No player, in all my time in baseball, has ever said to me that they play because they simply can’t wait to get fat off their sweet minor league paychecks, and coast.
When I started writing about the minor leagues so many years ago, I was often told—among other things—that I was a whiner.
When my work started going public, the blow-back was near instantaneous, from teammates and fans alike.
I had committed heresy.
I was told I was “living the dream” of playing a kid’s game for a paycheck. How dare I complain about the treatment or compensation? Did I not realize how lucky I was? How dare I not revere evey single sweet, sweet second of it?
The funny thing is, when I was playing, I didn’t complain about the money. It sucked. It still sucks. But I didn’t complain about it.
Who was I going to complain to? My coaches? The League? My teammates all making the same abysmal wages I was? The first and second round prospects, all making the same despite signing bonuses with oodles of zeros? The bottom of a brown bottle?
I worried about money. I needed money. I hoped to make more money. But I did not complain about it because there was simply no point.
The only way to change what I was making was to play better.
Indeed, that was the answer to most minor league bitching: “Don’t like it? Play better.”
Don’t like bus trips?
Don’t like peanut butter and jelly?
Don’t like peanut butter because we’re out of jelly?
Don’t like being poor?
Don’t like starving?
Don’t like dim lights and 10 person crowds?
Play better. It fixes everything.
…Except for systemic exploitation.
Contrary to what you might think, the blunt and brutal logic of “play better” became a badge of pride among players. Hell, we loved this kind of talk. I think we still do.
The minors are grueling. Only a fraction of the minor league lifestyle is displayed on-field for public consumption. The rest is duct tape and chewing gum-style survival.
When I played, we were proud of our ability to survive. It made us men. It made us grinders. It made us real pros.
The more shit you could endure while playing, the sweeter the payday when you finally made it.
Never mind that 95% of us wouldn’t make it, and, of that 5%, most of us wouldn’t recoup the investment of time in any credible fashion outside a glory day tale. But, assuming we beat all those odds… then it would be awesome. Totally awesome.
Some argue this fantasy, mansplained, macho-logic made us stupid. But what could we do besides make it an axiom of our life? It was immutable, unchangeable. You lived or died by it.
Minor League Economics
The economics of the minors are just plain shitty. Even with a 50% increase in pay, they’re still shitty.
Talk of unionizing is a laugh. No one has the money, influence, or time to pull that off. And, even if you did, you’d be released before you gained any traction.
As a player, you have two options: complain about it, or suck it up, take it like the man you boast you are, and revel in mocking those whiners who can’t, even when the system holds you back from playing better.
It should come as no surprise that, If you can’t afford to eat well, you won’t eat well.
Sometimes in the minor leagues, you won’t eat at all. And this goes for when you’re in and out of season.
If you can’t afford a gym membership, you won’t train as well as those who can.
If you can’t afford a trainer, you won’t get one.
If you can’t afford a car, you won’t get to your throwing sessions.
Someone who can afford those things will. Do they have an edge? You betcha.
If you can’t support your family by playing, you’ll quit grinding and wash out of the league. No one will feel sorry for you because, as much as this sucks, as dangerous of a pit as it is for all minor leaguers, you just thinned the herd.
See you, space cowboy.
Economics plays a role in culture, and in the minors, survival of the fittest is more like survival of the ones that can afford to get fit. Debt of the others who want to keep up.
I often hear criticism that, if minor leaguers are given more money, they’ll be less incentivized to play hard, or they’ll waste what they are given because they’re stupid with their money.
In essence, I’m told—by fans and players—that better wages are worse for the game.
I suppose this argument would be remotely true if the underlying assumption was true—that players only play hard because of the fear of starvation or destitution. They play hard to avoid it and they play hard to escape it.
Without it, how do you know they are really playing hard? Therefore, you can’t alleviate it.
Stop Exploiting Minor League Players
Take it from a player who’s made a living out of talking about the minors: Players play hard because they have been romanticizing the concept of life at the top of a game they’ve watched since they were little children.
They play because they enjoy the game. They play because they believe that “real world jobs” are the worst thing that could ever happen to you.
They play for reasons you and I will never know, and a few you and I do know.
