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Details remain essentially nonexistent, but we at least know this: all 30 of MLB’s teams will be mandated to provide housing for minor-league players starting with the 2022 season. No longer will it be select clubs deciding to pay out stipends or cover the full costs of housing, while others like the Cardinals and A’s plug their ears and wait for the season to end so they can stop being bothered about the horrific living conditions their players are dealing with.
ESPN’s Jeff Passan broke the news on Sunday night, and again, said news is vague. We don’t yet know if teams will be providing stipends to their players, as the San Francisco Giants have been doing for (some of) their minor-league players. We don’t know if furnished apartments are going to be provided, as has happened for Astros’ minor leaguers in 2021. We also don’t know which minor-league players are going to be provided with this assistance: all Passan was able to report at this time is that “certain” minor-league players would be provided housing.
What we do know is why this happened. Players have a voice that they didn’t used to have, thanks to groups like Advocates for Minor Leaguers and More Than Baseball, thanks to a media that has changed their tune on labor conditions and begun to focus more on the humanity of the minor-league experience instead of glorifying throwing everyone on the farm into the thresher. The existence of Advocates for Minor Leaguers certainly plays a significant role, as it emboldened players to speak up, anonymously or otherwise, and to keep the living and working conditions in the news again and again.
“This is a historic victory for minor league baseball players,” Harry Marino, executive director of Advocates of Minor Leaguers and a former minor league player, told ESPN. “When we started talking to players this season about the difficulties they face, finding and paying for in-season housing was at the top of almost every player’s list. As a result, addressing that issue became our top priority.”
Just last week, I wrote about my recent optimism about the eventual unionization of MLB’s minor leagues, and the power to bargain over their own destiny that would bring. Back in June, I wrote about how advocacy works, with the issues Advocates for Minor Leaguers kept bringing up continually being disseminated through the media and fans and then solved. We’re seeing now yet another example of how the advocacy process and public pressure can win out, even against an efficiency-obsessed corporate behemoth like Major League Baseball, and why optimism remains in spite of the foe and the power they wield.
MLB has granted a number of concessions in the past couple of years, in the hopes of slowing down what is becoming a more vocal and more unified minor-league player base. First, there was the increase in pay, which, while necessary, was not nearly enough: all but repeating Triple-A players were slated to make poverty-level wages, even after a boost in pay that, according to MLB’s own numbers, gave some players as much as a 72 percent increase. They ended up paying out $400 per week stipends for minor-league players during the entirety of the canceled 2021 season, even though some teams, like the A’s, tried to get out of doing so the second the initial mandate ended. And now, housing became the priority: it was always a problem in the minors, but COVID protocols only made things worse, since players couldn’t even do the traditional, terrible in its own way thing of shacking up six at a time to a three-bedroom apartment in order to squeeze air mattresses in and depress the rent cost of each individual living there.
All of these things have come about because minor-league players started to make noise about the problems, and both the media and fans responded in a way that made MLB nervous about how it would all look. This is how MLB has always operated, when it comes to labor issues — it’s how major companies, in general, tend to operate. They give a concession here and a concession there in order to, they hope, stem whatever tide is coming. Give the players a little bit, and hope they’re so grateful that they don’t realize they should be asking for more. It’s how MLB, historically, averted the full and successful creation of a players’ union in the majors for well over half-a-century, until Marvin Miller came in and changed everything. The players got raises, received stipends, and now will get some kind of to-be-determined, league-mandated housing assistance, all for similar reasons: so the players start to feel comfortable enough to just drop the possibility of organizing, and “ruining” what’s left of MLB’s openly feudalistic structure.
Anyone in the league office can say what they want about this being part of an ongoing project to improve the living and working conditions in the minors, but if that were true, it wouldn’t have been such a fight to get even here, to a place where a living wage is still not in a place, a place where “certain” minor-league players getting housing assistance is still considered a victory. Passan reports, and I’ve done the math myself months ago, too, that the cost of paying for housing for every minor-league player amounts to less than $1 million per team, annually. To get them all housed and pay them all $50,000 per year, too, would cost around $6 million total: sure, it would cost a bit more to pay for the housing of players in, say, Brooklyn, than it does in some smaller town in the midwest that houses a Single-A team, but we’re still not talking about any kind of bank-breaking figures here, not for the owners of professional sports teams that, at the worst these days, are valued at over $1 billion.
Saying that this is all part of an ongoing project is true, but what that project is, exactly, is where the dishonesty lies. The project is to maintain as much of the past level of control over minor-league players as possible. Pacifying players enough that they stop considering organization an option is how MLB achieves that goal. If MLB truly wanted to just make things better, then they would: no fight, no mess, no delays. The half measures make it clear, though, that as good as these changes are for the players, as much as their lives will be improved, that this is mostly just in comparison to what the previous conditions were: there remains work to be done. MLB wants that work done on their own schedule, without a union to fight for the players’ rights, without the public pressure that has forced them to concede again and again the last couple of years. Neither players nor fans should stop the pressure, though, as it’s what gotten things even to this point in the first place.
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