Minor League Salaries: A New Time Clock?
By Zach Epstein:
Late last month, three Cuban baseball prospects—brothers Victor Victor Mesa and Victor Mesa Jr., and pitcher Sandy Gaston—the top-rated international players still available on the open market, signed deals that included bonuses of nearly $9 million combined. Gaston, who is just 16 years old, received $2.61 million as part of his agreement with the Tampa Bay Rays. But whether Gaston reports to Bowling Green, or Hudson Valley, or Rookie ball, whichever Rays’ minor league affiliate Gaston begins his career with, he will find teammates that make 300 times less for an entire season of work than what Gaston just earned with the stroke of a pen.
A signing bonus worth millions is not unique to Gaston, and as a teenager with a high-90s fastball, Gaston’s talent certainly merits that much on the open market. But most minor league baseball players will never be so fortunate. Many players make just $1,100 per month during their first season under contract, a figure that would barely put them above the poverty line if calculated over an entire year. Players are only paid in-season, leaving many minor leaguers to search for other employment during much of the fall and winter.
Unlike most workers earning similar wages, minor league players are exempt from labor laws that would otherwise require their teams to pay them hourly in order to dole out overtime for work weeks exceeding 40 hours. The “Save America’s Pastime Act,” included in the omnibus federal spending bill that passed in March, authorized rules that would be illegal in virtually any other industry. The bill’s passage not only ensured that minor leaguers are ineligible overtime pay, but it gave legal cover to baseball’s practices of failing to play players during spring training and the offseason.
Between games, team practices, individual workouts, and travel time, minor leaguers almost certainly work more than 40 hours a week during the season, and will continue to be unable to collect fair compensation in return. During the offseason, when players are not paid at all, they are still expected to maintain the level of physical fitness and skill necessary to compete professionally.
In response to a still-pending class action lawsuit challenging MLB’s employment practices, Commissioner Rob Manfred essentially told the Los Angeles Times that the perceived difficulty in calculating players’ work hours was a justification for paying them below the federal minimum wage.
“Where am I going to put the time clock? Who is punching in and punching out? When I decide I want to go work out and lift weights, is that overtime? What if I decide I want to take extra batting practice? A minimum wage worker at McDonald's can't decide, ‘Hey, you know, I feel like working a few more hours today, so I'm just going to stay on the clock.’ Our guys do those sorts of things all the time.”
Not only does Manfred apparently think that keeping track of an employee’s hours is too onerous a task for his clubs to manage—a patently ridiculous proposition, as many professions seem to handle this without complication—but evidently he believes a player staying late to take extra batting practice or lift weights is not something teams should pay for, as if it is simply a player’s prerogative not covered within the scope of his employment.
Are players not incentivized to work on their games beyond the structure of official team activities? Do franchises not then rely on player development to sustain them up and down the organization? If teams can manipulate players’ service time to artificially keep them under control and underpaid, then surely they can figure out how many hours a player works in a given week.
 Rays agree to $2.61M bonus with Cuban prospect Sandy Gaston, Associated Press, (Oct. 24, 2018) http://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/25073276/cuban-prospect-sandy-gaston-agrees-tampa-bay-rays
 U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, U.S. Federal Poverty Guidelines Used to Determine Financial Eligibility for Certain Federal Programs, (Jan. 13, 2018) https://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty-guidelines
 Michael Baumann, The Disgrace of Minor League Baseball, The Ringer, (April 20, 2018) https://www.theringer.com/mlb/2018/4/20/17259846/minor-league-baseball-anti-labor-ronald-acuna-scott-kingery
 Ian Gordon, Minor League Baseball Players Make Poverty-Level Wages, Mother Jones, (July 2014) https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/06/baseball-broshuis-minor-league-wage-income/
 Bill Shaikin, Minor leaguers could be paid minimum wage — and no more, Los Angeles Times (March 23, 2018) http://www.latimes.com/sports/mlb/la-sp-minor-league-baseball-wage-20180323-story.html
 Matt Snyder, Backlash rightfully growing over service time manipulation by MLB teams, CBS Sports (Aug. 30, 2018) https://www.cbssports.com/mlb/news/backlash-rightfully-growing-over-service-time-manipulation-by-mlb-teams/