We’ve been beating the drum for the underpaid minor league ballplayers around here for quite some time and we haven’t been alone. Articles like this one by Joon Lee highlighted the problems that minor league ballplayers face with housing and how ballplayers were forced to live in, frankly, unacceptable conditions because of their low wages and jobs where it’s not unusual to have to relocate several times a year.
The good news is that MLB has finally agreed that this situation could not continue and teams have agreed to provide free housing for most minor league ballplayers. The only players excepted from this new policy are players on the major league 40-man roster and minor league veterans who make over $20,000 a month or $100,000 a year.
The devil is in the details, so let’s take a look at them. The exceptions that MLB made are certainly reasonable — players on the 40-man and many minor league free agents make a living wage and can afford to pay for their own housing. Also, any player can voluntarily opt out of this arrangement. So if Joe First-Round-Pick wants to spend his bonus money on his own place, he can.
Housing must be apartments, rental homes or with pre-screened host families. Hotels can be used only if other arrangements can’t be found and those hotels have to meet all the other qualifications.
All normal utilities must be paid by the team — such as water, gas, electricity and internet. Air conditioning will be provided in areas where normal summer living conditions require it.
The living quarters must have, at least, a bedroom, a bathroom, a kitchen and a shared living space. Housing must be furnished with beds, sofas, tables, chairs and a television, as well as cooking and eating utensils in the kitchen. (They’re not springing for cable or Netflix, however. That’s fair.)
Players must have their own bed and there can be no more than two players sharing a bedroom.
Teams will be responsible for the leases, not the players. A common story over the past few years is players being forced to sign a lease in one town and then still being responsible for it when they are assigned to a different team mid-season.
Clubs can require players to pay for damages to the property above and beyond normal wear and tear, but they need to develop clear policies for such fees. So remember what they said on The Brady Bunch — don’t play ball in the house.
The living arrangements must be a reasonable commuting distance from the ballpark. What a reasonable distance is was not defined—one would imagine it would be very different in different locations.
So far, this sounds like everything advocates have been asking for, except for an increase in salary. If MLB carries out this policy like they outline it here, then this is excellent news.
I can see two potential issues with this policy. The first is that MLB teams, along with their minor league affiliates, are going to have to start scrambling to sign leases (or find host families) and to get these places up to the standards set here pretty quickly. Sure, that’s better than the players having to do it every April, but it’s not hard to imagine some teams failing to meet the standards set here. And in some tight rental markets, it may be quite difficult to meet these new rules.
The other potential problem I see is that the IRS considers the value of this housing to be taxable income. Sure, it’s better to pay taxes on free housing than it is to pay for the leases itself, but in some ultra-expensive markets like Brooklyn or San Jose, players may find themselves with a big tax bill to pay with a tiny salary. That’s why I’ve always advocated simply increasing the salary of minor league players to a living wage over this solution, but I can see some of the advantages of this method, such as players not having to worry about leases, utilities and furnishings.
I do also wonder what is going to happen if a guy is living in a subsidized apartment and he’s added to the 40-man roster. However, that pretty much only happens mid-season when a player is called up to the majors, so they should have some time to find new arrangements when they are sent back down. Plus, they’ll be making a lot more money.
All in all, this is a major victory for minor league ballplayers and their advocates. And I believe this system will be a victory for MLB teams as well, even if it is going to cost them some money. Under this system, minor league ballplayers are going to spend a lot less time worrying about meeting their basic living needs and are going to have a lot more time to spend on what they should be worrying about — becoming the best baseball player that they can be.