Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A future slot-system? Where does the money go?

Almost everyone agrees that the current draft system is a mess. Almost nobody agrees on how to fix it.

Bud Selig recently voiced strongly his opinion that a strict slotting system is needed.

"That's one that there is no debate in my mind," Selig said while speaking on ESPN's "Mike and Mike Show." "We need an international draft, and we need slotting."

For those not privy to the situation, the MLB currently provides slot "recommendations" for each pick in the top rounds of the draft, but teams are free to exceed these recommendations. The teams that have the most monopoly money often do so.

To use an example from the real world, this is sort of like having recommended speed limits for our highways. Law enforcement officials would be unable to enforce these limits. You think a 17 year old with a fast car is going to obey these recommendations? Of course not, and the same thing applies to the current draft system. Some owners think they're driving on the autobahn, while others exercise more restraint.

Prior to drafting prospects, teams try to assess a player's signability. A large part of this equation is how much money a kid wants. Many kids will say they will sign for slot, but some top prospects throw out exorbitant numbers. This places them at prices that small-market teams can't afford. The argument can then be made that teams with more money are able to acquire more talented players on a more regular basis.

If equity in the game is a goal, and I'm not completely sure that is the goal, then a strict slotting system needs to be instituted. A system not unlike the NBA's draft is envisioned, in which hard numbers are in place for each pick.

I'm not a huge proponent of this system, but I'm also not completely opposed to it. I think huge signing bonuses can be dangerous. It sets up a system in which some players, because of the money invested in them, are too big to fail, just like some of our banks. Instead of the best players with the best numbers reaching the big leagues, it sets up a situation in which the players with the most money invested in them reach the big leagues. They get bailed out time after time and are virtually guaranteed a call-up.

The main question I have regarding this system is this: What happens to the money saved? Does it go to the owner's pocketbook? Does it go to adding on another $1 million to the big league payroll? Or does it get invested back in the minor leagues?

This would seem like a simple solution to improving conditions for minor league players. Any money saved on reigning in bonuses could be allocated to a small salary increase for minor leaguers, or simply for paying the rent of minor leaguers. Maybe even, heaven forbid, they could pay the players during spring training or instructional leagues.

Despite Selig's wishes, the likelihood of a strict slotting system still seems fairly low. The owners will no doubt push for this in the next CBA, which ends in 2011, but there will be resistance from the MLBPA. One thing is for sure. The likelihood of a slotting system is certainly higher than the likelihood of minor league salaries actually increasing.

Friday, October 23, 2009

NCAA: Unprofessional baseball salaries?

A quickie via an email from an anonymous minor leaguer:

I came across this article and found one of the quotes kinda interesting. It talks about how NCAA athletes can ruin their eligibility by playing on a team where other players are being paid some money. Anyways, a women’s volleyball player was playing on a team where 2 of her teammates made $10,000 dollars and the NCAA ruled her ineligible. The interesting quote is this, which is about the girl who was ruled ineligible:

"Gijsbertsen received housing and $4,700 to defray expenses, not a sum that qualified as a professional salary...”

Just thought it was wierd that the salaries that some guys make in short season or extended spring training aren't even considered large enough for the NCAA to qualify it as a professional salary.

This is very interesting on a couple of levels. First of all, some NCAA rules are as absurd as elephant painting, but that is a lengthier discussion.

If the NCAA soon establishes amounts that they deem to be "professional levels of salary," as the article claims, then our anonymous player is correct. Some minor leaguers will not earn enough to qualify as professional players.

The question is this: If a player receives a tiny signing bonus and never makes it out of short-season professional baseball, could he then maintain amateur status? This thought is as absurd as the current salary structure.

Let the elephant painting begin.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Mailbag spillover

Not all of the questions fit in the small mailbag I'm using for my "Suitcase Chronicles" column on Baseball America, so here are some spillover questions:

Have you always been a major **##****#?
From Mike, in an undisclosed location in Missouri

This question's from a college buddy. Since he's a buddy, he can ask such a personal question. Answer: Yes, I've always been a major **##****#.

