The current labor dispute between MLB players and owners, which has resulted in a lockout that puts the start of Spring Training and the 2022 regular season in jeopardy, is often portrayed as “millionaires vs. billionaires,” and some say “a pox on both your houses.”
I’m here to tell you why that portrayal is incorrect and why you should be hoping MLB players recover some of the losses they’ve incurred in recent CBAs and get more of the revenue that the sport has incoming.
To do that, I’m going to ask you to read this article from The Nation headlined Baseball Players Can’t Live on “a Cup of Coffee” by Kelly Candaele and Peter Dreier. If Candaele’s name sounds familiar, it’s because his brother Casey was a MLB player for three teams from 1986-97 and as a filmmaker, he created the film A League of Their Own about his mother Helen St. Aubin’s years in the All American Girls Professional Baseball League.
Candaele and Dreier tell the stories of DeRond Stovall, Doug Simons, Bill Bathe, or Dave Stegman, MLB players who got that proverbial “cuppa coffee” in the big leagues in the 1980s and 1990s. The longest career among the four belonged to Stegman, who played parts of six years in the majors.
All of those men had to work other jobs, or their wives had to, or both, to make ends meet. Candaele and Dreier point out:
In fact, the “billionaires vs. millionaires” view is a distorting cliché, ignoring the reality that the vast majority of players who reach the big leagues are closer to Stovall, Simons, Bathe, and Stegman than they are to Corey Seager, who, before the lockout halted all transactions, signed a 10-year $325 million deal with the Texas Rangers.
What’s missing from these stories is that while the average major league salary is $4 million, the median yearly salary is $1.2 million. The average is skewed upward by the mega-salaries of a handful of top players. The 100 highest-paid players earn 52.4 percent of all salaries. Forty percent of players make the MLB minimum salary of $570,000.
Even $570,000, to be sure, is more than the vast majority of Americans make per year. But as Candaele and Dreier note:
Twenty-five percent of players last only one season. The average service time of MLB players was 4.79 years in 2003 and fell to 3.71 years in 2019, the most recent year for which figures are available. (A year of service time is 187 days, based on the current collective bargaining agreement between MLB and the players union). In other words, the typical player spends less than four years in the major leagues before he is released or injured or he voluntarily retires. Many of them stay on major league rosters for a part of those seasons, so while they may play in the majors for four seasons, they don’t make a full major league salary and their pension payments only reflect time spent in the major leagues.
These are the kinds of players the MLB Players Association is trying to help, trying to get larger payments for in their earlier years. The article notes that at least one of the players mentioned above was eligible for food stamps because minor league salaries back in their day were below poverty level. It is true that minor league salaries have been increased over the last couple of years — but at the cost of having fewer such players, with 42 affiliated minor league franchises either contracted or sent to indy leagues or summer college wood-bat leagues. MLB owners are essentially paying around the same amount of money to minor leaguers than they were previously, only each player gets a bit more. MLB owners can afford more.
The current dispute is summed up well by Candaele and Dreier:
Baseball Commissioner Robert Manfred Jr. has accused the players’ union of preferring “confrontation over compromise,” while the players are focused on eliminating owners’ incentives to allow their teams to do poorly (also known as “tanking”) by not spending enough to field the best players. The teams with the worst win-loss records at the end of the season get the early draft picks among high school and college players.
The MLBPA sees the owners’ stance as another attempt to weaken or break the union’s historic strength and solidarity, especially when the teams are prospering at historical levels. The average value of major league teams increased to an all-time high of $1.9 billion in 2020, before the pandemic. Baseball’s revenue from TV deals with ESPN, Fox, and TBS grew from $1.55 billion in 2021 to $1.84 billion starting this year—a 19 percent increase. Meanwhile, the median player salary has fallen from its peak of $1.65 million in 2015 to $1.15 million in 2020—a drop of 18 percent.
It is absolutely true that there are a fair number of MLB players making tens of millions a year and hundreds of millions overall in multi-year deals. Dave Stegman described them this way in the article:
“You realize pretty quick that [baseball] is a business,” Stegman said, noting that marginal players like himself spend most of their careers going up and down between the major and minor leagues. “There’s 25 guys on a team and maybe five superstars.”
“There were a couple of times during my career when I was 26th man on a 25-man squad,” he recalled with a laugh.
It is also true that those 20+ guys who aren’t superstars have short careers and don’t make much money, and many of them wind up leaving the game in their mid- or late-20s and don’t have the education or skills for other careers. It’s these players who the MLBPA is trying to protect, trying to get more money for, and I’m 100 percent on their side.
You should be too.
I read this article and...
This poll is closed
... I was on the players’ side previously and still am
... I was not on the players’ side previously but now I am
... I was not on the players’ side previously and I’m still not
Something else (leave in comments)