Saturday, October 17, 2009

Rock Band: Manchester Orchestra

Athletes often whine and complain. They usually do so because they're selfish, egomaniacal, self-absorbed, opportunistic prima-donnas, so far removed from reality that Barbara Streisand looks down to earth in comparison. (Whew, that was a mouthful.) Most have as much reason to whine as my rottenly spoiled dog.

But every once in a while, there is reason behind the madness. Every once in a while there is something going on that isn't quite right. (Ex: see MLB during 1985 off-season, when it was found that owners really were colluding after only 4 free agents switched teams.)

Minor league baseball players love the game. We're grateful for every opportunity that we're given. We understand how fortunate we are to be in the position that we are in, and we know that our job is better than many. But there is something going on in this game that isn't quite right.

Again, I've been working on a longer story on this, so I won't go into a lot of the numbers, but I want to expound upon one of the problems by using an analogy. (Via a friend. His name is Chris and he works at Anheuser Busch. Please find him on Facebook and ask for free beer.)

Chris commented on my last post, comparing our careers to those of musicians, and how we have to weigh the risks and rewards. This seemed to make as much sense as eating breakfast before lunch, so let's take the analogy farther.

You could say that there are three levels of musicians. The first level are the local pubbers and clubbers. They've yet to sign a record deal, make pennies for each performance, and still drink Natural Lite. This level is equivalent to most independent teams in baseball. (A few ind. leagues would be exempt, such as the Atlantic League. These would be the equivalent of the indie rock scene in Brooklyn.) Most pubbers and clubbers will never play beyond these small settings.

The middle level are those already signed to a decent record label. Those in the industry have recognized their talent. They might have an album, and probably have a song playing on a few radio stations. They've begun to receive a following, and routinely play in front of a few thousand people, drinking slightly classier, yet still blue-collar Jack and Coke. The hardcore fans in the mosh-pit know their names and their lyrics, but except for hardcore fans, they remain relatively obscure. These are the affiliated minor leaguers: the talent has been recognized and they've been signed by MLB teams, but they're still in the development stage.

The last-level of bands are the stars. They make a lot of money, they play on the big stage, they're on all the radio stations, and Nickelback sings songs about their lifestyle. These bands drink whatever the hell they want, even if many still prefer Natty Lite or Jack and Coke. They're the major leaguers.

Manchester Orchestra is the equivalent of a Double A baseball player. The talent is there, they've been signed, and once in a while you'll hear their songs. Most likely they'll fizz out like a tablet of AlkaSeltzer, but with a little luck and a few more songs, they might be the next Kings of Leon. (I personally like them better than KOL, but I'm also a nerd that reads books.)

If Manchester Orchestra was to come to St. Louis, they'd play at The Pageant. A packed house would be there, listening to the music and drinking $6 beers. Now imagine if Manchester Orchestra played this show, but The Pageant didn't pay them a dime. Instead, their record label paid them only $50 for the night. The Pageant would be getting a free ride.

This is what is happening to affiliated minor league baseball players, as currently the minor league affiliates pay no part of their salaries. In certain places around 10,000 fans come to the games each night, but they don't pay the players a dime. Instead, the MLB owners pay them around $50 a night.

Now I'm not saying that the affiliated teams should be on the hook for all of players' salaries. I'm not even completely convinced they should pay any of them. But they could afford to take small steps.

One step that has been suggested by players is to pay for housing. Currently, players pay for housing, and many can't afford it. This leads to the types of living situations described in my previous post. Additionally, it makes for a headache when a player moves from team to team on a moment's notice, and suddenly they have to worry about paying rent here, there, and everywhere.

Some affiliated teams would find this difficult no doubt, but some are getting rich and could easily afford this. Affiliated minor league teams set their sixth straight attendance record in 2008, at more than 43 million. Many teams have doubled in value in the past 10 years, now worth in excess of $20 million.

Paying $400 a month doesn't sound like a lot, but it is significant to players in that it represents a third of their paychecks. Five months of rent for 30 players would cost teams around $60,000. Most teams could afford this $60,000.

Fans will say that teams will raise ticket prices in response. Nobody wants to see this, but many teams could afford it without a price raise. Even if they did raise prices, it would be a tiny amount. Consider this: most teams average over 200,000 in annual attendance. Even my old team, the Connecticut Defenders, broke 200,000 in 2009 despite being at the bottom of the league in attendance. A small price increase of 50 cents would yield $100,000.

In the 1990s, MLB teams forced the minor league affiliates to raise the level of their facilities. Many affiliated owners gave the end of days speech, but it has since resulted in a period of prosperity. Affiliated teams would no doubt find a working business plan.

The MLB teams could be taking steps as well. It would seem to be in their best interest to ensure that players optimally develop. Decent meals and sleep don't seem too much to ask for (see Maslow's opinion on this). In my opinion the signing bonuses of top picks are out of control, and they're skimping on the overall minor league system. They're robbing the poor to pay the rich. A slight pullback in signing bonuses could off-set improvements in the minor leagues. But of course the agents and the lawyers of the MLBPA won't go for this.

Minor league players recognize what they are: minor leaguers. They know most are doomed for obscurity, and they don't expect to be paid richly. They don't expect to drive Bentley's or to dress as if they're auditioning for the next Kanye West video. They just want to be able to afford to eat.

Okay, I'm done whining. I know you now think that I'm an egotistical asshole, and so I apologize. I promise we'll talk about something else in the next post. Please don't hate me. I'm just trying to help a few people out.

