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Reminder: Players don’t get paid for Spring Training

Spring Training has become big business. The minor league players get almost none of it.

Al Yellon

Tickets for Tuesday’s Spring Training game between the Reds and the Cubs at Sloan Park cost between 20 and 58 dollars. The players who actually play the game will get almost none of it. That’s because players don’t get paid for Spring Training.

In an article published last week, Ted Berg called attention to the plight of minor league catchers, most of who are working for subminimum wages, who are then expected to spend their days helping the pitchers get their tosses in. In exchange, they get breakfast, lunch and a $25 per diem allowance. (The per diem goes up to $95.50 if they’re in uniform for the day’s game.) MLB justifies this by saying that minor league baseball is akin to an apprenticeship and that Spring Training is something like an audition. But as Berg notes, few of those catchers have any hope of actually playing in the big leagues in 2019. Most of them are just there to catch the pitchers who will actually be playing in the majors this year.

Spring Training is unpaid because that’s what it’s always been. It’s a holdover from the days when major league ballplayers actually had winter jobs and had to get back into shape after a winter layoff. Today’s major leaguers train 12 months a year. Spring Training still exists because it’s a big money maker for the teams and the cities that host them.

Of course, that Spring Training is unpaid really isn’t an issue for major league ballplayers. Anthony Rizzo isn’t going to have trouble finding the money to rent a house for a month and provide for his family. He’s going to get a big check two weeks into the season. Even a second-year player like David Bote, who only got paid half of the major-league minimum last season, shouldn’t have had any trouble putting enough money aside to get himself through the month of March in Arizona.

But what about the 16th-round pick who got a $15,000 bonus two years ago? What about the Latin American player who got a similar bonus and is struggling to survive in a foreign country and is probably sending money home from his meager salary anyway? These guys have to figure out how to survive for six weeks on no salary. And woe to the player that gets left behind in Extended Spring Training once the season starts. Those players might not see a paycheck until mid-June when the short-season leagues start.

MLB’s explanation that Spring Training is something like an audition is laughable. For one, all of these players are already under contract and are employees of their team. On top of that, every ballplayer is auditioning for their job every single day they take the field. But as Berg notes in his article, the minor league players are mostly there to fill in for the major league players where needed. They’re there to help the major leaguers warm up. They are there to play three innings because their team doesn’t want its stars playing more than five innings and risking injury. Basically, they are not there for themselves. The days of a minor league coming to Spring Training and showing the brass what they can do is long gone. The teams have scouts and cameras at every minor league game a player plays in. The front office and coaches already know what they can do. How they perform in a meaningless game against generally sub-major-league competition is not going to earn the vast majority of them a trip north with the major league team when Spring Training ends. If they do earn a trip north, it has more to do with what the player did the previous minor league season than what they did in Arizona or Florida in March.

There was a bill to legally exempt Spring Training for Arizona’s minimum wage laws was introduced in the Arizona state legislature last year, although it appears to have died without reaching the floor. But this effort is no doubt part of MLB’s efforts to exempt minor leaguers from all labor laws, including minimum wage laws, as seen in the “Save America’s Pastime Act” that was snuck through Congress and signed into law as part of a giant spending bill.

Obviously this problem could be solved through collective bargaining, but the Players Association is stuck in a bind. They could ask for Spring Training to be fully paid, but if they did so, the owners would demand a concession from the players in exchange. The MLBPA is understandably reluctant to ask their members to sacrifice something in exchange for something that would primarily benefit non-members. That’s not what unions generally do. But someone has to raise this issue. And shame on MLB and the MLBPA if they don’t do the right thing by the minor leaguers that work so hard for a chance to play in the majors. Or in many cases, work so hard so that the major leaguers can be better players.

But Spring Training is big business. Fans spend millions of dollars every spring to see their heroes take the field and almost none of that money goes to the players. Remember that the next time you watch the Cubs play this spring.