1,000 minor leaguers send MLB petition demanding spring training back pay

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Recall the news of March, if you will: even though Senne v. MLB is not yet at trial, the judge presiding over the class action suit already awarded some damages to the side of the minor-league players. More importantly for our specific purposes here today, though, Judge Joseph Spero determined that, “the plaintiffs performed ‘work’ during spring training in Arizona and Florida, and that travel time on team buses to away games during spring training and in California during the regular season is compensable under law.”

Now let’s rewind to October of 2020, when I wrote for Baseball Prospectus about the importance of Senne v. MLB to not just the past players it was directly representing in court, but to the present and future ones of Minor League Baseball, too:

Precedence is so very key in legal proceedings, and if the courts decide that Senne et al have been wronged, then it will be that much easier for this current generation of players to say they’ve been wronged, too.

And now, the news from Thursday, from ESPN’s Joon Lee:

More than 1,000 minor league baseball players have signed a petition requesting that Major League Baseball teams provide players with payment for spring training.

The petition — organized by Advocates for Minor Leaguers and submitted to MLB on Thursday — follows a federal court ruling in March that said minor leaguers are year-round employees and also found that MLB violated Arizona state minimum wage laws and is liable for triple damages.

With some damages already awarded and the presiding judge already deciding that the suing players were, in fact, at work during their time in spring training, today’s minor-league players have taken note, and, with a bit of organizing, have petitioned Major League Baseball to pay them for their time at what the court now recognizes as “work” even if the league doesn’t. Shorter: It’s happening.

Now, a couple of things. First and foremost, MLB doesn’t have to listen to a petition. The cutting of paychecks for services rendered this past spring are not a given, just because they’ve been petitioned for. And second, the petition has been signed by just 1,000 minor-league players out of thousands and thousands, plural: fewer than before the disaffiliation of 40 clubs for 2021, yes, but still far more than 1,000. Still, don’t let these facts get you down: 1,000 players stuck their necks out here and said that things can be better, and they even have some legal precedent to back that dream up. This is not a thing that happens with minor-league players, ever, regardless of how logical or sensible or necessary the idea of organizing and demanding more is. And yet, that’s what’s happening right now.

Emboldened not just by Senne v. MLB but also the success in pushing for higher wages and housing — and the continued push for a living wage even post-raise, and the demands for better, more inclusive housing that satisfies the actual needs of players instead of just the cheapest solutions MLB can offer — minor-league baseball players are demanding what is their right. It’s not as if they just discovered that they should be paid for their time in spring training, either: it’s just that they’ve only recently discovered that knowing isn’t enough.

There is also that all of this is now covered in the media now, too, and not just by random indies like myself. Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs both pay attention to this sort of thing now, too, and not just because I’m writing for the former, either. Two of the stories I’ve linked to in this are from The Athletic and ESPN, which are both huge platforms that have been covering the plight of minor-league players in detail the last few years after (in the case of the much longer-lived ESPN) far too much silence broken by only the occasional big story in the past. How could the players not feel emboldened to demand more, when their stories are finally being told? And after having a taste of the success that comes from even this kind of non-union organizing?

There are always going to be people out there who think that because these people are athletes that they’re playing “a kid’s game” and deserve to be treated like garbage or whatever, but the vast majority of fans seem to have far more sympathy for minor leaguers than their big-league cousins, once they become aware of the conditions they live and work under. So, the increased media attention certainly helps, as does the existence of groups like Advocates for Minor Leaguers and More Than Baseball, because it just helps to bring even more fans into the corner of the players, which in turn lets them know they’re supported, and in a position to attempt things like this petition.

We’ve gone, just over the course of a few years, from players being afraid to say a single thing that could get them punished by their teams for speaking out, to anonymous calls for change, to wearing awareness wristbands during games, to straight-up signed petitions making demands of MLB. It is all happening very fast, but considering how overdue all of this change is, fast is what’s needed.

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