(Warning: I will be shamelessly quoting from myself in the following piece.)
Major League Baseball has agreed to pay $185 million to past and current minor league players to settle a lawsuit alleging violations of minimum-wage laws.
In the wake of the settlement, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred had this to say: “I kind of reject the premise of the question that minor league players are not paid a living wage.”
According to the Washington Post, Triple A players make approximately $14,000 a year. Single A players earn about $4,000.
Rob Manfred makes an estimated $17 million a year. You think he’d like to trade paychecks with a player on the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes or Nashville Sounds?
Minor league baseball is still with us, but it sure ain’t what it used to be. And I’m not just talking about pitch clocks and larger bases. I’m talking about the administration.
For decades and decades, the minor leagues had been under the auspices of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues. The minors worked in conjunction with the majors, but they essentially ran their own affairs. But two years ago, MLB swallowed the minors. There is no other way to put it.
Full disclosure requires that I identify myself as anything but a neutral in this discussion. My deep fascination with the minor leagues led me to write my first book, “Wait Till I Make The Show,” an examination of life in the minors in 1971 and 1972. I have been to 66 minor league parks. I care about the minor leagues.
I’m not sure Major League Baseball does. Since assuming control of the minor leagues, MLB has shredded them, lopping off 40 franchises in the past two years. Gone are the New York-Penn League, Appalachian League, and Pioneer League, all so-called “short season” leagues in which many of the franchises had deep roots in the community.
The individuals who had invested heavily in those franchises? Too bad. Cities and towns that had poured money into ballparks? Tough bananas. Talking about you, Lowell Spinners and the town itself. The residual effect of chipping away at baseball interest (you know, someone deciding whether he or she will watch the World Series)? Can’t worry about that.
One of the big ramifications of MLB’s takeover is an almost-draconian mandate to improve ballpark conditions. Every team left in minor league baseball must, over the next two years, comply with a list of category standards — Or Else.
The “Or Else” consequence for a noncompliant team is loss of its “license” to exist. Period.
Among the categories a team must address: Security Command Post, Space for MLB Officials, Clubhouses, Home and Visiting Training Rooms, Umpire Facilities, Food Areas, Playing Surface, Bullpens, Meals, Stadium Lighting, Hitting/Pitching Tunnels, Irrigation Systems, Drainage, Batter’s Eye, and Female Staff Facilities.
I know many minor league parks needed improvement. One of my takeaways from these travels through the minors 50 years ago was that some of the conditions were downright appalling. Pitcher Bill Denehy laughed (or cried, I forget which) when describing the lighting in Burlington, N.C. “You could get people hanging off the lampposts with flashlights and they could do as well as the lights in Burlington,” he said.
Clubhouses? Venerable Red Sox minor league manager Eddie Popowski reminisced about them.
“Maybe there would be one shower with cold water, and even that wasn’t working half the time,” he recalled. ”There were places where they would turn off the hot water if the visiting team won the game. Some of the clubhouses looked like tool sheds.”
Meal money was a painful topic. The daily Single A stipend was $5. Double A was $6. Triple A was $7.50. I remember the sight of players from the Pawtucket Red Sox (then a Double A franchise) running up the street following a game in Elmira, N.Y., trying to reach the McDonald’s before it closed. The idea of a properly prepared meal in the clubhouse was a fantasy.
This need to comply isn’t cheap. Baseball America reported that it was the death blow for the Lowell Spinners, who first thought they’d need to spend $10 million and saw the price tag escalate to $40 million. The flip side happens to belong to the Worcester Red Sox. Their new park is ready for 21st-century baseball.
“We’re in good shape technically,” reports CEO Larry Lucchino. “We just have a few things out of synch.”
I am so grateful to have toured the minors when I did. I explored 12 franchises in my book, the geography ranging from Trois-Rivières, Quebec, to Honolulu (yes, Honolulu had dreams of becoming a major league city). The only two left from those 12 franchises are Albuquerque and Visalia, Calif. There were 206 minor league teams then. There are 120 major-league affiliated teams now.
The saddest casualty for me is Appleton, Wis. The Appleton Foxes were the absolute gold standard of the Midwest League. I loved the ballpark. Goodland Field was its name, and the locals loved pointing out where Boog Powell had hit one into the Piggly Wiggly parking lot in distant right field. I had never been treated better in my life, and the games I saw were great. Whatever happened ? I have no idea.
I believe the emasculation of minor league baseball is a colossal mistake. MLB had an obligation to preserve it, not destroy it.
And are these extensive requirements really needed? Yes, creature comforts are nice, but are they essential?
I shall close with the long-ago thoughts of John Curtis, a Red Sox pitcher looking back on his minor league days.
“It all boils down to the basic fact that you are playing baseball and that is what you want to do,” he said. “I don’t see how the conditions can hurt you too much. There is always that real great desire to make it to the top, make it to the big leagues.
“Maybe you’re having a bad year and you’d like to blame it on the ballpark or something. But the conditions never got so bad for me that I considered quitting, because to me there was nothing else but baseball. I know this is where I wanted to be, and I was going to pay the price to be here.”
The Piggly Wiggly parking lot. Wish I’d been there that night.