Washington Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton found himself at the center of the Minor League pay problem issue this past weekend.
On Thursday, Washington City Paper published an article describing the living and working conditions of a handful of the Class A-Advanced Potomac Nationals, one of Washington's minor-league affiliates. The article, which credited Eaton with saying that he doesn't believe minor leaguers should be paid "big time," but they could be paid slightly more.
Additionally, Eaton said that he believes the MLB shouldn't make conditions in the minor leagues "more hospitable," because otherwise players could get complacent and, supposedly, have less of an incentive or drive to make the majors.
Eaton's argument is more nuanced than those few quotes, and on Monday City Paper published an article with the entirety of Eaton's interview available online.
WHAT IS THE PROBLEM WITH MINOR-LEAGUE PAY?
Four players sued MLB in 2014, alleging that its policies “artificially and illegally depressing” minor league salaries. The case was dismissed, but it elevated the concerns of minor league players and the disparity between the support for them and MLB players (here's a good place to start if you want to learn more about this fight).
Many have had to live with host families or share small apartments with upwards of five teammates while in a major league team's farm system. Some, including Eaton, recall the abysmal food options provided to players by the teams, often including peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.
The issue of whether minor leaguers are paid a "livable wage" has become a more prominent issue since the suit was filed. In 2018 President Donald Trump signed the "Save America's Pastime Act," which enables MLB to exclude most professional baseball players from the Fair Labor Standards Act and thus insulates the current system of pay between the major and minor leagues.
While those drafted in the earlier rounds may receive signing bonuses upwards of $8 million, those who do receive signing bonuses make up only a small percentage of those in the minor leagues.
Last year, the monthly minimum salaries for minor league players were: $1,100 in rookie ball and Single-A, $1,500 in Double-A and $2,150 in Triple-A, according to an article from the Associated Press.
WHAT DID ADAM EATON SAY?
Eaton's argument is complicated and mainly based on personal experience. (The Nationals outfielder spent time in the Arizona Diamondbacks' minor league system after he was drafted in the 19th round of the 2010 MLB Draft. Since then he's also spent time in the Chicago White Sox and the Nationals' minor-league systems, mainly on rehab assignments.)
It's unfair to lay out Eaton's claim as one claiming that nothing should change and minor league players should continue to be exploited. Eaton explicitly said that he "doesn't disagree [minor leaguers are] being exploited," but added that "it's for the betterment of everybody."
The outfielder credited his experience in the "dog-eat-dog world" of the minor leagues as helping him appreciate the majors all the more, because it kept him from getting complacent and made him focus on baseball.
But Eaton also admitted that there is what he calls "wiggle room" in the minor-league salaries; the minor league teams could increase salaries a little bit (but not too much, according to Eaton).
WHY IS THERE CONTROVERSY?
The problem stems from the fact that Eaton's argument is complex, and he repeatedly backtracked in his interview with City Paper. Plus, words are extremely subjective. So while Eaton said that if MLB made the minor league life "more livable," then players would get complacent, he also said that minor league players shouldn't be exploited and should make slightly more money.
Many articles published have used headlines that amount to "click-bait," which shave Eaton's argument down to "minor-leaguers should be exploited because it's a good thing." That isn't Eaton's whole argument, though.
Understanding where Eaton's argument fits into the entire pay problem is important in understanding why Eaton is under scrutiny right now. And to do that, what amounts to a "liveable wage" and "liveable conditions" must be better defined. Eaton argues that minor league players should make enough so that they're "literally not eating crumbs," but not so much that they grow comfortable. As he claims, it's those minor-leaguers who are "milled by pressure," the 30th and 40th round draft picks with no signing bonus and no guarantee they'll ever reach the majors, who ensure a "longevity in the big league."
HAS EATON SAID ANYTHING ELSE?
Well, yes. Eaton took to Instagram Monday, after the City Paper article with the complete interview transcript was published, essentially cleaning up his argument and apologizing for offending anyone.
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