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Weep not for the Independent Leagues

MLB schedule release

ST. LOUIS, MO - APRIL 25: Baseballs sit in the St. Louis Cardinals dugout prior to a game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium on April 25, 2014 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by David Welker/Getty Images)

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Last week we talked about how the new provisions in the just-passed federal spending bill -- specifically, the subset euphemistically-entitled the “Save America’s Pastime Act” -- will eliminate labor law protections for minor leaguers. Specifically, it exempts them from the Fair Labor Standards Act.

While it was initially thought that the law would allow the leagues to pay players less-than-minimum wage, that’s not really accurate. Technically, the bill mandates that baseball employees receive minimum wage for a 40 hour work week, which works out to $290 per week. Practically that’s no help to minor leaguers, though, in that minor leaguers are NOT working 40 hour work weeks and only get paid during the season. That means that team obligations and training between September and April -- and there are a lot of those sorts of obligations -- represents unpaid labor. When we say minor leaguers make less than minimum wage, it’s because they are, effectively speaking, making far less than minimum wage once you account for their actual labor, which Congress is now saying need not be accounted for.

That mandate that players be paid actual minimum wage will do something else, though. As J.J. Cooper of Baseball America wrote on Friday, it could mean the end of the Independent Leagues, as they aren’t even paying their players that $290 a week:

In some independent leagues, this new bill could blow up their salary structure by massively increasing costs. In others, it will mean closing the doors.

“If that is the case, it puts us out of business,” said Mike Shapiro, the president of the Pacific Association’s San Rafael Pacifics. “It would be the ruination of at least lower level independent leagues like ours. We’re struggling enough with worker’s comp . . . It’s the end of independent ball, certainly at the lower levels.”

Today Jeff Passan of Yahoo takes aim at that:

Oh, and just this week, MLB’s lobbying efforts in Washington to inure themselves from having to pay minor league players a living wage somehow wound up in the spending bill. Never mind the collateral damage that low-level independent leagues now must pay minimum wage to players, which essentially murders their business, which means MLB’s effort to make sure minor leaguers live near the poverty line indirectly means fewer people get to see and play baseball. Awesome.

I’m failing to see the problem.

The Independent Leagues are colorful and irreverent and a fun time is had by all, but if your business model is predicated on paying people less than minimum wage, your business model is flawed. If you can’t pay your workers $7.25 an hour, you don’t deserve to stay in business. At least not as a profit-making operation like the Indy League operator quoted above is. And don’t even get me started on his dig at worker’s compensation, which is crazy to complain about given that indy operators are making money off a pursuit that has an inherent risk of serious injury to workers.

If you want to keep the West BFE Wildcats in business, turn them into a club team with volunteer players like that college friend of yours who plays rugby with his drinking buddies. Run it like those semi-pro softball guys who travel around and share in weekend tournament purses or something. Don’t expect, however, to continue to operate them like a business with underpaid people as your employees. You have no God-given right to make money running a baseball league and the rules of capitalism are far less forgiving than anything He’s handing out.

It’s bad enough that Major League clubs are now legally allowed to treat minor leaguers like summer lifeguards or whatever. Going even farther below that is not something which should be defended, even if, on some philosophical level, you like the idea of indy baseball.

Follow @craigcalcaterra