Minor league life

By Minda Haas, NewsNetNebraska

Outfielder Jordan Parraz bats against the Albuquerque Isotopes on April 24, 2010. See the video on this page for more thoughts from Parraz. Photo: Melinda Haas, NewsNetNebraska

If your dream was to play Major League Baseball someday, how much would you go through to achieve it?

Would you accept a salary of less than $10,000 a year?

Thousands of minor league baseball players are doing that right now.

Sure, there are exceptions. Washington Nationals prospect Stephen Strasburg, who is getting his feet wet in the team’s farm club in Harrisburg, Pa., made headlines in last summer’s draft when he pulled down a $7.5 million bonus.

But few newly-minted professional players get anywhere near that. “A few minor leaguers receive huge signing bonuses, but the majority make pennies. They actually earn wages that place them below the established poverty guidelines,” said Garrett Broshuis, who pitched for 6 years in the San Francisco Giants’ organization before retiring this spring. “It forces a lot of ballplayers into a very crappy lifestyle.”

Each Major League team has at least seven affiliates. That means thousands of men, many of them obscure late-round choices, are playing in the minors right now. Still more play in numerous independent leagues throughout the country. Conditions are often worse in these professional leagues that are not tied to any Major League team. Among them are the Lincoln Saltdogs.

All of these teams, no matter the league, contain many men who accept meager wages and dicey living conditions while they chase their dreams of making it to “The Show.” Some have been to the Majors and are back in the minors; others are on their way up. Still other players will never make it out of the bus leagues. The last group, especially, lives in poverty that may surprise some fans.

“People are shocked when I tell them the majority of players make less than $10,000,” Broshuis said. “I think people realize that minor leaguers aren’t getting rich, but there’s a misconception as to how little they actually make.”

Specific dollar amounts are hard to find. Broshuis had to scour the ranks of current and former players he knows – and examine his own pay stubs – to figure out salaries for a recent Baseball America story. Contrast this with Major Leaguers, whose salaries are splashed across newspaper headlines and collected in detail at sites like Cot’s Baseball Contracts.

Compounding the difficulties caused by low pay is the fact that MLB doesn’t pay for the time spent at Spring Training. Two months of Spring Training, plus a five-month season, leaves players with little time to find jobs in the offseason. [media id=9 width=360 height=264]

Contrary to popular belief, not all professional baseball players are multi-millionaires. Click the image above to hear about life in the bus leagues.

What’s more, baseball is a transient game, especially at the minor league level. “A minor leaguer often has to pay two rents. He’ll have a lease wherever he lives in the off-season and a lease wherever he’s playing while in-season,” said Broshuis, who bounced around several levels of the minors throughout his career. “And then of course once you’re in one town you can move at a moment’s notice.”

Why is nobody paying these men more? Part of it is supply and demand, said John Manuel, editor of Baseball America. “There are always players who want to play pro ball and get paid – even nominally – for it,” Manuel said. If so many players are willing to take such a small salary, there is little incentive for baseball owners to hand out more money. Keith Law of ESPN.com agreed. “The status quo is working really well for owners at both levels, and the players lack the leverage to force a change.”

Minor League players don’t have leverage because they don’t have a union. Only players on the Major League clubs’ 40-man rosters are protected by the MLB Players Association. Nobody has started such a union for minor leaguers, in part because players don’t want to be in the minors long enough to be their teams’ union representative. “I don’t think players set out to be minor leaguers as a career,” Manuel said, adding that playing in the Minors is “basically meant as an apprenticeship.”

If Minor Leaguers did unionize, how effective would they be? “Unions are effective when labor is highly skilled and therefore difficult or impossible to replace,” Law said. Most minor league players are essentially organizational filler, Law explained. “They’re not prospects but are there to fill out lower-level rosters so that the legitimate prospects have someone with whom to play.”

Even though these “filler” players receive the lowest pay and would benefit the most from a union, they would not have much power because their organizations see them as replaceable parts. “The best candidates to unionize in the minors are the top prospects,” Law said. “But of course, they’re usually much better compensated through signing bonuses, and they’re loath to risk the large paydays ahead of them when they reach the majors.”

Outfielder Jordan Parraz, left, gained some financial security last winter when he was added to the Royals' 40-man roster, but he recalls the tiny paychecks from past seasons in the lower levels of Minor League Baseball. Photo: Melinda Haas, NewsNetNebraska

Small steps are being made to improve living conditions. During this past offseason, MLB announced that minor leaguers would be receiving a bump in their daily meal money, known as “per diem.” Previously, each player received $20 per day for food, but now they’ll get $25.

Many teams are also working with their clubhouse attendants, who are in charge of feeding the team post-game meals, to make sure more nutritious food is provided. “Conditions will change incrementally because teams do realize it would make more sense to invest some money in properly feeding their players healthy, nutritious meals,” Manuel said. “I think some kind of change like that will come – an improvement in minor league living standards rather than an improvement in outright pay.”

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