Randy Dobnak, Uber driver, is a symptom of a larger MLB problem

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The Twins were swept out of the postseason by the Yankees, but not before pitcher Randy Dobnak could make an appearance. Dobnak, a rookie right-hander, appeared in nine regular season games, including five starts, and pitched brilliantly in the process. The 24-year-old wasn’t a top prospect in the organization entering the year, but thrived across three levels in 2019, anyway, and then there he was, starting an American League Division Series game against the Yankees. You’re not a true Twin until you lose to the Yankees in the postseason, you know: it’s a huge honor.

For Dobnak, it was the end of a long journey, one which saw him sign with the Twins as an undrafted free agent in 2017 after pitching in independent ball. Dobnak received a $2,000 bonus, and… that was it. After that, he was fully subject to the poverty-level wages of Minor League Baseball, wages which caused him to drive an Uber around this past spring in Fort Myers, spring training home of the Twins. Dobnak was actually working as an Uber driver in between games in the spring: someone had to pay him, and minor-league players don’t get paid during spring training, even if they’re taking part in it.

Of course, the gig economy is there to prey on the Randy Dobnaks of the world, people who don’t make enough to get by on in their day job. Dobnak was making cash he needed at a time he wasn’t getting paid, sure, but he’s also responsible for his gas, maintenance on his car, and so on, and it’s not like he’s receiving any benefits from them since he’s an independent contractor and not an employee. Uber relies on those like Randy Dobnak to hold them up as examples of the people their existence helps, and the classification of independent contractors as employees would hurt. At the same time, neither MLB nor Uber will take responsibility for Dobnak, ensuring he has everything he needs to get by. He had to work two full-time gigs — driving from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays and all day on Sundays while spending his mornings training for his baseball career — but he’s not an employee at Uber because of flexibility, and MLB is actively fighting against having to adhere to state law in Arizona, which would force them to pay minor-league players in the spring instead of pretending they’re interns or whatever.

Anyway, what makes Dobnak’s story special is that he survived the system that’s setup to crush him. And I don’t mean that in Adam Eaton’s “suffering is good, actually” way, either. Just that Dobnak entered into a system in which he was paid $2,000 for the incredibly slim chance to earn actual money someday, one in which he would have to suffer poverty-level wages and working more than one job, and he, unlike thousands and thousands (and thousands) of others, made it to the top. What makes Dobnak’s story like everyone else’s is what he endured to get to this point.

That Dobnak story published on Oct. 5. On Oct. 7, Giants’ minor-league reliever Tyler Cyr posted his pay stub for the 2019 season on Twitter.

Cyr played for the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats, the 2019 Triple-A national champions. He spent half of the season there, with the other half coming at Double-A, and, after taxes and the like, took home $8,216. Cyr began the year in extended spring training, and wasn’t transferred to Double-A until April 20, which means he went until nearly May before receiving a paycheck: like regular spring training, minor-league players aren’t paid for extended spring. Cyr then played in the Triple-A postseason, which he also was not paid for: the first River Cats postseason game was September 4, and the final one September 13: that’s 10 unpaid days of the schedule, even though tickets and concessions and merch are sold for those games. Someone is making money, but as usual, it’s not the players.

It goes beyond just that pay stub, too. Cyr explained in additional tweets that he pays to play baseball every year, and, like Dobnak, can’t just rely on his primary job to get by: that’s how low the wages are vs. the cost of living for playing the game, even at Triple-A:

“I was drafted in 2015. Every season since , I have PAID to play baseball. This year I paid -$487.64 (which is the highest of my career previously 2016 -$94, 2017 -$112, 2018 +$1250 rehabbed an injury)”

“Landscaping 4am-2pm, Lulu lemon 7 hr shifts, Don & Charlies slangin bomb steaks & pricey vino are just a couple off season jobs I’ve obtained. Btw let’s not forget about training to be a professional athlete”

This is the reality for minor-league baseball players. They aren’t paid enough to live. They work absurd hours, yet aren’t eligible for overtime thanks to the lobbying of Major League Baseball. They might, like Dobnak or like the Reds’ Brian O’Grady, make it to the majors even when they weren’t expected to. Those become stories about what a can-do attitude and hard work can get a player, though, instead of stories about what this really is: exploitation.

Beyond the Box Score’s Matt Provenzano put it best on Twitter with his reference to a common refrain of the neoliberal hellscape we live in:

“It’s great Randy Dobnak made it here from being an Uber driver” is the baseball version of the “child collects cans to pay for college” dystopian story

Like how there are a number of fixes for the child who can’t afford a higher education — revamping the education industry so it’s less of an industry to be profited off of and more for education, for one — MLB could simply pay their minor-league players. Instead, MLB salutes those like Dobnak who survive the gauntlet, fail to take responsibility for the hurdles they place in their own workers’ way, and hope the fan takeaway is that hard work and perseverance pays off, and everyone who failed to do the same just wasn’t trying hard enough and therefore doesn’t deserve better. That’s how MLB and the world is today, but it’s not how it should be, nor how it has to be.

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