(Blogathon ’16) Jessica Quiroli- The Minor League Baseball Lawsuit: Wealth vs. the Working Class

This guest-post is part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page. Also, please note that the opinions and statements of the writer are not necessarily those of the Baseball Continuum or it’s webmaster.

Few things personify living the American Dream better than professional sports.

From poverty to fame and fortune, we’ve learned their remarkable stories, and drawn inspiration from them. Willie Mays was the son of a steel mill worker, and the grandson of a sharecropper. Joe Namath’s grandfather came to Ellis Island from Hungary, and he too, and later his son, worked in the steel and coal mills. LeBron James was raised by a single mother, who became pregnant when she was sixteen, then worked tirelessly to make ends meet. James credits her for his success and wealth. It was their specialness, their rare physical talents and physicality that led them there. Many make it, but many, many more fall through the cracks.

In baseball, the trick is not falling through the cracks. The minor leagues are made up of a few thousand players and player cuts are common. Reaching the majors isn’t. The minor leagues are the workshop, where players must condition their bodies and minds to play every day, and not burn out, or fall behind, because the next guy is trailing you and ready to replace you. The odds aren’t great they’ll see major league time for more than a few days or weeks, if at all. A Mother Jones study found that just 10% of minor league players make it to the major leagues. That stacked-with-odds challenge is one player’s commit themselves to. They room together, live with host-families; they take their meal-money per diem, $25 a day, compared to major leaguers who receive $100 a day. Minor league players start out making $1,100 a month in the salary pyramid.

Being major league-ready and transitioning to the highest level of the game is one part of the developmental experience. Add to that the challenge of remaining healthy and strong, well-fed, rested and able to care of themselves and anyone depending on them.

In December of 2014, at the annual Baseball Winter Meetings, Stan Brand, the VP of Minor League Baseball, delivered a speech addressing a lawsuit filed against MLB regarding wage and labor issues, Senne vs. the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball. The meetings, a mix of social and professional engagement, are conducted with a drink in hand if you choose, as major trades are made and breaking news emerges from a high-end hotel full of players, ex-players, executives, reporters and those hoping to get in the business. Some attendees are just fans hoping to catch a glimpse of the action.

But as the usual business dealings transpired at the 2014 gathering, another story rose to the surface. Brand came forward to explain MiLB’s stance on the lawsuit. Baseball America’s Josh Leventhal reported Brand’s comments.

“In the coming year, we will be seeking legislation to clarify that professional baseball players are not covered by these federal wage and hour laws. Just as we did in the 1990s to save the antitrust exemption, we will need your help to explain to our legislators the importance of minor league baseball and their communities’ investments…I do not want to overstate the threat this suit presents, but I think my honest assessment is that it is equally perilous for our future…I will ask you to heed the clarion call, man the battle stations and carry the message to Congress loudly and clearly.”

Of Note: Major league players make a minimum of $84,000 a year. Minor league players make a maximum $2,150. Major League Baseball makes more than $8 million dollars annually, with the major league salary rising 2,500 percent in the last forty years. Minor league salaries have increased 75 percent.

The lawsuit was filed by three former minor league players, with the intention of applying the terms of the Fair Labor Standards Act to minor leaguers. But to this point, MLB has an antitrust exemption. The lawsuit later expanded to include 34 former minor league players.

Brand could prove to be a tough opponent. A lawyer with a wealth of experience dealing with lobbyists and politicians is well-known in Washington, DC where he’s litigated cases for forty years, including Supreme Court cases. He clarified that, in major league baseball, minor leaguers must know their place. They weren’t expected to rise up and disrupt the framework of the minor league business model, but to continue working as contributors to the wealth that eludes them. Brand’s speech presented minor leaguers as an enemy among them in baseball. His determination to protect the financial interests of Major League Baseball, in effect, established an us-against-them class war.

Leventhal filed a second report for Baseball America in April of 2015, in which Brand “contends that playing minor league baseball was never meant to be a career.” Leventhal wrote that Brand likened playing in the minors to an internship.

The corporate system of Major League Baseball seems impenetrable, but Garrett Broshuis emerged as a willing fighter. The former San Francisco Giants minor leaguer, a pitcher and 5th round pick in 2004 retired from professional baseball and began practicing law. He’s not just one of the players that took part in the original filing; he’s also representing them collectively.

Broshuis responded to Brand’s winter meetings comments, laughing at first, amused or baffled, maybe both, then, after some thought, sought to describe Brand’s stance.

“It’s fear-mongering,” Broshuis said by telephone in mid-January. “It’s inconceivable that a $10 billion dollar a year business is lobbying congress for an exemption.”

They’re men without a union. The powerful MLBPA, with all its protections can wield power in any number of situations, making sure major leaguers are treated fairly and reap the financial benefits of their work.

Brand first portrayed the minor leaguers suing as some kind of outlaws wreaking havoc on a quiet town. He later tried to sell an idea that minor leaguers are comparable to college interns. For the numerous players who went to college and proudly don the cap of the major league team that’s drafted them for the cameras, that’s often news to them. The minor leagues are for developmental time, acting as a unique step ladder to the majors. But they are no amateur hours. And the interns are in the office.

With the annual earnings MLB pulls, working class baseball fans aren’t likely to deeply sympathize with MLB and view it as a sacred institution being threatened by big bad minor leaguers making meal money. Sure, some fans scoff at minor league players asking for more, viewing them as spoiled. But if they regard them within the context of major league greed, maybe they’d see the fight differently. They might see themselves in those guys, working for a giant, money-making company where thousands of employees make a miniscule percentage of those at the top.

