The average salary for Major League Baseball players was $3.39 million last year. The current minimum is $500,000.
Double-A players, such as those on the Portland Sea Dogs, can expect a salary of $7,500 – $1,500 a month from opening day through season’s end. That’s well shy of the federal poverty level for a single person of $11,670. Their work week can stretch to 70 hours and their scheduled off days can include hours of bus travel.
A federal class-action lawsuit filed earlier this year charges MLB, its 30 teams and Commissioner Bud Selig with breaking state and federal labor laws by paying such low wages, ignoring overtime and “actively and openly” colluding on working conditions.
Among the contentions is that while salaries for major leaguers have increased by 2,500 percent since 1976, minor league pay has risen only 75 percent over the same period, which saw inflation rise by more than 400 percent.
“That’s why you hear stories about three guys living in a room, sleeping on air mattresses,” said Sea Dogs pitcher Michael McCarthy.
One of the plaintiffs is Ryan Khoury, a former Sea Dogs infielder now playing for the Wichita Wingnuts in the independent American Association.
Khoury, who hopes to return to affiliated baseball, declined through an intermediary to be interviewed for this story.
“He’s doing this not without risk and definitely not for himself,” said Garrett Broshuis. “He’s doing this with the big picture in mind.”
Broshuis is the minor-leaguer-turned-lawyer who started this legal ball rolling. A fifth-round pick in 2004 out of the University of Missouri, Broshuis spent six years as a pitcher in the San Francisco Giants system, reaching Triple-A.
He pitched four seasons in the Eastern League. On a Tuesday night in late July of 2008, he found himself at Hadlock Field facing a rehabilitating big leaguer wearing a Sea Dogs uniform: Red Sox DH David Ortiz.
Broshuis caught Big Papi looking at a two-seam fastball that tailed over the plate for strike three.
“I still tell people that’s one of the highlights of my career,” said Broshuis, by phone from St. Louis. “It was probably all of 87 miles per hour, which explains why I’m sitting in an office right now.”
LACK OF UNION HURTS PLAYERS
As a relatively high draft pick, Broshuis received a substantial signing bonus of $160,000. Players drafted in the early rounds can expect big bonuses, although Selig and major league owners were able to rein in such spending through a slotting and tax system agreed to in 2012 by the Major League Baseball Players Association, which represents only those players on the 40-man roster.
The bonus money “certainly helped me,” Broshuis said. “Some guys have to rely on parents to help pay rent or pay for cellphones. Others have to resort to credit card debt.”
After the first 10 rounds, bonuses paid out are a relative pittance. Broshuis said they average about $2,500. Players at all levels of the minor leagues also receive a per diem meal allowance, while on the road, of $25. Per diem for a minor league umpire, by contrast, runs between $42.50 and $56 depending on their level.
Umpires in Double-A earn $2,300 per month. Of course, umpires in the minors have been unionized since 1999. Minor league hockey players also have a union. Minor league baseball players do not.
Broshuis helped file the initial lawsuit in February in San Francisco on behalf of three players: Aaron Senne, Michael Liberto and Oliver Odle. They played in the minors for the Marlins, Royals and Giants, respectively. Khoury and 28 others joined the suit in March so that every major league team is now a defendant.
McCarthy, the Sea Dogs pitcher, is not a party to the lawsuit but he’s heard about it. He understands the grind of minor league baseball and likens it to an internship.
“Part of what makes baseball so special is that you have to put in so much time to get (to the majors),” he said. “I respect that. That’s what guys before us have done. As long as I’m (continuing to progress), that’s a decision I make. I continue to play the game knowing the financial situation.”
The reality, of course, is that the vast majority of minor leaguers never see a day in the majors. Their primary value to the major league organization that drafted them (and signed them to a seven-year contract) is to provide a framework for the more skilled players to develop.
“You’re chasing your dream,” Broshuis said of minor leaguers. “Guys are very reluctant to do anything to jeopardize reaching that dream.”
NO SLAM-DUNK ANSWER
Because of baseball’s antitrust exemption, the case for the minor leaguers will be difficult. Broshuis believes the way around the antitrust exemption is by appealing to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, enacted, in the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to “protect workers unable to protect themselves from excessively low wages and excessively long hours.”
“Corporations like McDonald’s and Walmart have to comply with the FLSA,” Broshuis said. “We don’t see any reason why Major League Baseball shouldn’t have to comply with it also. It’s an $8 billion industry and growing. There’s certainly money there that could go to the minor leaguers.”
The approach is interesting, said Michael McCann, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Sports and Entertainment Law Institute.
“There’s two issues there,” McCann said. “One is the economic aspect of the case. I think it’s striking to many fans that minor league players are paid so low. Many are paid less than fast-food workers.”
That economic argument, McCann said, is very persuasive. The legal argument, however, is less clear.
“We’re talking about language that has to be interpreted,” McCann said. “Athletes could fall within categories that would exempt them from minimum pay.”
Are ballplayers seasonal employees? Are they entertainers? If a minor leaguer goes to a gym and works out, is that part of his employment?
“Those are issues that can be debated,” McCann said. “Some of the work they do could be considered personal advancement. Wages law is very complex. There’s no slam-dunk answer on this.”
Selig and the major league teams denied all charges and presented a 78-page defense in late May. Eleven teams asked for a dismissal of the case.
MLB asked that it be moved to Florida (ostensibly because 15 teams have spring training sites there, but more likely because Florida courts are considered more employer-friendly than those in California).
The San Francisco court will decide by early December whether to keep the case, send it to Florida or dismiss the 11 teams based on their not having any affiliations in California.
“Everyone kind of understands that we get to play a kid’s game for a living,” said former Sea Dogs’ player Derrik Gibson, recently promoted to Triple-A Pawtucket.
“But the struggles for us are different than struggles in the big leagues.
“A lot of guys, myself included, have offseason jobs because we’ve got families or wives or kids. We’re trying to continue to be able to play baseball and hopefully that ultimate goal will come, of getting to the big leagues and then being able to take care of your family.”
And for all those families headed by players who never reach the big leagues?
“Our goal is to effect meaningful change,” Broshuis said. “That’s what we’re fighting for.”