Baseball is America, mom, apple pie and working below minimum wage

Most of the players in minor league baseball, especially on teams in independent leagues such as the Saint Paul Saints, aren’t going anywhere.

But that’s not the way most of the public sees them, which is why there won’t be much notice today when/if Congress puts the screws to them by denying them minimum wage protections.

Minor league teams consider players to be “apprentices” and seasonal employees, allowing them to earn as little as $1,100 a month under exemptions to the minimum wage law.

City Pages notes today that’s particularly galling for teams like the Saints, who had taxpayers build a new stadium downtown which is filled for every game. Someone’s making money; it’s not the players.

The team gathers its roster from players unable to land a spot on any of the 150-plus minor league teams operated by Major League Baseball. They’re the unvalued and overlooked, the has-beens and never-weres. To argue that they’re interning for the majors is akin to saying the loading dock worker is in training to become the CEO.

Still, unlike most parasites – say, the owner of the Pioneer Press — the Saints give a great deal back to the city. They routinely sell out by offering the most fan-friendly sporting experience in town. While prices are on the high side for minor league fare, at least your wallet doesn’t want to file rape charges every time you enter the stadium, as it does with the bigger franchises in town.

Last year’s average attendance of 8,200 was double their league average. Fans, at least, are finding clear value in the Saints’ continued operation.

The Saints could push the American Association to raise the salary cap, but that’s likely to just kill teams on the less fortunate end of the spectrum. While St. Paul is a miniature gold mine, this is not a league that plays in lands of riches. Teams in Grand Prairie, Texas and Sioux City, Iowa draw less than 1,300 a night. Baseball doesn’t work when there’s no one left to play.

The Saints are seeking an exemption from state minimum wage laws. The state minimum wage is higher than the national minimum wage.

The Washington Post, meanwhile, says congressional leaders are mostly refusing to talk about the issue, after being lobbied hard by Major League Baseball. For that reason, many expect a provision granting the exemption will appear suddenly in a spending bill expected to be released this evening.

“We’re just saying that the formula of minimum wage and overtime is so incalculable,” Pat O’Conner, the president of Minor League Baseball, tells the Post. “I would hate to think that a prospect is told, ‘You got to go home because you’re out of hours, you can’t have any extra batting practice.’ It’s those kinds of things. It’s not like factory work. It’s not like work where you can punch a time clock and management can project how many hours they’re going to have to pay for.”

But minor leaguers have been challenging the rules, which is why Congress needs to extend the exemptions to save the very game of baseball. Or so we’re told.

“This is about billionaire owners using their clout to try to pass something that isn’t going through the normal procedures of legislature and that is only going to make thousands of minor leaguers suffer even more,” Garrett R. Broshuis, a St. Louis lawyer
representing a group of players, said. “We’re just talking about basic minimum wage laws here — the same laws that McDonald’s has to comply with, the same laws that Walmart has to comply with. And so surely if Walmart or McDonald’s can find a way to comply with those laws, then Major League Baseball can find a way to comply with them, too.”

O’Connor, meanwhile, waved the flag.

“We’re in 42 states, 160 cities. We’ve got over $3 billion of infrastructure, much of which is still being paid off by the clubs and the communities where they exist,” he said. “This is about constituents, this is about jobs at home, and this is about quality of life at home.”

The blog, Knuckleballs, asks a good question: If making players work for next to nothing is fair, why are politicians so secretive about the exemption?

Players at lower levels (such as with the Class A Cedar Rapids Kernels) are making maybe $1,200 per month. That’s GROSS pay, by the way.

The players that will be sent to Cedar Rapids at the beginning of April aren’t getting paid that while they’re down in Ft. Myers for spring training, either. They get paid only for time spent on an active minor league roster. In the minor leagues, that’s five months… at most. Many players play in “short season” leagues that run only three months during the summer.

Just for reference, I made better money working for a fast food burger chain… in 1976.