It’s time to pay MiLB players more, and more often

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While the clash between Major League Baseball and the Players Association is front-and-center at the moment thanks to the ongoing collective bargaining and the imminent expiration of the current CBA, we shouldn’t forget that minor-league baseball players have their own share of troubles and problems to solve. Advocates for Minor Leaguers pointed out on Tuesday evening an issue that those players are struggling through right now: the fact that players are not paid year-round, even though their contracts stipulate that they must work with their baseball careers in mind year-round.

Advocates’ tweet included two screenshots from the uniform player contract to make their point, the text of which read:

VI. Duration and Conditions of Employment

B. This Minor League Uniform Player Contract obligates Player to perform professional services on a calendar year basis, regardless of the fact that salary payments are to be made only during the actual championship playing season in which Player performs.

D.Player’s physical condition is important to the safety and welfare of Player and to the success of Club. Thus, to enable Player to become properly fit for Player’s duties under this Minor League Uniform Player Contract, Club may require Player’s playing condition and weight during the off-season.

It’s not like MLB hides the fact that they know players are working a year-round job and not being paid in a way that befits that. It’s just that they have a contract that the players are not organized to fight back against that says that’s not MLB’s problem. It’s a real feature, not a bug scenario for them, and one we’ve already seen play out in recent-ish stories. Just because it’s not “news” or new, though, doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. This is a significant problem, and it’s no wonder Advocates for Minor Leaguers are turning their attention in this direction after getting MLB to start conceding on the cost of playing housing.

One thing that you might not be aware of is that even MLB’s players weren’t initially paid year-round: they, too, were only paid in-season, and the continuation of that policy even at a time when MLB’s players have things very differently is a reminder that MLB sees the minor leagues as the place where they can continue to keep the dream of baseball as feudalism alive, where they can still be the titular lords of the realm that John Helyar wrote about in his vital historical text. In fact, MLB used to bank on the fact players were only paid in-season as a way to help break any potential work stoppage or organization against them. After all, the MLB season began around the same time the Internal Revenue Service was expecting taxes to be filed, and any offseason jobs that the players had performed in order to pay the bills while waiting for the next season to begin were well behind them by the time any spring training lockout had begun.

Now, though, there is a bit more freedom, since the existence of the Players Association allowed MLB’s players to break out from the tyranny of the Uniform Player Contract that used to be in place in the majors. Players can now negotiate into their contracts the how and when of being paid, and the amounts being paid to players are so much larger than they used to be that budgeting is much different, too: Bryce Harper might have elected to be paid in-season only, but it’s not going to cause him to miss a car payment, you know, not when he’s pulling in over $25 million per year on average. And even pre-arbitration players don’t have it that bad as far as budgeting goes (discussions of what the minimum should be, or if it’s fair, are a completely separate issue than the relative ease of budgeting what is made beyond the “championship season’s” run time): the league-minimum was $575,000 in 2021, so in-season cash can certainly be banked for the winter by those players while they wait for the day that they can negotiate the frequency of their paychecks.

That’s just in the majors, of course: in the minors, everyone has the Uniform Player Contract, and they have it forever, regardless of draft or bonus status. Unless a player still has some of a considerable bonus at their disposal, too, none of them are sitting on any kind of money. It’s deposited into their account and then it’s spent on necessities, which means there is nothing left when the offseason rolls around. Because of the housing issues that were even more of a problem than usual during the 2021 season, there were players straight-up losing money: you certainly cannot put away for later what you do not even have in the present.

Trying to sort out how to budget the low-end salary in MLB is a whole different experience than figuring out how to stretch $400 per week, which is only paid for a few months, throughout an entire year. It’s an entirely different experience than even the kind of budgeting that the NBA’s G League players need to solve: those guys are getting $7,000 per month, which is $35,000 per year. MiLB’s players, meanwhile, sit on or under the poverty line, and that meager sum is paid out over just a fraction of the year, since there is no pay in the offseason, in spring training, or during the postseason. The MiLB season — the long version of it, for the higher levels — lasts from mid-April or so to late-August or early September. You only need one hand to count the months they’re paid in, and that’s the players on the high-end of the scale.

MiLB’s players not only need to be paid more, but they need to be paid year-round if MLB is expecting them to be filing progress reports on their conditioning during the offseason. These players are already responsible for their own equipment, many of their meals, and, even after the announcement of housing assistance beginning in 2022, plenty of players will still be responsible for that portion of things, too. The literal least that MLB could do is not expect players to have to pay for their own training space and time in the winter, to set them up to not have to work a second job just to be able to afford to continue to work their first one, but this is MLB we’re talking about. “The literal least that MLB could do” is often asking too much of them.

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