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Stop The "Save America's Pastime Act"

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Minor league ballplayers are paid poverty-level wages. Some in Congress want to keep it that way.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The image of a professional ballplayer in the mind of the public is that of an overpaid and pampered athlete. But that story is true of only the small fraction of ballplayers who reach the major leagues. The vast majority of professional baseball players toil away in the minor leagues for a salary that would be illegal in any other profession in America. All the while, baseball owners, at both the major and minor league level, continue to rake in record profits.

A minor league ballplayer starts out with a salary of $1,150 a month for a full-time job. They also are only paid during the season, despite all the workouts and exercise training they're expected to do in the offseason. That doesn't even mention winter league ball, where the players are paid a similar pittance. Yes, a few lucky ones got huge bonuses that they can live off of until they reach the majors, but again, the vast majority are left to their own devices as to how to make ends meet. This means that for the most part, there are two types of players in our minor league system -- Americans from the middle- and upper-classes who have parents who can help support them as they chase their dream, and desperately poor Latin Americans who are willing to make any sacrifice for the chance at a major league future that would lift their family out of poverty. There are exceptions to this, of course, but those are the vast majority of minor leaguers.

In any case, whatever the minor leaguers earn, it is far below the federal minimum wage when you take into account the 50- to 70-hour weeks they put in.

There is an effort to change this. A lawsuit has been filed by a former minor league ballplayer that asks that baseball meet federal minimum wage standards. So far, the lawsuit has passed every legal challenge and is heading to court.

I've argued in the past that paying minor league ballplayers a living wage is in the best interests of major league baseball. Beyond just following the law, I believe that far more young men would pursue a career in baseball if they knew they could make a living playing the game even if they don't make the major leagues. No one is asking that these players reap the rewards of major leaguers. But I believe that many of baseball's supposed issues with reaching young people would be helped if many more of them saw it as a viable career. If you play the game, you're more likely to be a fan for life.

Major and minor league baseball don't see it that way. In fact, they got two members of Congress, one from each party, to introduce H.R. 5580, the so-called "Save America's Pastime Act," to exempt minor league ballplayers from the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. They argue that paying minor league ballplayers a legal wage would cause an "unprecedented cost increase" and would jeopardize the "skills-enhancement role" of minor league baseball. They believe that paying minor league ballplayers a minimum wage would drive minor league teams out of business. They also argue that minor league ballplayers are akin to interns, and thus should be paid and classified accordingly.

This is horse-hockey. In the first place, minor league teams don't pay minor league players. Their salaries are paid for by major league teams that somehow have the money to give $200 million contracts to one player but don't have an extra $3 million a year to pay their minor leaguers. Minor league baseball is worried that major league baseball will pass along this increased cost to the minor league affiliates. But again, major league baseball is not going to kill the goose that lays the golden egg for them. We all know how valuable prospects are to major league teams because of the promise of six years of cost control at the major league level. There is no way that major league baseball is going to drive minor league teams out of business.

I have a lot of sympathy for minor league owners, for the most part. They're the good guys, providing cheap family entertainment for millions of Americans in across the country, from small towns to some of the largest cities around. But let's not pretend they are a charity, either. They are for-profit businesses and many of them are making a lot of money doing this. They even engage in many of the ballpark shenanigans of the major league teams. The Biloxi Shuckers were lured from Huntsville with a brand-new $21 million taxpayer funded stadium. $15 million of that money came out of a settlement from BP over the Deepwater Horizon spill. Money that was meant to be spent on cleaning up oil and helping out fisherman and resort owners whose livelihood was ruined by an ecological catastrophe was diverted into building a minor league stadium to lure a team from another state into moving there.

Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports has a great summary of the ridiculousness going on here. I'll add that while I'm sure Minor League Baseball is very concerned about this lawsuit, I have little doubt that the driving force behind this bill is Major League Baseball. MLB no doubt finds that MiLB is a more sympathetic poster child for this legislation than they would be, so they let them take the lead. (In case you don't know, yes, they are separate entities. Sometimes people get confused on that point.) One of the bill's original sponsors, Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois, is the daughter of a former lobbyist for MLB.

We don't get into politics on this site for some very good reasons. But when a bill like this directly affects the sport, then we have to throw that out the window. This bill is designed to do one thing -- allow MLB to continue to pay minor league ballplayers an illegally-low wage.

I will take the time to rebut one objection to this that I'm sure someone will bring up. Why should we not let the free market determine the wages of minor league ballplayers? Why have the courts and Congress give them an artificial raise?

I'd say that's a good idea. Let's have a free market for minor league talent. That would mean that the draft, which artificially lowers wages by restricting ballplayers to negotiating with one team, would have to go. That means that the industry could no longer collude amongst each other to determine wages at each level. If the Cubs wanted to pay twice as much in salary as the Twins do, then minor leaguers should be free to leave the Twins organization and sign with the Cubs. Let's fully enforce the Sherman Antitrust Act and stop major and minor league teams from colluding to horde talent and artificially lower wages. Minor league salaries would quickly shoot past the federal minimum wage in that case and indeed, many minor league teams would go belly up.

But no one wants that. No one is asking for that. What we are asking for is that baseball players be paid a legal salary.

The backlash to this bill is already strong. Representative Bustos, who represents the Moline/Rock Island part of the state, as well as Rockford and part of Peoria, has already backtracked and withdrawn her sponsorship and support for the bill. This is great news, although she did do it before I could write her about how I was going to make sure that every Cubs fan in her district knew about her support for the bill. But as far as I know, the bill is still going to be introduced by Representative Brett Guthrie of Kentucky, who represents Kentucky's 2nd district, which includes Bowling Green.

I am asking that you write your representative to oppose this bill, especially if you live in the 2nd District of Kentucky. It wouldn't hurt if you live in the Quad Cities or Peoria area to thank Representative Bustos for changing her position on this either. As former Cubs minor leaguer Alex Tomasovich wrote, he was getting paid less than the batboy at Boise Hawks games. That's not only illegal, that's insane.

Commissioner Manfred, it's time to pay the minor leaguers. You have no need to pass the costs on to minor league owners, either. It's good for the players. It's good for the fans. It's for the good of baseball.

Update: Since I wrote this piece yesterday afternoon, MLB has issued the following press release. You can read it for yourself. I think you know my feelings about it.