All of this doesn’t rest on Brand’s shoulders, however. He’s the voice of the cause, not the leader. Fans know that MLB is full of corporate greed. They knew when they learned that MLB was a willing participant in the use of steroids in the game, by doing little to nothing to stop the problem. Had they done anything, they would’ve risked losing a cash windfall from fans high with baseball fever in the late 1980’s, and throughout the 90’s.

Brand’s speech simply served as a reminder of what’s been proven. But this time, there were no gods of baseball being torn down. Players with little money and an uncertain future were being belittled, ridiculed and shamed. Brand’s word choice made the face of this fight the Grinch, or, perhaps, that fictional hero of Wall Street, Gordon Gekko. Brand could’ve easily bellowed, ‘Greed is good, now let’s play ball!’

Gleaning the meaning behind his words isn’t so tough: minor league players are worthless.

Minor league teams are worth everything. The players are the component, the trusty cog, which allows MLB to continue to adding increasing its considerable wealth. We’re given to understand that minor league baseball players, by asking for a living wage, would hurt the community, the employees in the stadium they play in, and the entire way baseball’s run. Minor League Baseball is a community-driven enterprise. Hurt the system as it is, hurt the community. Essentially, they’d ruin everything.

One player, speaking on the condition of anonymity, reached out privately the same January weekend that Broshuis spoke about the lawsuit.

“I need to make sure that if I do sign up that it would not affect my opportunity to play in the big leagues, or have me being released because of it,” he said.

MLB’s powerful hand has to be a driving factor for any players considering, then re-considering, joining the lawsuit. Why risk it? They might ask themselves. The players fighting for a fairer wage aren’t making millions and have no sense of job security. Those high-ranked players can clearly see the payday. They aren’t treated as disposable.

“I’ve considered it. The amount we get paid is deplorable,” the player said.

But he points out that that’s not enough for him to join. He indicated uncertainty about how the outcome would impact teams and players. Knowing the truth might not be enough to motivate players to put themselves on the front lines.

“I’ve felt mistreated. But I think that’s the reason so many guys push themselves to get better [and] get out of the minors. It almost acts as motivation for us to move up as quickly as we can,” he said, then continued, “even though that’s not up to us. It’s survival of the investments teams make, and who can help them now. It’s cutthroat. But it’s a business.”

And business is good.

As reported in a 2015 report by Lindsay Kramer, minor league baseball drew the third-highest attendance in its history, also marking the 11th consecutive year MiLB drew over 41 million fans.

The driving force of the community-driven entertainment of minor league baseball is based on the tested theory that if you build a stadium, employment will come. When a stadium’s built, or a team affiliate is established or moved, the hope is that fans will show up for an affordable summer activity. For families, particularly those with multiple kids, seeing a sporting event for less than twenty dollars is a very big deal. It relieves parents of the school’s-out dilemma, and allows them to see a baseball game with their kids. If all goes well, a major league player’s injury could lead to his rehab at the stadium they’re attending. Oddly put, but a rehab appearance by a top player in the majors draws crowds. Maybe a young kid’s never seen his favorite player in a big league game outside of on TV. In the minor leagues, he or she not only gets a glimpse, but an intimate one.

A minor league team as a business works for many, including interns gaining experience working in professional sports and executives looking for a foot in the door. The players, for their part, suit up and play the game. They fit in the business model that serves families and communities. They work for everyone else’s families, but struggle to support their own or even themselves.

“For the long term, we should all be able to come to the table and strike an agreement,” Broshuis said.

The business is clicking along, a well-oiled machine in no danger of losing fuel. The rich definitely get richer. The poor, well, they stay the same, get poorer, or try to figure out a new way. Soon, retirement is unavoidable; maybe before the age of thirty. Few can become those icons of sports history, Mays, Namath or James. Few can make it to even elite status. But minor league baseball players know what they’re up against. At a certain point, just surviving and getting a uniform must be preferable to giving up the dream altogether.

Many play out their professional careers, notable, known, and with a considerable amount to retire with. Many, many, many more scrap, scrape, hope, and work to get the hell out of the minors, with even the possibility of a cup of coffee in the majors often a glimmer. Those are the players Broshuis is fighting for; brandished as trouble-makers.

A scout once said something about the minor leagues while standing in the press box of then Waterfront Stadium, home of the Trenton Thunder. Watching the game, with a distant look in his eyes, without arrogance or joy, he said. “The top prospects need guys to play with.” It was a clarifying moment, impossible to forget. That’s the reality.

Broshuis described the process as now in the “discovery phase”, the longest portion of building a case.

A few weeks after initially speaking, in response to follow-up questions, the player who’d requested anonymity said he was still on the fence about joining the lawsuit, explaining that he had to be “careful.”

“I haven’t decided,” he said. “I’m an outsider in professional baseball.”

Broshuis said that they’re now in the “discovery phase”, the longest portion of building a case. The trial is set for February 2017. The outsiders, those rabble-rousers looking for a living wage, will have their day in court.

Jessica Quiroli is a Minor League Baseball writer/reporter and the creator of ‘Heels on the Field: A Minor League Blog‘. Her work has appeared on MiLB.com and FanGraphs and in Junior Baseball Magazine. She is also the screenwriter of the so-far-unfilmed screenplay, “Minor League Guys.

This guest-post has been part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page. Also, please note that the opinions and statements of the writer were not necessarily those of the Baseball Continuum or it’s webmaster.