Granted, even underpaid, the average Major Leaguer still earns a lot of money. No MLB player is at risk of going without. Instead, that ignoble end is left for the minor leaguers.
At the lowest end of the minor-league payscale, players earn barely over $1,100 per month. To make matters worse, that per-month salary doesn’t apply to the entire year, but rather only during the season. In other words, there a number of minor-league players whose baseball incomes, unsupplemented, put them well below the federal poverty line. Given that only about 10 percent of minor leaguers ever reach the Majors, that’s an awful lot of players earning very little, just for a longshot chance of making a livable wage, and an even longer shot at a generous contract in free agency.
Dirk Hayhurst, a sportswriter and former player, chronicled the struggles of minor league life in his memoir The Bullpen Gospels. He told of players living with host families, or, failing that, renting 1-bedroom apartments that they shared with several others. The clubhouse pantry is raided for whatever free calories are available—usually, that’s peanut butter. Another player-turned-analyst, Gabe Kapler, detailed the eating habits of the typical minor leaguer, which leans frighteningly heavily on whatever fast food and candy the team bus can locate as it shuttles the team from city to city—not exactly the diet one associates with athletes.
Given that baseball is a sport dependent on physical performance, putting players in these working conditions seems counterproductive. Indeed, Baseball Prospectus’s Russell Carleton wrote an analysis of what it would take for an organization to bring its minor leaguers’ living standards up to snuff, going beyond the moralistic argument and citing potential returns in player development and on-field performance. To date, though, no team has stepped up to try the experiment.
Considering all this, baseball’s existing labor agreement doesn’t look very equitable, regardless of what the leader of its players’ association says. Even setting aside the question of minor leaguers, young MLB players are increasingly disadvantaged by the current labor agreement. Given that the vast majority of teams are overwhelmingly profitable, it would seem that owners could even things out without taking too much of a hit to their balance sheets. Considering the struggles most players have to go through, that’d be more than deserved.
Realistically, though, neither side in the negotiation wants to repeat the disaster that was the work stoppage of 1994. Despite the popularity of articles to the contrary, Major League Baseball is healthier than ever, and the next labor agreement will not do anything drastic to jeopardize that health. As such, while some of the individual tactics owners use to depress salaries, such as the qualifying offer and stretching six years’ service into seven, will likely no longer be viable, the lopsidedness of the next agreement will significantly resemble that of the current one. That’ll leave young MLB players only slightly better off than they were previously, and minor leaguers just as poorly off as they are currently. And that, perhaps, is the biggest conclusion one can draw from Tony Clark’s statement: He is content to pretend the current bad deal is a reasonable framework.