Saturday, June 10, 2006

Summer baseball reality check (or how I wish my son was a professional baseball slave)

Nearly every player who first picks up a glove and dons a Little League uniform has aspirations of someday playing professional baseball. For the fortunate few, the ones with the talent and perseverance to rise up through the ranks of organized baseball, they’ll one day sign a professional contract. Interestingly, very few fans of professional baseball understand the exploitive nature of baseball’s draft and free agent system.

While the elite major leaguers—marquee players such as Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Manny Ramirez and others—routinely command contracts measured in the millions, first year minor league players sign their first contract and make $850/month, all for the privilege of riding busses, playing under substandard lighting, and fighting the fear of failure. Certainly, players drafted in the early rounds (usually 1-10) of baseball’s major league draft, held each summer in early June (the 2006 draft occurred this past Tuesday and Wednesday) receive signing bonuses, some as hefty as $1 million-$2 million (White Sox outfielder Joe Borchard, signed for $5.3 million in 2000), most receive much less. In fact, major league baseball has worked diligently to get a handle on bonus signings over the past few drafts. Part of this campaign has been to demonize agents like Scott Boras, as greedy money-grubbers, bent on destroying baseball's "pristine" image. For high school and college stars, high-powered agents such as Boras, are their only hope of ever getting a small fraction of value from their baseball talent, before it fails them and leaves their dreams and aspirations shipwrecked by their final unconditional release. In today's market, a first or second round pick might receive $1 million signing bonus and a great deal of fanfare, but by the time prospects are taken in the 10th round, the bonuses are rarely more than $5,000.

(Note: It is interesting to me, how often the Major League Baseball Player's Association receives the scorn of anti-union pundits, when in reality, it does little, or nothing, to reverse the practice of enriching the highest echelon of its fiefdom, while those toiling in baseball's equivalent of the sweatshop, never receive a scrap from the elite's buffet table.)

For all the prestige assigned to a high school or college star signing their first professional contract, the reality of the economics quickly becomes apparent. For the majority of farmhands, toiling in professional baseball’s lowest rungs of its system of professional wage-slavery, better known as the minor leagues, most players make less than the federal minimum wage. Here’s a good example of a first year player, either drafted in the lower rounds of the draft (the draft traditionally runs about 50 rounds), or signed as a free agent:

**$850/month salary (the standard amount paid to first-year minor leaguers signing their first professional contract)

**6-8 hours/day (the typical day spent at the ballpark preparing, playing and winding down; this would be for a home game and doesn’t take into account the time spent riding a bus between 6-8 hours, or more, for the typical road trips encountered by minor league players at the lower levels.)

**7 days per week (minor leaguers and major leaguers typically play every day, with very few off days.)

**$3.29/hour (the average hourly wage of a typical first-year minor leaguer, for the prestige of wearing the uniform of the Brockton Rox, Lansing Lugnuts, or San Diego Surf Dawgs, based upon a 60 hour work week.)

Of course, if that player is promoted, rather than released, after his first summer, he’ll receive a whopping increase of $200/month the following summer and see his hourly wage rise to just over $4.00/hour!

Since most dads secretly harbor hope of their sons playing professional baseball, those dreams and aspirations play into the exploitive practices of the American capitalist model of exploitation. Since many players are drafted out of college, playing minor league baseball merely prolongs the inevitability of having to leave the four-year cocoon that is American higher education.

Of course, I don’t know many fathers who wouldn’t love to brag to friends, family, and co-workers that junior just signed his first professional contract, the reality is that their young athlete would be better served marching down to the local McDonald’s, Burger King, or Wendy’s, and applying for a job flipping burgers. They’ll at least be making more than the federal minimum wage, and after three years, they’ll probably have been promoted to a shift manager and may even have availed themselves to each one of these corporation’s management training programs. Now I’m no fan of the fast food industry, but in our money-driven system, a management track in fast food is a better option than filling a roster spot for some minor league owner, who profits from the exploitation of your baseball talent, to fill some seats, sell some hot dogs and receive the benefits that derive from a lease agreement that plays on our unhealthy elevation of baseball above other businesses that benefit the community more.

It’s always interesting to me how so many liberal do-gooders like to rail against their favorite targets, such as Wal-Mart, McDonalds, Exxon-Mobil and other corporations, who arguably deserve every bit of scorn heaped upon them. Yet, you’ll find a good many of these very same people occupying seats at their local minor-league ballpark, perpetuating a system of labor profiteering that is much worse than those practiced by other, non-sports entities. So this summer, when you buy that ticket for your favorite minor league baseball team, just keep in mind the unfair system of indentured servitude that you are supporting.


