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:
1985 Collusion Article: http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/collusion-and-the-no-risk-free-agents-of-1988/
Natural Light: http://beeradvocate.com/beer/profile/29/1524