Jake Fishman, a relief pitcher for the Double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats, is one of the players who have benefited from the Toronto Blue Jays’ decision to increase salaries for their minor leaguers by 50 percent. Photo courtesy New Hampshire Fisher Cats

Jake Fishman grew up in Massachusetts but spent summer vacations in Saco, attending games at Hadlock Field as a kid. This summer, the 24-year-old has been back at Hadlock as a relief pitcher for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, the Double-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays.

A lot has changed in minor league baseball since Fishman advanced from the bleachers to the pitching rubber. A pitch clock has been employed in an effort to speed up games. Extra innings begin with a runner on second base.

As for player salaries? They haven’t changed much at all. Most Double-A baseball players are paid $1,600 to $1,800 a month during the regular season, and nothing at all for spring training. Unlike major leaguers, minor league players have no union to negotiate on their behalf. Their salaries are paid by the major league teams who control their rights.

Fishman, however, counts himself lucky.

During spring training in Florida, the Blue Jays called a meeting for their minor leaguers and announced pay raises of roughly 50 percent for all of them.

“When they first told us, it was dead silent,” Fishman said. “Nobody knew what to say. My first reaction was that maybe it was an extra $100, $200 a month, and then it was an extra $800. People were like, ‘Whoa!’ That’s substantial.”

No other major league organizations has followed suit, but all are paying attention to see whether Toronto’s efforts to enhance the quality of life for its minor leaguers – including nutritionists assigned to farm clubs – pay dividends in player development.

Ben Cherington, Toronto’s vice president of baseball operations and a former general manager of the Boston Red Sox, said in March that the Blue Jays’ decision came after nearly a year of discussion and research.

“We hope that it allows our players to have the freedom and comfort to make some good choices, whether it’s where to live, where to eat, et cetera,” Cherington told The Athletic. “We just feel like it’s consistent with our values of trying to be a player-centered organization and give them every resource possible to be at their best.”

Major League Baseball has generally kept mum since issuing a statement in March on behalf of the other 29 franchises regarding Toronto’s decision. After noting that each MLB team makes its own decisions regarding minor league salaries and that negotiations are ongoing for terms of a new Majors-Minors agreement to replace one set to expire in September 2020, the statement says: “The working conditions of minor league players, including their compensation, facilities and benefits, is an important area of discussion in those negotiations.”

PROTECTING THEIR INVESTMENT

Fishman is a lefty drafted in the 30th round in 2016 out of Union College. Because he signed after his junior season, Fishman had some leverage and was able to negotiate a $45,000 signing bonus. Other lower-round draft picks without collegiate eligibility may get a few thousand at most.

Jake Fishman said of the pay raise: “Instead of three quarters of your salary going to housing, it’s only half.” Photo courtesy New Hampshire Fisher Cats

When he’s not playing baseball, Fishman gives pitching lessons or helps out as a strength trainer at a gym near his home in Sharon, Massachusetts. A few years back, he did marketing for a baby food company, and last spring he finished up his degree in managerial economics and digital media.

When he arrived this spring in Manchester, New Hampshire, Fishman secured a two-bedroom apartment with fellow pitcher Bryan Baker. Another player slept on the on their couch in the living room.

“Just being able to afford nicer living arrangements has made a big difference,” Fishman said. “Instead of three quarters of your salary going to housing, it’s only half. If we wanted to do this last year, we probably would have said it’s not worth it because we’d be breaking even or tapping into our own money.”

When the Fisher Cats visited Hadlock Field earlier this summer, the team was accompanied by a nutritionist. Between early workouts and the start of the game, she prepared smoothies for the players, tailoring the drinks to their individual dietary needs. She also answered questions about healthy options in the clubhouse dinner spread, which included turkey burgers.

“We’ve always had dietitians around,” said Fisher Cats infielder Nash Knight, who signed as an undrafted free agent in 2015, “but each (affiliate) was assigned one last year. They do a great job making sure that food is accessible, and the right kind of food, and if we have questions, she’s there.”

Nash Knight, an infielder with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, said the Toronto Blue Jays are protecting their investment in minor leaguers. “They want us to make better food choices and they want us to be comfortable where we’re living, making sure we’re getting good sleep. Which makes sense. We’re athletes. We need to take care of our bodies.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Knight, 26, said the extra money in his paycheck is a welcome addition. He is living with three teammates to save on rent, and works in a cabinet shop in Texas during the offseason.