They play because they have a shot at a lottery ticket payout. They play to see their name in lights. They play because this is what they’ve spent the bulk of their life doing and they don’t know what else to do if they stop.
Money—specifically their current salary in the minors—is not the central reason. At best it’s one part of a portfolio of reasons.
No player, in all my time in baseball, has ever said to me that they play because they simply can’t wait to get fat off their sweet minor league paychecks and coast.
And when I tell you this, your response should not be, “well, then let’s just pay them nothing since they obviously don’t care about money,” which is pretty much what that piece of shit “Save America’s Pastime Act” was. I mean, the audacity to even title it that? The linear and myopic thinking. It boggles the mind.
Now, before you go economist on me and bring up inflation, price elasticity, and reduced margins, let’s just remember that we’re talking about wages that are way below minimum wage. Not a little. Not a few bucks below. WAY BELOW. ludicrously below. For half a year.
Most of the players who endure those wages did not and will not get a signing bonus. About 98% of them will not get paid, in a full season, what an entry level marketing employee will get after their first three months cleaning up spreadsheets.
This, despite the fact that our rookie marketer has the same degree as tens of thousands of other colleges kids while the player drafted has beaten the odds of a lightning strike to get where he is.
A lot of folks just don’t want to hear this. They don’t because we’re talking about young “kids” here, playing a kid’s game for a little money, and a big chance at something great—something most folks never get in their 9-5’s, working under the boot of a corporate overlord.
Hey, I hear you. The 9-5 can really blow if you’re in the wrong job, and most people are. Hell, whaddya think I’ve been doing now that I’m retired. Every job that’s not big league baseball feels wrong. Every. Job.
However, though this is not currently my dream come true, it is funding other dreams: Family. Security. Love. Groceries. Utilities. Baby formula. A peaceful home without crushing debt. These were all things that I didn’t have, not dependable, and often not at the same time, while I was in the minors.
You may hate your job, but that’s not the player’s fault. I didn’t inflict that on you when I was riding the pine in the bush leagues.
And you can tell me baseball is not exploitative in the minors. You can tell me it’s my choice to be there. If you do, point to that other market wherein people with top-level baseball skills get paid full wages for their craft.
You can tell minor leaguers they knew what they were getting into. If you do, please tell those stupid kids that want to be big leaguers starting at age 10 that they’re, statistically speaking, setting themselves up for massive disappointment and ridicule.
Please God, tell them early because just getting a shot at the pros requires a ridiculous investment of time in ’round the year leagues, training, and private coaches.
Or just show them that air-tight math on how minimum wages for minor leaguers would irrevocably break the game. I’m sure that will convince them…
When you have a monopoly and you argue that improving living wages despite a balanced market equivalent is folly, you’re not arguing because you’re worried about maintaining quality. You’re arguing because you can. Because you have to so as not to look like a complete asshole for reaping the benefits of a system that’s broken in your favor.
One Last Thing
When guys in the minors washout and the dream ends, they’re behind. Way behind. Financially, educationally, and in skill development. Even emotionally.
I’ve been to too many job interviews to count where I, the best selling author with an MBA, broadcasting expertise, and 2 years in the show, can’t get an entry-level position because I have no experience and too many years doing things that are too “self-starter.”
That matters, folks. When players leave the game—and far more go the hard way than via big league farewell season tour—they’re qualified to do virtually nothing. They have saved nothing. They have nothing. There is little to no support. And let me tell you, Holy shit there is a big difference between entering the workforce in your late 20s/early 30s with no experience versus straight out of college.
And, you know what, when you’re not playing anymore, you can’t play better to fix it. I know some guys who couldn’t get past this fact. Or rather, I should say, I knew some guys who couldn’t get past this past. I still mourn their passing…
The ethical thing to do—and this is just my humble opinion—is pay these young men for their services as if they’re on par with the folks making your fucking coffee.
Give them a chance to improve their quality of life. And when I say life, I mean whole life; now and what comes after.
Until you do, MLB, I don’t want to hear one word about how much you care about empowering the next generation of baseball dreamers. Make an investment in the ones that are dreaming now.
Help them, and I promise they will help you.