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The Washington City Paper ran a story on Sunday discussing the poor working and living conditions of low-level minor-league players in the Nationals’ system. For the most part, it’s full of the kind of information you’re already aware of if you’ve been opening up newsletters like this one, but then it gets to current Nats’ outfielder Adam Eaton, and what he has to say about minor-league exploitation. In short, it’s a net good! Who knew?
Washington Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton believes he wouldn’t be where he is without the minor league system he calls a “very dog-eat-dog world.” The Arizona Diamondbacks selected Eaton in the 19th round of the 2010 MLB draft, and he’s spent about a third of his career in the minor leagues.
While he believes things can be improved and players should make a little more money so they’re “literally not eating crumbs,” he doesn’t want MLB to make minor league conditions more hospitable.
“If you do, complacency sets in,” Eaton says. “I think it’s difficult, yes, and it’s easy for me to say that because of where I am, but I wouldn’t be where I am without that … If I financially am supported down there and financially can make a living and not have to get to the big leagues, I think I’m a little more comfortable. I think that I might not work as hard because I know I’m getting a decent paycheck every two weeks, and may not push myself nearly as hard.”
“I don’t disagree with [the notion] that they’re being exploited, but I think it’s for the betterment of everybody,” he adds. “I know it sounds crazy … I think there’s a middle ground … There’s ground to be made up, but I think it still should be rough.”
Eaton isn’t so much malicious here as he is extremely full of shit. He’s probably convinced himself that whatever awfulness he went through in the minors built his character, tempered his steel, or whatever cliche you want to use here, and that who he is today justifies what he went through in the minors. This is not an uncommon perspective in MLB, in sports, in society at large. It’s the same kind of mentality that has some people who have already paid their student loans off or worked 80 hours per week while in college in order to pay for their education (or had their parents pay for the whole thing with money their grandparents inherited) angry when a presidential candidate suggests that there should be student loan forgiveness. It’s the same kind of mentality that has some people angry about increases to the minimum wage, since they’ve worked for however many years without the government stepping in to give them a raise. “I had to suffer, so you should, too” is all too common a refrain, when what people should be thinking is, “I had to suffer, and we should make sure no one else has to live through what I did.”
Let’s not skip discussing Eaton’s suggestion that being better paid and better treated would essentially make minor-league players lazy and complacent, too. First of all, hypothetically, if a minor-league player is paid well enough to be a minor-league player for a living, and they don’t kill themselves to become more than that, that’s perfectly acceptable. They’re not taking up a space that rightfully belongs to someone else, they’re still contributing to the overall MLB ecosystem that develops talent and sends it to the bigs, and maybe they end up deciding to coach or participating in some other playing-adjacent career after their time in MiLB, instead of having to leave the industry behind in order to try to find a gig that will feed his family. It was Eaton’s dream to get to the majors, but it doesn’t have to be everyone’s dream, even if they have the talent to get close. And not everyone has the talent to get anywhere close, but they should still be paid well, because again, MLB benefits from these players, and the aforementioned ecosystem requires them and their labor to work.
Second, the minor-leagues don’t have to be seen as some kind of Saw-esque escape room that minor-league players need extra motivation to get away from before their bodies and minds are forever changed for the worse. The majors are right there, the goal is clear, the rewards obvious. Being paid $50,000 per year with full health insurance, a lighter travel schedule, and an apartment that isn’t infested with roaches instead of $11,000 per year with five roommates, cabinets stuffed full of ramen, and, well, an apartment that is infested with roaches isn’t going to make professional baseball players less in love with the idea of being a major leaguer. It’ll make it easier to handle the ups and downs of the developmental cycle and the disappointment of not being called up when you feel you’re ready, but it won’t make players decide that hey, this is the life.
And even if it did, let’s be blunt about that: who gives a shit? There are 6,000 minor-league players at a given time, vying for just 750 spots in the majors, and another 1,200 newbies come into the system through the draft alone each summer. If Adam Eaton’s teammate doesn’t harness all of his innate talent because he’s feeling his not-uncomfortable salary and gets to shop somewhere besides the Dollar Menu to eat, and that complacency somehow stunts his growth as a player, then that makes it easier for the Eatons of this “dog-eat-dog world” to be those eating instead of the ones being eaten.
Bill Baer suggests that the Major League Baseball Players Association should use this as an opportunity to educate their members on minor-league exploitation, how it benefits ownership, and so on, but the problem is that the Players Association needs to agree that it’s a priority. As we’ve discussed here in the past, the list of topics the MLBPA needs to educate its members on in order to get them on the same page come collective bargaining time is already an extensive one: this feels like the kind of thing that will get lost in that shuffle.
At the same time, throwing it in the same bin as whatever discussion tries to keep future Nick Markakisi from occurring could work: Markakis re-signed for a below-market deal with the Braves this past offseason, and then went to the media to talk about how he’s lucky to be paid to play a kid’s game for a living. Markakis’ words, coming from a veteran clubhouse presence, likely had some weight in the extension decisions of young teammates Ronald Acuña and Ozzie Albies, who both signed exceedingly below-market deals, especially in the case of Albies. That is… unfortunate, and sadly, easily replicable.
Teaching young players to know that Markakis, Eaton, and others like them have no idea what they’re talking about could help negate the kind of influence they might currently possess. Sure, it might make those players upset, but these conversations are just as likely to show them how they’ve been lying to themselves for years about the value of their previous and current treatment and their own self-worth. And that would keep them from giving these kinds of quotes to the media, or to their teammates, and help to break a cycle that needs breaking.