A few links:


Debbie said...

You need to write this up as an 800-word Op-Ed and send it to the NYT, WSJ, SF Chronicle & LA Times. Seriously. This week! Better hurry on the LA Times, since the Dodgers are about to be knocked out of the playoffs.

Matt said...

no one thinks robin hood man is an egotistical a-hole, man...looking forward to reading the article that you keep telling us about.

Tom said...

I have no argument. It would be nice if the some of money I spent for tickets, beer and dogs actually went to the players.

The following may extend my banishment from Muni, but... The San Jose Giants Baseball Club pays the City of San Jose $1000/month to rent Muni.

The SJ Giants attendance was for 2009 was 211,054 in 70 games. That is a lot of beer, dog and garlic fry sales.

Using some of that money for a players housing allowance would be a welcome step.

David V. Sanders said...

The squeaky wheel gets the grease...or his release?

I wonder what upper management thinks about the issues you raise, and I'm glad you raise them despite the risk that some higher ups inside MLB might like to silence your voice.

I guess if you suddenly found it difficult to find an organization willing to (barely) pay you for your services, then you would know what to do with those LSAT scores.

I wonder how you could better fight for what you believe in--as a player, or as a former player/attorney.

Either way, keep up the good fight.

Frank said...

I love following you on here and Twitter for your invaluable insight into life in the minors. In this case, I feel for you completely as I remember attending baseball camps when I was younger at the Omaha royals and Norwich navigators and hearing the players tell of ther offseason jobs as waiters and pizza delivery boys. It seems to me this form of offseason training hardly fits professional athletes, especially those who should be working towards a dream everyday, not working to supplement a poverty-level income.

With an eye on MLB history, big league players of old had to deal with similar, although not quite so desperate, situations. It was only when unions were formed that players got their share, but quickly this turned from a fair share into the collossal salaries of today.

So, an obvious fix would be a minor league baseball players' association to demand higher salaries, although the measure would have to be supported by the vast majority of current minor leaguers in order to prevent a lockout or replacement and elimination of the union's founding members. This step requires a huge leap of faith however, and many in your situation would understandably not want to stake your very livelihood on such a risk.

How does your first pro contract work? Does it have predetermined monetary values depending what level you are at during your first 6 years under contract? Might it be possible to negotiate a higher yearly payment if you forfeit the signing bonus?

I don't know the answer to any of these points but my younger brother is an aspiring baseball player who hopes to have to deal with these problems in the next couple years. I know from hearing your and others' stories that the road to the bigs is arduous enough even before economic considerations, and it pains me to think of the tough decisions to be made in chasing the childhood dream versus raising a family.

Good luck with everything,
frank lowery

gbroshuis said...

Thanks guys. Frank, you're definitely correct. The lack of a player's union hampers minor leaguers. In a sense, the owners are an all powerful group, and the minor leaguers are their indentured servants.

Yes, it would require a leap of faith to convince a majority of players of the utility of joining a union. That's why I don't think it will happen anytime soon. It would probably take the support of some of the big league players.

The standard contract that a minor leaguer signs is six and a half years and includes pre-set salaries for that time period. A player can't negotiate these salaries in any way. The only thing that changes them is placement on the 40 man roster or a call-up to the big leagues.

I'll talk about some different labor issues and the lack of a player's union soon.

Anonymous said...

Works for Double A and Triple A teams, but for the A ball affiliates, this would be difficult. A good short season team draws 100,000. The rookie ball teams in the Appalachian league draw substantially less and charge $35 for season tickets.

The reality is that the money to support this isn't there in smaller communities that host minor league baseball. I do think it would probably behoove Major League teams to purchase apartment complexes in their affliated teams' markets and have team housing there. It's a way to make sure that team rules are followed, a support system--dormesque really--for players away from home for the first time. And the apartments that aren't used to house the team could be rented out to others to offset the cost of the complex.

Gregor said...

I'd like to see some Major League players get behind this idea. You'd think they'd remember how it was.

gbroshuis said...

Bag of Health: You're correct. Some small markets couldn't support this. Remember though that short season teams may only draw 100,000 fans, but they do so over a smaller amount of contests.

I do concede that it would be hard on smaller market teams at the lower levels. Many of these levels have host-families set up for players. As long as these programs provide suitable housing, I think that would be acceptable.

I think there would be a way to work around this. The biggest thing would be to find a way to make sure that every player is offered some type of suitable housing. At the lower levels that might mean the continuation of host families. At the higher levels, where guys are older and there are larger market teams, it might be worth looking into apartments.

You're also right that it might be in the MLB team's best interest to actually acquire an apartment complex to ensure that this is taken care of. Of course, MLB owners aren't in the business of running apartments. They would claim that this would be a nuisance.

Mark said...

I play a baseball simulation game on the computer called Out of the Park Baseball. It's ridiculously realistic in most areas, except minor league contracts are for $0. So now I know that's pretty close to realistic, too. :)

gbroshuis said...

Mark, you just made my morning with that comment.

sfgiantsgirl said...

Wow, thanks for all your great stories about the minors! Your stories on The Suitcase Chronicles are very moving and also quite entertaining, and it's great to be able to have a little peek into the life of a minor leaguer. I never realized that it's really that bad. Keep writing about it, hopefully someday soon you can somehow help change the situation. I look forward to reading more!

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