As a pitcher, are you watching these playoff closer meltdowns with horror or the sense "Shoot, I could do better than THAT!!" or both?
From Janice, in California

Answer: Shock and empathy.

I'm definitely not going to say I could do better. These are some of the best pitchers in the game. They also happen to be facing some of the best hitters in the game, and once in a while they're going to blow a game.

So no, I can't do better than the closers, but I do at times feel that I could do better than some of the middle relievers.

The horrifying thing to me is the that the entire game is blamed on these individuals. After Huston Street blew the save in game 4 of the NLCS, every headline across America said "Street Blows the Save." Sportscenter displayed the Denver Post headline 14 times before I finally lost count.

Street will bounce back, but I know he's currently enduring some sleepless nights. I feel for him.

Do you remember the time that you got out of the car and walked home because Travis was playing G-Bop (Kenny G) as loud as he could with the windows down?
From Mike again

Answer: yes, I do, and I stand by my actions.

What are your thoughts on the move to Richmond, and the Flying Squirrels mascot?
From a couple of different people. Please raise your hands to be recognized.

P.C. response: Connecticut was a great place to play. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, as did all of my Giants' teammates.

Glad I got that out of the way.

The situation in CT was less than ideal. Foul weather plagued the team each year, and all of the Californians and Latinos hated the cold. Additionally, the attendance was poor, and many guys weren't accustomed to the small town lifestyle.

I actually found things that I really enjoyed. There's great trout fishing, and you're less than an hour from great beaches. On the rare off-day, players can take day-trips to NYC or Boston.

Richmond is supposed to be a better market, and the weather should be better. From what I hear, the stadium needs improvements, and this might actually be a downgrade from CT, where the facilities were pretty good.

As for the mascot, I kind of like the Flying Squirrels. Who wouldn't like seeing Rocky and Bullwinkle as mascots? And think of the promotion possibilities. Squirrel on a stick in the concession stand? Bring your squirrel to the ballpark day? We'll see what uniforms and hats they come up with. They might be atrocious.

Have you ever chased a car down the street after a hit and run?
Another Mike question (thanks for bringing back memories)

Answer: Yes. Stupid guy was drunk. Hit Travis's car while it was parked in front of the apartment. Totaled it. We got out the video camera once the cops got there. Traumatic night.

Lastly, the comment of the week, which followed my last post:

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. :)

That came from Mark. Thanks for making me laugh Mark. (And for making me depressed.)

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:

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Plight of the Minor Leaguer, Pt. 1 of 6000

This week I've been working on a longer (by my standards) article on the depressed state of minor league salaries that will soon appear in Baseball America. Specifically, I'm comparing current salaries to those in 1975 and am giving reasons for why they've remained practically unchanged for 34 years.

I'm going to save the numbers for the article, but today I wanted to expound upon one of my favorite quotes from it:

"We had 12 players, two wives, and a baby staying with us all at once."

The quote is from Barbara Rothstein. Residents of Norwich, Connecticut, she and her husband served as a host family for the then Double A affiliate of the Yankees, the Norwich Navigators. As knowledge of her services grew, more and more players wanted to live with her to save money, and every sole was welcomed.

You might be thinking that a mansion would be needed to house all of these players, but in fact, they live in a normal looking, 3 bedroom ranch-style home. So, where did all the players stay? In a Hooverville in the backyard? Or perhaps they brought in a mobile home for the summer?

The full basement is partially furnished, with storage on one side and a long open space on the other. As you walk down the steps today, you'll see an older big screen TV on the far wall, but something else will immediately grab your attention: there are futons everywhere.

Almost all of the players stayed in this room--some with their wives--all of them sleeping on the futons in the cave-like darkness of the basement. It made for a strange sort of communal living that would even procure a look of disbelief from an anthropology student. They did so because their paychecks were so low and because Barbara kept them so well-fed. She even ran a shuttle-service back and forth to the park for them.

If you're in the minor leagues for long enough, you'll hear a lot of stories such as this. Though this is one of the more extreme examples, it isn't an isolated incident. Many players live in less than desirable conditions and yet play in front of 5,000 or even 10,000 people everyday they go to the park.

