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Fight Against Low, Low Pay In Minor League Baseball Continues Despite New Obstacles

Aug 3, 2018
Originally published on August 3, 2018 5:55 pm

It's been well-documented in recent years that minor league baseball players don't exactly share in the riches of the game. Most minor leaguers make an estimated $7,500 for a year. Major league players average more than $4 million.

A law passed by Congress a few months ago essentially locked in low minor league pay. But that hasn't stopped a small group of people fighting to help those players.

In an era of growing sports activism, creating a new website isn't quite a kneeling-during-the-national-anthem moment. But when former minor league player Jeremy Wolf launched morethanbaseball.org in April, it was an opening salvo in that fight to help minor leaguers.

From his home in San Antonio, Wolf says, "Even minor league umpires have a union and Major League Baseball has its own union. But minor league players are kind of on their own island. I want this [website] to be a kind of backbone. That support."

Wolf wants the website to be informational for baseball fans and a place for minor leaguers to visit and feel that support. He also wants it to be able to take in donations. "We're trying to create a 501(c)(3) with this organization, this website," he says. "To be able to receive money and help these kids get equipment if they don't have an agent; or help these kids buy food after games; or help with student loans or housing. Because a lot of guys are struggling. Sleeping four to five in an apartment and on air mattresses."

Despite the challenges, the 24-year-old Wolf says he loved the minor league life, before he was released by his team last year after he suffered a back injury. "The dream was always to play professionally," he says. That dream came true when he was drafted by the New York Mets in the 31st round of the 2016 baseball draft.

Wolf soon learned the reality of the minors. He made a below minimum wage salary; ate cheap, bad food. The ceiling leaked in his hotel. Wolf was a good-hitting outfielder, as long as there were enough bats. There weren't at his first stop in the minors, in Tennessee.

"I had three wood bats and I said, 'Hey, can I get some more bats?' And they were like, uh, 'Nope. We don't do that.' And I was like, 'Can I have one bat?' And they're like 'No.' "

So Wolf had to barter with teammates. "I went to some of the higher draft picks, who had agents," he says, asking, " 'Hey, can I trade [for] a bat with you? 'And they were like, 'Yeah, what do you have?' And I was like, 'I have batting gloves. I'll trade you batting gloves for a bat. I'll trade you some shorts for a bat.' Because I needed a bat to hit."

Stories of doing without are common in the minors. Traditionally players accept it as a price of chasing major league dreams. But then along came Congress, in March, and made "doing without" law. Buried on page 1,967 of the $1.3 trillion spending bill, the Save America's Pastime Act exempted Major League Baseball from federal wage and overtime rules. MLB reportedly paid millions lobbying for the act, which formalized what has been status quo — no overtime pay; no pay during spring training and the off-season.

Major League Baseball's rationale is that minor leaguers are seasonal workers. Minor leaguers insist they are professional athletes who work year-round on their craft and many hours of overtime during the season.

So Wolf said, "Enough." And he is getting help from others, including longtime union activist Bill Fletcher. "The situation facing minor leaguers will not be resolved through litigation and it won't be resolved through legislation," says Fletcher, who once served as assistant to the president for the national AFL-CIO. "It's going to be solved through organization."

But organizing minor league players who don't have a union is much easier said than done. They may grumble among themselves about pay and conditions. But they know speaking out publicly about the system could cost them jobs.

In May, 25-year-old minor league pitcher Jonathan Perrin gave this reporter an impromptu tour of his new, but spare apartment. "So this is kind of it. This is the living room with the only furniture being a twin mattress." Perrin knew it was, in his words, a little bit of a risk when he agreed to let me interview him. At the time he was a relief pitcher for a Triple-A minor league team in Colorado, where he shared the apartment with three teammates. Sitting on that narrow mattress, the 6-foot-4-inch Perrin said living in the apartment sometimes seemed "like you're camping out. Except as a professional baseball player."

Before he got a room, he spent nights in the living room. "If I kind of angled myself a little bit my feet weren't hanging off [the mattress] too much," Perrin said, adding, "It wasn't too bad."

Perrin, now pitching for a Double-A team, is one of the few active players to speak about the pay issue. "I'm not sitting here saying everybody [in the minors] should get 50 grand or whatever," Perrin says. He would be satisfied with minimum wage pay for an entire year. "I mean, we know what we signed up for," he says. "Just help give us a chance to continue to develop and not have to be drawn in so many different directions trying to pay our bills during the times when we're not actually playing."

In his three years playing minor league baseball, Perrin has spent his off seasons working in restaurants, substitute teaching — even, ironically, doing some financial advising. "One off-season," he says, "I would wake up at 6 a.m., go throw at 7, do all my arm care stuff, shower, go to work, from 8 to 2, then work out from 2:30 to 4, then go home and eat. Then I'd give pitching lessons from 5 or 6 to 8 p.m. And that was the routine for three, four months."

Major League Baseball revenues last season topped $10 billion for the first time. Perrin understands major league owners, who pay minor league salaries, don't want to spend more than they have to. But he says extra investment would help minor league players improve their games and make baseball better overall.

"That's how I would look at it," Perrin says. "It's an investment in your prospects, in your lower-level guys, to eventually create a better big league product."

Perrin says two solutions would help. First, paying minor leaguers year-round. "Just keep the salary structure the same," he says, "but make it a 12-month thing where we can help cover our costs in the off-season, which is the toughest part of it." Or, second, cover housing expenses: "Because those are the two biggest things," Perrin says, "the off-season and both off-season and in-season housing. Those are the biggest expenses and the biggest causes of stress and that's what eats away at most of your paycheck."

