This article is free for anyone to read, but please consider becoming a Patreon subscriber to allow me to keep writing posts like this one. Sign up to receive articles like this one in your inbox here.
“The Phillies should know they’re being watched.” This is what the executive director of Advocates for Minor Leaguers, Henry Marino, told USA Today earlier this week, in response to the Phillies reportedly reprimanding minor-league players for wearing solidarity wristbands during the final game of the regular season.
The wrist bands, which are available to the public in exchange for a $10 donation to Advocates for Minor Leaguers, were used by the players to raise awareness of the terrible working and living conditions that minor-league players toil under. The Phillies did not appreciate the players standing up for themselves, nor bringing attention to their plight, and so, the players were reprimanded, according to the players themselves, who alerted Advocates about the situation.
The Phillies themselves deny the accusations, but for one, of course they would, and second, why would the players, who already took the risk of wearing these wristbands in public — an extremely non-anonymous, risky action to bring attention to their situation — decide to muddy the waters with made-up accusations against the team? There is no logic to that, not even a little bit: the players are fighting to make things better for themselves, and have a litany of real, provable complaints to cite about the way they are treated. They don’t need to start creating problems where there aren’t any in order to gain sympathy. Their lives are jam packed with awful already, and they can cite that.
The Phillies, on the other hand, have every reason to deny that there was any kind of punishment or even an implication of punishment. They also have every reason to threaten punishment, to keep players in line and give back to them they fear that they, at least temporarily, lost when they donned wristbands in their final game of the 2021 season. You might think it’s biased in some way to side with the players here without truly knowing what went down, but the long and short of it is that the players have no reason to lie, and the Phillies have every reason to. Until real evidence to the contrary shows up, this is what I’m going with in the he said, he said scenario.
Let’s rewind to a little bit earlier in 2021, by the way. The Phillies, on Twitter, advertised an auction for Rhys Hoskins’ game-worn cleats, with the proceeds to be used to help minor-league players by way of More Than Baseball, a non-profit that raises money to help these players find and afford housing, buy equipment, and so on. As I wrote at the time for Baseball Prospectus:
In a vacuum, this is all pretty cool. An MLB team’s twitter account, helping to ensure minor-league players get some of the help they need! In reality, where context lives, it is the Phillies—and whichever other teams tweet about an auction to financially benefit minor-league players—taking their turn as Tim Robinson in the hot dog suit, trying to find whoever is responsible for the poverty of minor-league players when there is no one at fault but themselves. I don’t have a good analogy for how MLB teams’ very purposeful depression of minor-league player salaries could be represented by a hot dog car crashing through a storefront, but just know I gave it at least 30 seconds of thought before quitting and typing the sentence you just read instead.
Part of what makes this so enraging is that you knew it was coming if you were paying any amount of attention. I’ve mentioned More Than Baseball in a positive light a number of times, be it here or at SB Nation or in various freelance pieces or at my own site. I’ve also mentioned, more than once, that they were likely doomed to an NGO-like future. A non-governmental organization is a non-profit that, in a nutshell, spends a whole lot of time treating symptoms, not root causes. The symptoms must be treated, of course, meaning that the NGOs and their work are necessary because of the conditions they exist in: in the case of pro baseball, those conditions are nearly all due to the poverty of minor-league players. More Than Baseball does what it can to raise awareness of the awful living conditions of minor-league players, to raise money to help stave off some of the worst parts of them, but that’s what NGOs do. They treat symptoms, with no real moves towards removing the cause of said symptoms.
There is no reason that MLB teams can’t afford to pay their minor-league players—every single one of them—a living wage. Hell, it’s easier for them to do now than it was even a year ago, thanks to the league lopping off one-quarter of the minors for the 2021 season: now there aren’t even as many players to pay! A $50,000 salary for every player on the remaining 120 teams would be $150 million—split that 30 ways, and we’re talking $5 million per team. Just $5 million per team to have to stop the crowdfunding, the auctions, the begging, the horrid living conditions, the poor working conditions, all of it. Sure, they should also subsidize housing even with a $50,000 salary, but at least with a salary at that level, players could afford to live, to train and, you know, eat in the offseason without needing a second job to do it. Without needing to drive an Uber around after spring training workouts and games are over.
The Phillies were happy to “spread awareness” when it wasn’t going to cost them a dime to do so, when fans and a non-profit would shoulder the burden of improving the lives of their employees. The second that the players took it upon themselves for some unsanctioned awareness-raising — the kind that could, given the right amount of public backlash against the team, cost the Phillies a small chunk of change extra each year in order to properly pay and house and feed their minor leaguers — the team clamped down. A team meeting where some kind of reprimand was delivered or threatened, denials to the press about said reprimand, and then a statement from MLB to Bob Nightengale that basically boils down to, “Hey, things are better than they were, alright?”
Minor-league players are allowed to bring up their horrid working and living conditions, so long as they don’t cost the teams any money in the process. An auction is fine. Treating the symptoms is fine, so long as the symptoms are being treated by organizations like More Than Baseball, and that said treatment isn’t going to cost teams anything, so long as the teams can actually utilize orgs like More Than Baseball to make it appear as if the teams themselves are active in finding solutions. The second that bringing up the working and living conditions can’t be spun to make the team look good and gracious, however, and we get a glimpse of the real them. The one that refuses to fix the problems they themselves created.
Minor-league players haven’t unionized yet, and, as Garrett Broshuis, now a founding member of Advocates for Minor Leaguers, told me back in 2018, that’s because of fear. Fear of being punished, of having their career cut short, of being demoted, of having their dream of reaching the majors snuffed out. The Phillies reprimanded these players to reinstill that fear in them, to keep the players, who spoke out by wearing some wristbands on the same field their opponents for the day wore the same wristbands, in line. To keep them from having thoughts about going any further with their crusade than these wristbands. With the existence of groups like Advocates for Minor Leaguers around this time, though, maybe these reprimands will stoke anger instead of fear: maybe, instead, this will be the start of something that further emboldens and unifies these players, rather than yet another instance of fear winning out in the end.