Mailbag: Kids with jobs

Celebrating kids celebrating a high school graduation is good, yes, but consider why it’s a notable story, too.

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.

Mailbag time! This one on international signings and how weird MLB’s behavior with literal children gets to be. If you have a mailbag question you’d like to see answered, either respond to this newsletter email, or hit me up on @Marc_Normandin on Twitter.

I was just reading the article on and it brought to mind how bizarre it is that Major League Baseball teams are able to employ 16 year olds with seemingly no restrictions at all. Obviously there are minors working throughout the U.S. in all sorts of jobs, from retail to acting, but from an outside perspective, the way Major League Baseball gets to do it seems wildly different. We know that minor leagues aren’t adequately compensated for their time on a per-hour basis, but they’re also frequently working hours that they’re not getting paid for while doing things like training. Shouldn’t this be scrutinized even more closely when we’re dealing with international signings (and even 17-year-old stateside draftees)? How is it that MLB seems to avoid any attention on this front? Does nobody think it’s kind of weird that an organization like the Guardians is hosting high school graduation ceremonies for their employees because they took them away from high school to work full time at such a young age?

-Hawkins D.

Oh, it’s weird. Like yes, it’s great that these players were able to actually continue with schooling, and it should be celebrated so as to encourage more of it, but that doesn’t change that the entire foundation of the endeavor is made out of weird. Consider, for a moment, the effects of MLB’s Dominican Baseball Academy, which effectively makes baseball the only thing that matters for a whole bunch of pre-teens and early teens who aren’t actually guaranteed to even make it to said academy, never mind as an international signing. Per SABR:

For a few, baseball became the path out of poverty, while the vast majority were left with a future draped in it. The road out of poverty ran through baseball academies built by individual MLB teams to develop talent. Many of these facilities offered no education beyond classes in the English language and American culture. When MLB teams first explored the D.R., they hit the talent lottery; but what MLB and the D.R. exchanged was extraordinary and complicated. Though MLB’s main objective was to obtain talent from the country, this operation created many side effects that still affect Dominican boys, their families, and communities today.

Critics of the academy system believe that MLB’s presence in the Dominican Republic took an educational toll on Dominican boys. Between the ages of 12 and 14, many boys drop out of school to start their training with a buscone.34 Without the distractions of school, they practice hard for four years with nothing but baseball to focus on, but one Dominican scout estimated that only one out of 40 players would make it to the academy.35 The rest are left without an education. Even those who make it to the academies only receive English and American culture classes.

There are other factors at play that cause more young boys to drop out of school than young girls in the Dominican, but the point is that there are any of them dropping out of school and then not receiving a full education, even though getting to the academy and then an international deal and then the majors is a series of shrinking possibilities. So yes, it’s weird.

One of the reasons we just look at the positive of it, I imagine, is for the same reason we see those stories celebrating that some enterprising 13-year-old took it upon himself to collect one million aluminum cans and strip copper out of junk at the dump so they could pay for their mother’s cancer treatment. It’s easier to process when you can just go, “aww” instead of “AHH” through considering why a 13-year-old would need to take it upon themselves to save their mother instead of simply having medical balls taken care of by socialized medicine, or from reminders that everyone below a certain level in MLB’s minor-league system is a literal child who very well might have signed an illegal contract at the age of 13 — one MLB holds up as a reason why they need to further reduce the leverage and payouts to these kids in the first place by instituting an international draft. It keeps us from thinking too much about MLB’s relationship with American imperialism, which, Zack Moser already has done quite a bit in that arena for you to check out if you want.

In the end, these are feel-good stories that do have genuine feel-good qualities to them — hey, these kids might be future MLB players making lots of money but they still decided focusing on their education was a priority — but thinking about how they ended up in that situation, and the likelihood of that being their future, and all of the kids who aren’t going to do the same… well, that’s far more depressing, isn’t it?

A minor-league union might not be able to solve the whole MLB leveraging imperialism to pull whichever kids from whatever countries they want thing — though I imagine it’s now up to them to keep an international draft from happening — but they should be able to fill in some gaps here, like guaranteed continued education for international signees. The Pro Hockey Players Association won the rights to funding for post-career classes for its members years ago, for instance: you can see where that sort of thing would be useful for a group of people with a “failure” rate as high as that of international signings, and for domestic high schoolers who eschewed college for the draft? That would certainly be helpful, too. And the making less than minimum wage bit, the not being paid in extended spring training (or standard spring training) and all of that, the minor-league bargaining unit can work on fixing that, too, even if MLB is trying to make that more difficult in the present. So, it’s all weird for now, but hopefully will be less so in the not too distant future.

Visit my Patreon to become a supporter and help me continue to write articles like this one.