Facing a class action lawsuit that would entitle poorly-paid minor leaguers to overtime wages, MLB is supporting proposed federal legislation that would exempt those players from the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
After finishing his junior year at Louisiana State University, Chris Chinea realized his childhood dream of becoming a professional baseball player when was picked in the 17th round of the 2015 Major League Baseball draft by the St. Louis Cardinals.
Shortly thereafter, his lifestyle changed dramatically.
A first basemen-turned-catcher, Chinea was shipped off to Johnson City, Tennessee; then to State College, Pennsylvania; and finally to Peoria, Illinois, where he has spent the 2016 season as the starting catcher for the Peoria Chiefs. He went from playing a series each weekend in college to the grind of playing a 142-game minor league season, plus training and practicing the rest of the year.
During a July 7 game between the Chiefs and Midwest League rival Kane County Cougars, 2,300 fans in and around Peoria, a city of 113,000, came out to watch Chinea and his teammates compete. Concession workers sold food and merchandise, just as they would at a big league ballpark. From the aroma of hot dogs and beer to the crack of the bat, the entire scene looked and smelled like a scaled-down version of a major league game, staffed by professional baseball players doing their jobs.
According to Major League Baseball, however, Chinea and his peers don't have real jobs.
Three former minor league baseball players represented by an attorney who also played in the minors have filed a class action lawsuit against MLB on behalf of all minor league players, Senne v. Major League Baseball, that aims to entitle minor league players to overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act. In response, Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-KY) Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-IL) recently introduced a bill in Congress, the dubiously dubbed Save America's Pastime Act, that would amend federal law to specifically exclude minor leaguers from FLSA overtime protections.
MLB has come out in support of the bill, arguing that Chinea and company are not actually employees, but rather "apprentices." "[F]or the overwhelming majority of individuals, being a Minor League Baseball player is not a career but a short-term seasonal apprenticeship in which the player either advances to the Major Leagues or pursues another career," the league said in a statement.
Unsurprisingly, Chinea disagrees with that sentiment.
"For me, it's a full-time job," he said, adding that he had not heard of the lawsuit or the bill (as such, Chinea didn't comment on the lawsuit's specifics). "You put a whole offseason of work into this and you get ready for the season. It's a long season. Six months off is not really off. You've gotta be, in the offseason, training and working on your game and getting ready to compete for 142 games."
While Chiefs manager Joe Kruzel declined to comment on the lawsuit or the bill—"that situation is touchy so I wouldn't touch that one," he said—two of Chinea's agreed that minor league baseball is not an "apprenticeship." Pitching coach Dernier Orozco said minor league players "have to like baseball and treat it like a job" if they have any hope of making the majors. Pitching coach Jobel Jimenez said minor league baseball is "absolutely" a job, and that overtime pay would be beneficial for players.
"Oh sure," he said. "It's a benefit, it's more comfortable for those guys to try to save a little bit of money or help his family, because most of those guys don't get a big bonus when they sign, and if they work for (more) it could be great."
Currently, players in low Single-A baseball—the Chiefs' level of the minors—make just $6,500 during their five-month seasons. That's not close to a living wage, and also falls below Illinois' minimum wage. Just do the math: A minimum wage worker, making $8.25 an hour, would earn roughly $7,200 over five months of 40-hour work weeks, about $700 more than a player like Chinea.
Minor leaguers find themselves counting every penny, and that still often isn't enough.
"That doesn't make sense at all, this is a job," said Garrett Broshuis, a former minor league player-turned-attorney who is now leading the suit against MLB. "In almost any industry, there are entry-level positions. As a minor league baseball player, you don't deserve the same wage as a major league baseball player. All we're saying is you have to comply with the same laws as McDonald's and Wal-Mart."
According a press release put out by Guthrie and Bustos in support of the Save America's Pastime Act, complying with federal law would make minor league baseball prohibitively expensive, and that "many cities would be in jeopardy of losing their minor league baseball teams" if Broshuis' lawsuit succeeds. Broshuis counters that the proposed law would simply protect MLB's wealthy team owners, saving them from having to pay what will likely amount to a less-than-one-percent blip on their balance sheets.
"I think my first reaction was a bit comical because it's indicative of the same type of tactics that are used to try to suppress wages in any industry," said labor expert and Arena Football Players Union executive director Ivan Soto. "I found it to be a little bit absurd that the tone of the bill was that Minor League Baseball was going to fail if they pay these young Minor League Baseball players a livable wage."
Minor League Baseball teams don't pay their players—those paychecks are written by the major league clubs that are affiliated with the minor league clubs—so any increase in pay would come at the expense of the 30 big league teams, which collectively earned more than $8.1 billion in 2015. However, minor league teams have been lobbying for the Save America's Pastime Act as well, fearing that major league teams will actually pull the plug.
"Are they going to say, hey, this is too much, so we're not going to have as many teams, we're not going to have any teams at all?" asked Chiefs president Rocky Vonachen. "That's the concern is, like I say, Minor League Baseball, the way we know it today, could change."
David Heller, the owner of the Quad Cities River Bandits, expressed a similar sentiment, worrying that one or more of the six levels of the minor leagues could disappear.
"There's no magic to six," he said. "If these players win this lawsuit, that says, 'hey, we're entitled to overtime because we requested batting practice.' If they win this lawsuit, Major League Baseball, who pays these players, is gonna say, 'hey it's gonna cost more money, that's too bad.'"
Would MLB really contract minor league teams if forced to pay overtime wages? The current system arguably exists for a good reason: Baseball needs a multilevel developmental system more than other major league sports. Each big league team has roughly 250 players spread across its minor league affiliates, the better to nurture and draw upon a large pool of potential talent. Unlike in other sports, many baseball players turn pro when they're in their mid-teens, which means they need more coaching and playing time before they're ready to compete at the game's highest level.
