No one is buying Rob Manfred’s letter to Congress

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Toward the end of July, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred sent the Senate Judiciary Committee a 17-page letter explaining all the reasons why the anti-competitive antitrust exemption that gives Major League Baseball total control over minor-league players and their earnings is actually good for those players. The numbers he reported as evidence might have been accurate, in the sense that those numbers do exist, but the context within which he deployed them was purposely misleading, an obfuscation designed to hide the true nature of minor-league compensation.

It’s not just your friendly neighborhood Manfred Disbeliever who feels that way, either. Advocates for Minor Leaguers first issued a short statement that said:

Just nine days ago, Commissioner Rob Manfred said: “I can’t think of a place where the exemption is really meaningful, other than franchise relocation.”

This morning, Manfred said the opposite, claiming that the baseball exemption “has meaningfully improved the lives of Minor League players, including their terms and conditions of employment, and has enabled the operators of Minor League affiliates to offer professional baseball in certain communities that otherwise could not economically support a professional baseball team.”

Simply put, both of these statements cannot be true.

Advocates went on to point out things that they and I have been discussing for years now — explain the poverty-level wages and the forced disaffiliation of 40 minor-league teams if the antitrust exemption is so great for players and communities, Rob — and followed up this short social media bit with a larger three-page statement.

You can read the full three-page letter in this tweet by Evan Drellich, who helpfully uploaded it while sharing a story on the subject at The Athletic. Advocates covered more ground than I did in my own coverage of Manfred’s letter, which is to be expected, but they did hammer home the same thing I had, in that Manfred’s framing of player compensation was designed to hide what most minor leaguers are actually being paid.

Here’s Advocates:

MLB uses the device ‘per capita’ spending throughout its letter in an effort to reframe its compensation of Minor Leaguers by redistributing this $250 million to the several thousand Minor Leaguers who receive no such bonuses, including the roughly 40 percent of international players who sign for a bonus of $10,000 or less. Of course, no such redistribution occurs in the real world. No amount of accounting trickery can change the facts on the ground: while MLB franchises are worth more than $62 billion, most Minor League players make an annual salary of less than $12,000 and work second jobs just to make ends meet.

And here’s me:

So, you’ve got the relatively small class of players who already earned service time and completed their initial contract — players who are at least six years past their initial draft or sign date, can’t quite stick in the majors but haven’t exhausted opportunities in the minors yet, making over $100,000. Then you’ve got 420 players on 40-man rosters (14 per club) making $57,200, or the prorated version of that, whenever they aren’t in the bigs. Due to the larger (and varied) roster sizes of the minors, there are over 3,600 active and affiliated minor-league players even after 40 teams were cut loose before the 2021 season. Which means that the vast, vast majority of players, numbering in the thousands, are making sub-poverty-level wages each year: among your standard, most prevalent class of minor-league players, only the ones repeating Triple-A have a salary that bests poverty-level wages. And the $100,000 bonus Manfred brags about them getting? That’s likely long gone. It’s not much of a “bonus” if it’s required to buy groceries for the next six years of your life.

Media and advocacy groups pointing out that Manfred is blatantly lying is one thing: the Senate Judiciary Committee needs to be convinced, too. Hey, here’s some good news: they might already feel that way. At least, Committee Chairman Dick Durbin does:

It is reasonable to question the premise that MLB is treating the Minor Leaguers fairly. Commissioner Manfred’s response to our bipartisan request for information raises more questions than it answers, and the discrepancies between today’s letter and the reality that minor league players are experiencing reinforce the important of the Committee’s bipartisan review of the century-old baseball antitrust exemption. We need to make sure MLB is stepping up to the plate when it comes to fair treatment of players and communities, which is why the Judiciary Committee is planning on upcoming hearing on the issue.

The Los Angeles Times’ Bill Shaikin reported that Durbin wants Manfred to be questioned under oath, which is probably bad for a man who simply cannot avoid lying when presented with a question where a truthful response would bring harm to MLB’s image. It’s probably good for minor leaguers, though, and I imagine that the league having to settle a class action lawsuit, Senne v. MLB, one where a judge determined pre-trial that players were performing work MLB was refusing to pay them for, probably isn’t going to be very helpful to Manfred’s cause, either — a settlement is an unofficial admission of guilt so that there is no documented admission or determination of guilt on the record, and thanks to the judge making declarations and awarding damages outside of a trial that never started, that unofficial admission is a lot louder than usual.. Which is all to the good, since said cause of Manfred is exploitation to benefit the few.

The hearings Durbin would like to hold would take place in September or October, which means they’ll occur when everyone is paying attention to MLB as the postseason approaches and is actually happening. Who’s ready for Manfred getting visibly frustrated about having to field press conference questions about the questions he fielded from Congress while trying to talk about how great the postseason is?

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