, Vice President of MiLB, believes that the current economic system is one not meant to be fixed and that it "has been this way for a long time," the reality is the system is broken, and can be altered.

In theory, a healthy MiLB can lead to a stronger and more dynamic MLB. Changing the system so it doesn’t completely alienate the top percent of talent and impoverish the remaining crop isn’t going to be accomplished immediately. But with Commissioner Manfred’s track record as a former labor lawyer, the key to gaining ground is continuing to make this issue pertinent.

While SAPA and the reactions it amassed didn’t put the league in the most positive light, its introduction can aid many in understanding the necessity to form a league that favors baseball’s new wave of young talent.