"Major League Baseball needs those minor league teams to develop their players," Broshuis said. "When you're going out and getting a 16 or 17-year-old kid from the Dominican, or an 18-year-old kid out of high school, you need several levels to develop that kid."
This developmental system has worked well for MLB, and over time, minor league player salaries have gone from a minor part of big league teams' budgets to a virtually invisible one. Over the past two decades, MLB revenues have increased 650 percent. Since 1976, major league salaries have increased by 2,000 percent; over the same, minor league salaries have only increased by 75 percent, coming far short of even keeping up with inflation.
Broshuis said that while his lawsuit doesn't have a specific goal for increasing minor league salaries, he thinks overtime pay amounting to a total salary of roughly $15,000 per year would be sufficient.
Let's do some more basic math. According to Forbes, the St. Louis Cardinals—the major league affiliate of the Chiefs—make $300 million per year. If all 250 players in the Cardinals' organization received an extra $10,000 per year—a significant increase over Chinea's current $6,500 salary—the Cardinals would only owe an extra $2.5 million per year. That's 0.8 percent of their yearly revenue.
Is 0.8 percent of yearly revenue enough of a burden to justify giving up a whole level—or multiple levels—of potential players in a talent pool? The Cardinals did not respond to a request for comment. Vonachen said he didn't know.
Despite the numbers, Heller expressed fear.
"I think that if the players win their case, and if Congress fails to act to protect the jobs of all the hard-working people who work at all the ballparks like Modern Woodmen Park (the River Bandits' stadium), there is a real chance that Major League Baseball will eliminate all the minor league teams that exist," he said.
If that happened, it almost certainly would qualify as a first in the history of American business—an industry eliminating all of its future talent pool and training programs in order to save less than one percent of its revenues. As far as cost-benefit modeling goes, dumping the minors wouldn't make practical or fiscal sense.
More likely, Heller's assertion is simple scare mongering, the kind MLB is happy to peddle in order to save a few bucks. In fact, the anti-minor league overtime pay argument is similar to the anti-free agency argument made at the major league level in the 1970s.
To wit: Late New York Yankees owner and billionaire George Steinbrenner once said that free agency would "ruin baseball." Yet as one book explained, "within months, of course, he would be feeding his megalomania by shelling out $3.25 million for first star free agent, Catfish Hunter."
Put more simply, rich people don't like spending more money unless they have to, so they will lie about their intention to spend more of it in the meantime.
"Minor league owners made similar arguments back in the early 90s whenever MLB forced them to upgrade their stadiums and facilities," Broshuis said. "They said that was going to put them out of business. Well it didn't put them out of business; they're doing better than they ever have."
Minor league team values have skyrocketed in the past few decades. Still, neither an absence of evidence nor the existence of contrary evidence is enough to sway Heller—who, like MLB, insists that what players such as Chinea aren't working real jobs.
"What people need to understand is there are real jobs, real hard-working people's jobs at stake here," said Heller, who is also the president of Main Street Communications, a public relations consulting group for Democratic candidates for office.
Long an advocate for unions and workers, Heller spoke forcefully against his on-field workers when asked why they shouldn't be given the same protections as his other baseball employees.
"Every (other employee) on our team gets paid minimum wage and overtime," he said. "All because why? Because we want to treat minor league baseball players differently from artists, from dancers? Different from all these people who are honing their craft?"
Putting aside the bigger question of paying minor leaguers a liveable wage, Heller's point is that players should be exempt from the FLSA—which guarantees protection for at-risk employees—because they are similar to dancers or artists, who are exempt from the law.
Does that assertion hold legal water? The section of the FLSA that exempts dancers and artists specifies that professions can only be exempt from labor laws if they are a "creative professional" or in "work requiring advanced knowledge." Baseball arguably doesn't belong in either category. A more conceivable exemption rests on the notion that minor league players are "seasonal" workers, but that specifically covers "amusement or recreation establishments," and may not be applicable to modern professional baseball.
"There are tests out there that there are actual seasonal establishments, and that bar is harder and harder to cross for most sports organizations, unless they want to shut off their operations seven months to the day," Soto said. "These clubs don't operate on a seasonal basis. It was more along the lines when the circus or carnival came to town and hired a few seasonal people for a couple months."
As for MLB's "apprentice" argument? It's a strange and anachronistic legal strategy, given that apprentices hardly exist anymore.
"If they say this is some apprenticeship program, I'll go out on a limb and say this, they're gonna lose, because players sign contracts," Soto said. "Apprentices don't sign contracts. I still think you'd still have to pay an apprentice in accordance to the labor laws."
Vonachen, the Chiefs' president, insists that the apprenticeship comparison is apt. "You're in the minor leagues, you're working on your skills, you're trying to improve your skills to get that job at the major league level," he said. "Similar to an intern, similar to an apprentice would be doing to get a full time job."
Asked if that same logic applies to a minor league manager hoping to get a big league job, Vonachen was less definitive.
"Um, that's a good question," he said.
Rep. Guthrie did not respond to a request for comment on his bill. Rep. Bustos, whose father was an MLB lobbyist, initially co-sponsored the proposed legislation but withdrew her support a day later due to "several concerns" with it. In an accompanying press release, Bustos said that she believed that "Major League Baseball can and should pay young, passionate minor league players a fair wage for the work they do." Perhaps she realized that The Save America's Pastime Act is as cynical as its name: an attempt to prey on baseball fans' love of the game in order to save its owners money, all by convincing the public that the players who make it all possible don't deserve the dignity of labor rights.
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