Major League Baseball continues to ignore problems in minor leagues
By Jared Brecher
November 29, 2021
Photo Credit: Associated Press
Anyone who follows Major League Baseball knows about the huge contracts that star players possess. In 2019, Mike Trout signed the largest contract in the history of the sport at $426.5 million over twelve years. While this number was reserved for the game's best, over a dozen other players currently have contracts worth over $250 million. The league minimum at the major league level is a respectable $570,500 per season, and the average MLB contract is worth $4.17 million annually. For these reasons, fans typically have little to no sympathy when millionaire athletes and billionaire owners fight over the economic implications of contracts.
In fact, many fans constantly criticize the ownership groups of their beloved teams for not investing enough money in the product on the field. But the group that should be getting more sympathy from the fans of Major League Baseball aren't the players or the owners, but rather, the minor leaguers. If you're unfamiliar with contracts in the minors, buckle up, because this isn't going to be pretty.
According to ESPN, minor league players earn between $8,000 and $14,000 per season. Spring training and offseason workouts are unpaid. Additionally, several clubs don't provide players with food stipends and some organizations don't provide housing for players. After basic expenses, most minor leaguers cannot afford basic necessities that professional athletes need to thrive. Cody Decker, a former infielder for the San Diego Padres who played part of eleven seasons in the minor leagues said, "There were multiple seasons I had to live in my car."
Living out of one's car is not uncommon in the minor leagues, and several former players have even come forward and said that they were homeless during various periods in the league. But why are minor leaguers paid so little?
To identify the root cause of this issue, you need to go back to a US Supreme Court Case from 1922. In Federal Baseball Club Vs. National League, the Supreme Court ruled that Major League Baseball was exempt from antitrust activity. This ruling has allowed Major League Baseball to continue to be unethical in the treatment of minor leaguers. Some minor leaguers overcome the economic hardship by using their signing bonus money. While players in the top few rounds can often make millions of dollars, 40% of players drafted receive under $10,000 bonuses, according to Baseball America.
Over the past couple of years, MLB has made small efforts to help minor leaguers, including a salary increase of 38% to 72%. However, these figures still place the vast majority of minor league ballplayers under the poverty line, which sits at around $13,000. Cody Decker said during his time in the minors, "Most guys didn't have a choice but to work other jobs."
Former minor leaguer, Kieran Lovegrove, stated that poor living conditions in the minor leagues are creating a "mental health crisis." When asked about the poor standard of living in the minors and if it created a mental health crisis, Decker said, "That's not the intention [of the owners], but it's a byproduct of it." Decker also added that low pay and housing issues "can lead to alcohol and drug problems" for some players.
Since MLB is exempt from antitrust laws, they are also able to mandate that each team has the sole rights to a player's contract for the first seven years that they spend in the minors. Decker says, "People aren't aware that when you're drafted, you're owned for seven years."
So if conditions are so bad in the minor leagues, how can they be fixed? Well, that's complicated. While several major leaguers have spoken out against the treatment of minor leaguers, little has been done to address their needs. The MLB Players Association (The players' labor union) is usually so focused on improving standards for themselves that minor league problems are cast aside. When asked what needs to occur to improve conditions for minor league ballplayers, Decker said "through a labor union or through Congress."
While MLB has prided themselves in recent years for promoting standards of living for minor leaguers, it's evident that in order for real change to occur, the system itself needs to change.