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Basic truth behind low salaries of minor leaguers

San Diego Padres v Colorado Rockies

DENVER, CO - APRIL 7: A detail photograph of a locked basket of baseballs seen in a hallway within the stadium after a game between the Colorado Rockies and the San Diego Padres at Coors Field on April 7, 2013 in Denver, Colorado. The Rockies beat the Padres 9-1. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

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In the wake of Congress moving to exempt minor leaguers from the protection of labor laws, a lot of people have commented or messaged me with observations and suggestions about how easy it would be for baseball teams to raise minor league salaries to a the level of a living wage. About how, for the price of a middle reliever per team, all minor leaguers could get something like a $10,000 a year raise. I’ve done the math on this and, yes, that’s basically correct.

I nod and agree with these observations and suggestions, but they miss the point entirely. Major League owners have zero desire to raise salaries of minor leaguers. They have no interest at all. It’s not a matter of ability to do so, it’s a matter of will. They have no will to do this and thus your appeal to how easy it would be for them to do so is meaningless.

In this they are no different than any other business owner, all of whom would love to pay as little as possible for labor. Every single one of them. In a capitalist system, labor is a commodity like anything else, and all business owners will do whatever they can reasonably do to reduce commodity prices. Your employer too. Maybe not your boss -- a lot of us have nice bosses who would go to bat for us -- but the people who make the ultimate decisions about labor costs and budgets and headcount do. They pay you what they pay you either because they are forced to by the law, like minimum wage and overtime rules, or they are forced to by the market. This is not a philosophical point. It’s a factual one. It’s literally how the labor market works in a capitalist system.

The problem is that those factors don’t apply in the case of baseball. The market argument is moot because major league teams quite literally control minor leaguers. While a worker at Acme, Incorporated could theoretically leave and go work for Consolidated Amalgamated, Incorporated if he or she does not like their salary, minor leaguers cannot do the same. At least not within their industry. To get a higher wage they have to cease being baseball players and do something completely different with their lives. As for baseball employers being compelled to pay more by virtue of the law, all of that will be over with tomorrow when the budget bill passes.

So, are there any other options for minor leaguers looking for a better break? Not that I can see.

Many of you have asked why the Major League Baseball Players’ Association doesn’t get involved here and stand up for minor leaguers. I can’t see that happening. The MLBPA is having a bad enough time representing who it’s representing. Calls for it to use its bargaining power to help minor leaguers are pretty unrealistic. And that’s before you acknowledge that it probably doesn’t even want to. Sure, we all can construct a logical or philosophical argument about why it should do so -- the children are our future and all of that -- but the MLBPA and most of its rank and file sees minor leaguers as the guys taking their jobs, not their brothers-in-arms. Heck, the MLBPA has, in recent years, not seemed to care all that much about what happens to its own members who aren’t yet arbitration-eligible.

Can the minor leaguers unionize independently? Theoretically, sure, but practically speaking it’d be insanely difficult for them to do so. Minor league careers are short. A players’ future is 100% in the hands of management, making retaliation a serious danger. While it’s hard to replace a big league talent who goes on strike, there are far more potential replacements at the single-A and Double-A skill level and competition is tremendous. Solidarity in the face of those pressures is possible, but it would require an unprecedented effort. And that’s before you figure that the sure-thing major leaguers -- top prospects who got big bonuses and can assume they will be in the big leagues soon -- are unlikely to join in lest they hurt their chances at being called up in a timely manner.

“Wait!” some have responded, “what’s to stop an owner from breaking from the herd and paying its minor leaguers more than another team’s as a means of achieving a competitive advantage?” I like the impulse -- it’s very “Moneyball” to look for such inefficiencies, don’t you know -- but it’s just as unrealistic as any of the other scenarios. Why would they? Sure, if minor leaguers are paid more they could live in better apartments, afford better food, have more time to dedicate to training and thus become better ballplayers, but that presupposes that baseball owners care about all of their minor leaguers and see them all as potential major leaguers. That simply is not the case.

Anyone who has spent time in the minors will tell you, it’s not a strict meritocracy. Roughly speaking, there are prospects and there is cannon fodder. Stars and jobbers. The prospects and stars are already doing OK. They got bonuses that will take them through their make-or-break years. They can afford healthy meals, a Tempurpedic mattress and can train all offseason rather than work at Safeway. Owners aren’t worried about them. The cannon fodder and jobbers can, and often do, through determination and sacrifice, make the bigs. But they’re doing it on their own dime. To an owner, it’s like having an employee who pays for his own work computer and chips in for office rent. Your company would love to have employees like this but can’t because of labor laws. Baseball does not have this problem. There is a seemingly never-ending supply of guys willing to, as it were, buy their own work computers.

At this point, I get responses like this one:

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No, I didn’t make that case. I made the case as to why the current situation for minor leaguer persists and why, for the foreseeable future, it will continue to persist. I am not making the case that it is “fair” in any objective way. As I argued with respect to the Ronald Acuna case the other day, just because something happens through logical operation does not make that result morally or ethically justifiable. It makes total sense that minor leaguers get boned and there is nothing I can see that will change the system any time soon, but it’s still an unjust system that forces young men to endure a lot of crap in order to ply their trade. A system that persists not because of economic imperatives, but because the very, very rich men who run it can get away with it.

Any of you who have read my work for any length of time know that I don’t tend to strike a defeatist tone about many things. I’m normally not accepting of injustices and sharp practices. In this case of minor league salaries, however, those are the facts. The owners had always won this fight in the past. The moment they got pushback in the form of a lawsuit, they doubled down and made sure they’d win by lobbying Congress to change the laws. There is no workaround here. There is no incentive for those with the power to change the system to actually change they system. Indeed, they just moved heaven and earth to stop it from changing. There is likewise no reasonable means to force change.

It’s a bad state of affairs imposed by men who don’t give a crap about the people who work for them, aided by a government which chooses to side with the rich and the powerful over those who are exploited. That’s not an uncommon dynamic in human history. In this instance, we all get to see how that dynamic plays out in the pastime we love.

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