“It takes more things off your plate that you would have had to worry about in previous years,” he said. “It makes it easier to focus on the game and developing and getting better, on being the best teammate you can be.”

The Blue Jays, he said, are protecting their investment in young players.

“They want us to make better food choices and they want us to be comfortable where we’re living, making sure we’re getting good sleep,” he said. “Which makes sense. We’re athletes. We need to take care of our bodies.”

Portland Sea Dogs pitcher Matthew Kent, a 13th-round draft pick by the Red Sox who turns 26 in September, views the Blue Jays pay raise as an experiment not unlike the robot umpires in use this summer in the independent Atlantic League. If successful, Kent said, other organizations are sure to follow suit. If not, then the other clubs will be happy with the status quo.

Other players are cautious on the subject.

“It’s tough to speak on, honestly,” said former Sea Dogs relief pitcher Kevin Lenik, 28, who was promoted to Triple-A Pawtucket in early August. “I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes and I don’t want to say anything disrespectful. Your name comes up and another (general manager) or somebody else sees you trying to rock the boat, you’re out of a job. They’ll take somebody who’s quiet about the whole thing.”

Lenik views playing in the minors as “somewhat of an internship, because if you sit there and think about all the hours you put in, the offseason and during spring training, it’s tough.”

THE FIGHT OVER SALARIES

The issue of poverty-level wages for minor-league ballplayers has been simmering for years. A former Eastern League pitcher turned lawyer, Garrett Broshuis, filed a class-action suit challenging organized baseball that was recently affirmed by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The prospect of paying overtime or wages that would not run afoul of the Fair Labor Standards Act so spooked Major League Baseball that, over a three-year period, they spent nearly $4 million lobbying Congress to slip a provision into a $1.3 billion omnibus spending bill passed in March 2018.

The provision, called Save America’s Pastime Act, considers minor league baseball players to be “seasonal workers or entertainers” who are exempt from federal fair labor laws. At the state level, however, “we can affect a lot of change,” Broshuis said by phone from his office in St. Louis.

Indeed, the three-judge panel issued a ruling on Aug. 16 that minor leaguers who played in the California League or took part in spring training or instructional leagues in Florida or Arizona fall under the wage provisions of those states. Former Sea Dogs Ryan Khoury and Mark Wagner are among the plaintiffs named in the lawsuit.

A spokesman for Minor League Baseball, which also participated in the lobbying effort, declined comment for this story, describing Toronto’s pay hike as “an employer/employee matter between the Blue Jays and the players under contract with them.”

Despite the pay hike, players on the Fisher Cats are making about $2,400 per month during the five-month season. Their annual baseball income of $12,000 remains below the federal poverty level of $12,490 for a single-individual household.

“The entire industry needs to take that step and go beyond what the Blue Jays did,” Broshuis said. “It’s not OK to have your workers working 60 hours a week and paying them (the equivalent of) $4 an hour. That’s not OK in this country.”

Jeremy Wolf thinks he has a solution. Drafted in the 31st round by the New York Mets after playing college baseball in Texas, Wolf lasted two seasons in the low minors before a back injury led to his release.

Last year, Wolf founded More Than Baseball, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of minor-league ballplayers.

“We started it the day after the Save America’s Pastime Act came out,” he said. “Everybody knows how bad it is for minor-league players, and we are a noncombative alternative for all of those issues.”

Wolf, 25, said his organization has partnered with the Blue Jays and hopes other organizations come aboard. Players can receive assistance with housing, food and equipment. Career and financial advice is available as well.

“Our overarching theme,” Wolf said, “is making sure minor leaguers have what they need to survive minor league baseball.”

Slade Heathcott, a former first-round draft pick of the Yankees who received a $2.2 million signing bonus but spent a decade in the minors and 17 games in the big leagues, works with More Than Baseball.

“Just because this is the way it’s been for the last 100 years doesn’t mean it’s right,” Heathcott said of the minor league pay scale. “The game is hard enough as it is. If players don’t have to eat at Burger King or McDonald’s, they’re able to be healthier, to run faster, to think more clearly.”


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