Bumping up minor league pay wouldn't necessarily break major league baseball's $10 billion bank. Roughly 200 players are in a minor league system for each major league team. If minor league pay rose to $2,000 a month, year-round, that's $24,000 per player — an extra outlay of $4.8 million per team. A little more than the average salary of one major league player.

"Anytime you see some player standing up that's encouraging for me," says attorney Garrett Broshuis, who has largely been alone in the minor league fight since 2014. That's when he filed a lawsuit against Major League Baseball over the pay issue. The suit still is active, which is why MLB wouldn't comment for this story. Neither would the president of Minor League Baseball, nor would lawmakers who supported or opposed the Save America's Pastime Act.

A spokesman for the Major League Baseball Players Association said in an email that union President Tony Clark, a former major league and minor league player, is "empathetic to the plight of minor leaguers." But ultimately Clark also declined a request for comment. The union and the many major leaguers it represents have not publicly supported the minor leaguers — despite the fact that, like Clark, most major leaguers started in the minors.

It's frustrating for Broshuis and Wolf and the few others speaking out. But Wolf still is hopeful. He says several labor unions have shown interest in his efforts. He spoke recently with the Professional Hockey Players Association — the union representing minor league hockey players. "We're full steam ahead with organizing," Wolf says, "and we have their full support.

Wolf says his website, morethanbaseball.org, gets traffic. About 1,000 visits, which Wolf says is "a thousand more people than we [had before]." Wolf stresses that the website's message isn't based on anger. "It's about speaking out to make things better," he says. He and the others involved in the effort are trying to speak out whenever they can.

Hoping, perhaps, to start a movement.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

You may have heard in recent years that minor league baseball players don't exactly share in the riches of the game. Most minor leaguers make an estimated $7,500 per year. Major League players average more than four million. A law passed by Congress a few months ago essentially locked in low minor league pay. But that hasn't stopped a small group of people fighting to help those players. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: In an era of growing sports activism, creating a new website isn't exactly a kneeling-during-the-national-anthem moment.

JEREMY WOLF: And then we click preview, and then we click publish.

GOLDMAN: Still, when former minor league player Jeremy Wolf launched morethanbaseball.org in April, it was an opening salvo in a fight to help minor leaguers.

WOLF: There's no one out there supporting us. And so that's what I want this to be, is just that kind of backbone, that support.

GOLDMAN: 24-year-old Wolf lived and loved the minor league life before he was released by his team last year after a back injury. He made a below minimum-wage salary, ate cheap, bad food. The ceiling leaked in his hotel. Wolf was a good-hitting outfielder, as long as there were enough bats. At his first stop in the minors in Tennessee, the team didn't supply them. So Wolf had to barter with teammates.

WOLF: I'll trade you batting gloves for a bat, or I'll trade you some shorts for a bat because I needed a bat to hit.

GOLDMAN: Stories of doing without are common in the minors. Traditionally, players accept it as a price for chasing Major League dreams.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The House has passed a $1.3 trillion spending bill ahead of...

GOLDMAN: But then, along came Congress in March and made doing without law. Buried on page 1,967 of the spending bill, the Save America's Pastime Act exempted Major League Baseball from federal wage and overtime rules. MLB reportedly paid millions lobbying for the act, which formalized what has been status quo in the minors - no overtime, no pay during spring training and the off-season.

Baseball's rationale is that minor leaguers are seasonal workers. Minor leaguers insist they're professional athletes who work year-round on their craft and many hours of overtime during the season. So Jeremy Wolf said enough. And he's getting help from others, including longtime union activist Bill Fletcher.

BILL FLETCHER: The situation facing minor leaguers will not be resolved through litigation, and it won't be resolved through legislation. It's going to be solved through organization.

GOLDMAN: Organizing minor league players - they don't have a union - is much easier said than done. They may grumble among themselves, but they know speaking out publicly about the system could cost them jobs.

JONATHAN PERRIN: So this is kind of it. This is, you know, the living room, with the only furniture being a twin mattress. So...

GOLDMAN: Jonathan Perrin knew it was, in his words, a little bit of a risk when he agreed to let me interview him in May. He was a relief pitcher for a Triple-A minor league team in Colorado, where he shared an apartment with three teammates. Currently he's pitching in Double-A. He's one of the few active players to speak about the pay issue.

PERRIN: I'm not sitting here saying everybody should get 50 grand or whatever.

GOLDMAN: You're OK with minimum wage for an entire year?

PERRIN: Right. Yeah. I mean, we know what we signed up for. But just help give us a chance to continue to develop and not have to be, you know, drawn in so many different directions, trying to pay our bills during the times when we're not actually playing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: The O2 - swing and a miss. Strike three - 14 strikeouts for Jon Perrin.

GOLDMAN: In his three years playing minor league baseball, Perrin has spent his off-seasons working in restaurants, substitute teaching, even - ironically - doing some financial advising. According to Forbes, Major League Baseball revenues last season topped $10 billion for the first time. Perrin understands that Major League owners who pay minor league salaries don't want to spend more than they have to. But, he says, by paying minor leaguers for the off-season and for housing, those players can get better quicker and make baseball better.

PERRIN: That's how I would look at it. It's an investment in your prospects, in your lower-level guys to eventually create a better big-league product.

GARRETT BROSHUIS: Any time you see some players standing up, that's encouraging for me.

GOLDMAN: Attorney Garret Broshuis largely has been alone in the minor league fight since 2014. That's when he filed a lawsuit against Major League Baseball. The suit still is active. It's why MLB wouldn't comment for this story. Neither would the players association. The union and Major League players, most of whom started in the minors, have not offered public support for minor leaguers. It's frustrating for Broshuis and Jeremy Wolf and the few others speaking out.

But Wolf says several labor unions have shown interest in his efforts. And then there's the website, which Wolf says isn't about anger. It's about speaking out to make things better and perhaps starting a movement. Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.