photo: Rob Manfred (Bill Streicher/Imagn)
The growing number of baseball observers supporting pay raises for sub-minimum wage minor league players had a small victory this week.
However, I should reinforce the word “small”. While there is a new path forward, the end result is unclear.
Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred told The Athletic, “You’ve got to pay correctly,” while disclosing negotiations have begun between MLB and Minor League Baseball, a group of mostly-independent owners of teams affiliated with MLB.
Of course, the devil is in the details as to what “correctly” means, who would foot the bill and what collateral damage ensues.
This change in posture by MLB is significant in one aspect, since one of their more recent initiatives was to lobby Congress to pass a bill that exempts them from paying players minimum wage, the “Save America’s Pastime Act (SAPA)”. Part of the tactics to secure agreement was the veiled threat that minor league baseball in small town America could be lost forever if pay was increased. (Details can be found in the following article.)
That threat of contracting teams, or perhaps even entire leagues, may return in these just-started talks. The Athletic article suggests that Major League owners may ask Minor League owners to foot some portion of the increased expenses incurred as well as potentially contract some teams.
Traditionally, MLB organizations handle player and coach costs and the Minor League teams cover operational costs. However, the latter also shares a percentage of ticket revenues with MLB, which could become a leverage point for MLB to force its will.
Sadly, the players themselves have no representation, so will not be a part of these discussions, despite the fact the outcome of the talks could dramatically re-shape the minor league landscape. Minor leaguers are specifically not represented by the MLB Players’ Association, who in fact, have been known to secure benefits for their rank and file by giving ground on minor league matters.
A recent example is the decision to add a 26th active MLB player starting in 2020, but also limiting September call-ups to just two (28-man maximum roster), down from today’s theoretical maximum of 15 additions. Most of these September call-ups are minor leaguers. (Details in this article.)
By opening these talks, Manfred, a skilled labor negotiator, may be throwing a bone to quiet the growing discontent over salaries, for which the SAPA was crafted as a hammer to squash the tide of lawsuits that had been filed against them.
It is also worth noting that the current Minor League Agreement does not expire until the end of 2020. So, Manfred could simply be taking a page out of his predecessor’s playbook. Bud Selig was a master of the “study and stall” approach to difficult problems.
An optimistic conclusion would be an agreement to substantially increase minor league pay without forcing large numbers of minor league teams to cease operations.
A pessimistic conclusion is that MLB plays the heavy, pushing major cost increases on Minor League teams, either forcing many of them out of business or simply contracting them out of existence.
Of course, many fewer teams would translate into many fewer players. So in this latter case, the remaining players might earn more money, but there would not be as many of them to reap the benefits.
However, if the public furor is too great and representatives of Congress are attuned, MLB could risk losing the air cover provided by the SAPA. Then again, if salaries are increased to regular wage levels, MLB may no longer need the SAPA, anyway.
Any contraction would seem to fly in the face of recent initiatives by MLB teams to gain a competitive advantage in the international marketplace by scouting 13 and 14-year olds and signing large numbers of them when they turn 16. These raw teens need many years and levels of play to mature as ballplayers.
Sadly, the most likely scenario perhaps is that a middle ground cannot be found and the current system continues. Only time will tell, but my fear is that any meaningful benefits provided to minor leaguers will come with a high associated cost.
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