Baseball's Free Agent Draft (notice the irony of this site--while clearly laying out a case against why any young man would want to roll the dice in a system stacked against them, it turns around and offers help in entering the baseball machine.)

Player's salaries (based on 2004 numbers--I have little reason to believe it has changed dramatically.)

A rant (and accompanying article) on baseball's exploitive wage system


Dottie said...

Maybe, just maybe what these young men are doing are living their dreams and are obviously not doing it for the money, but just for the love of the game! They are just prolonging the inevitable when one day they will have to get a "real" job.

weasel said...

It is so obviously a world of false hope peddled by pro sports (an industry where Milton Friedman's quip that America has "free markets for the poor, socialism for the rich" rings true) the world over. Profiles of the Ortizes and Jordans and Mannings and Beckhams of this world should carry a disclaimer along the lines of "for every person who becomes a big league starter, X hundred/thousand crap out and are left with nothing after having been cynically milked by the system" akin to the warnings on a pack of cigarettes. Much like the warnings on a pack of cigarettes, most young people will ignore them, but at least nobody can claim ignorance afterwards. I'll bear all that in mind next time I check out a minor league game; but to be fair I'll also bear in mind that these kids could quit- they are not like Wal Mart cleaners who get locked in the store. I just won't buy a Slugger doll out of solidarity with the toiling masses of the outfield.

As for the parents of these youngsters, why would anyone encourage kids to chase a career in a field where the proportion of those who succeed and are able to make even a decent living are far outweighed by the thousands of hopefuls who struggle along between rejections on peanuts anyway? A market where the supply of talent greatly outstrips the demand of the consumer and where access to popular reknown is tightly controlled by an elite coterie of agents and business people? Forget athletics, become a writer. Oh, hang on....

Joe said...

Hey, now, we're hitting kind of close to home here, Jim.

While I agree that minor league baseball players are being exploited in a sense, I don’t share the same outrage as you do, Jim. For one thing, as Weasel points out, it is a voluntary servitude for the players. They know that the days are long, and so are the odds of making the big leagues. At the same time, they get paid to “do what they love.” In that sense, calculating an hourly wage for a minor league ballplayer is akin to doing so for an upstart artist or writer. You may contend that there is a difference in that nobody else is getting rich off the efforts of an artist, but let’s face it – most teams in the lower minors (where the players are getting $850/month) aren’t getting rich, either. They are subsidized by the major league franchise in order to develop players.

I think that it’s also fair to note that minor league players receive $20/day in meal money when on the road. It doesn’t sound like much, but that’s $300/month, which is significant when compared to an $850 salary. They also have access to pretty good healthcare (at least during the season), unlike your average Wal Mart employee. And Weasel, by the time players make it to AA, they are getting ~2,000/month (I think), which is a healthy 9 bucks an hour, so you’re cool in going to Sea Dogs games.

Now, I admittedly enjoy going to minor league games, so I hope I don’t sound like a Pollyanna here. (As an aside, doing the math on my own hourly wage for “working” in the minor leagues shows an equally dismal result, especially after mileage is taken into account.) I simply don’t share the outrage.

Where I do find outrage, however, is in the financing of major league baseball stadiums. As a specific example, Carl Pohlad is the owner of the Twins, and is also a billionaire. He’s made numerous threats to move the team over the last decade or so, in an attempt to extort a publicly-financed stadium out of Minnesota taxpayers. Never mind that there is no market available that can better support a baseball team, now that Washington is taken. New York City would be a better market, even with two other teams there, but it’s not available due to MLB’s antitrust exemption. Never mind that the Twins have demonstrated that they can field a competitive team while playing in the Metrodome. Never mind that the cost of a new stadium would hardly be a burden to Mr. Pohlad, especially given how it would likely significantly increase the earnings and value of his team. Given all of the above, Pohlad finally won approval for his stadium, so you have taxpayers footing the bill to provide a new, more profitable building to a private business, at no appreciable benefit to themselves. This embodies the Friedman quip, and illustrates the biggest exploitation in professional baseball in my opinion.

Jim said...

Excellent points all around. As usual, I have good folks coaxing me in away from the ledge. As we all know, blogging, compared to journalism (well some journalism--don't get me started on that, please!) indulges us to be provocative and a bit bombastic in our writing.

Some of what I wrote is "over the top" and Joe helped me to see some points I had missed (the health insurance angle).

Weasel-great points per usual.

I've been ruminating a great deal about baseball all spring, driving to and from Wheaton games, standing on the sidelines prior to ball games, and at night, while nursing a beer with the Sox on.

Sports in our country receive a free pass that very few other subjects do.

I've stumbled across a provocative writer who writes about sports in a different sort of way. His name is Dave Zirin and he has a website. An interesting read, to say the least.