Now you know a small part of the "what." We'll talk about an example from the "why"s category in the next post.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Catching up on links

I wanted to catch up on some links to recent articles.

First, here is an excerpt from my latest "Suitcase Chronicles" entry for Baseball America:

I then approached the TPX baseball bag. It sat at an angle in the bedroom. One strap dangled from its side and displayed a nametag: "Garrett Broshuis, Pitcher." It hypnotized me.

"Garrett Broshuis, Pitcher."

I'd played this game since I was a boy. Pitching had become as much a part of me as my blue eyes and ugly eyebrows. I'd carried this title and all its baggage everywhere I went.


I also wrote a piece for Deadspin recently about a "toy drum." It's a locker room tale (might not be for kids):

Friday, October 9, 2009

Thanks to everyone

I want to thank everyone who has left comments and sent emails lately. (Well, thanks for the complimentary emails. Those others accusing me of being Satan's second cousin I could live without. Just kidding, of course. Criticism is a good thing, and I'm in no way related to Satan.) One of the emails I received recently informed me that Keith Olbermann had complimented my writing, and it blew my mind.

In college, I once pitched against one of Andy Van Slyke's sons. Van Slyke happened to be at the game, and I was fortunate enough to pitch well. After the game he came up to one of my coaches and said, "That guy can really pitch." To hear a positive remark from someone with that much knowledge of the game did wonders for me. It sort of validated all of the hard work I had put into improving myself.

Well, I don't receive too many compliments like that about my pitching anymore. Hell, I don't know if I'll ever receive another compliment like that about my pitching. But it means a lot to receive a compliment from a long-time journalist such as Olbermann in a different area of my life.

There are a lot of problems in the game of baseball, especially in the treatment of minor league players. I know that the life that we live is better than many others. I'm grateful for every opportunity that I've ever had in this game and I love playing, but players are being mistreated by owners, and some things need change. My ultimate goal in my writing is to eventually shed more light on a few of these things. And hopefully I'll produce a laugh or two in the process.

I know that some of these hardships pale in comparison to other hardships in the world, but that doesn't mean that the situation in which we live is just. There are a lot of people getting rich in this game, including within minor league baseball. Meanwhile, the actual minor league players often sleep on floors and air mattresses and never see their wives or children. It doesn't seem fair.

Okay, I'm done tooting my own horn and ranting for a while. Have a good weekend.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Updated Poll: Big leaguers aren't watching the playoffs, minor leaguers are.

An update from previous polling numbers, it seems that players with big league time are less likely to watch the playoffs. In another very unscientific poll that is about as revealing as a sweater vest, the poll found that only 1 out of 6 big leaguers planned on watching the majority of playoff games.

The poll surveyed a total of 6 big leaguers from 4 different organizations. Most failed to give a reason for their lack of interest. One key difference seems to be that whereas minor leaguers feel that the playoffs present an opportunity to learn, big leaguers feel that they have already arrived to their destination and have less to learn.

Or perhaps they simply don't want to watch.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Poll shows that the majority of minor leaguers will watch the playoffs

According to a new non-random poll, approximately 60% of minor league baseball players plan to watch the majority of playoff games. The poll, conducted by GB polling services via text, contains a margin of error of approximately 727%.

Most respondents said they weren't cheering for any particular team. Some claimed that they "knew" a few of the players on other teams, and would cheer for these particular individuals, but most declined to proclaim any further allegiance.

Those that claimed they would be watching the majority of games said that they "hoped to learn something" by watching them. The games seem to present a rare opportunity for minor league players to actually watch baseball at its highest level, as during the season most are consumed with playing everyday, which allows them little chance to digest a baseball game.

The minority that do not plan to watch the games gave a variety of reasons. One claimed that work would prevent his viewing. Another said he simply didn't care to watch and that he had seen enough baseball over the six month season. One lone individual claimed, "It's hockey season." The interrogator's response: "Maybe hell will freeze over and you can play hockey there."

Most individuals expressed that their viewing of baseball had changed in the years since they entered professional baseball. Most do so more objectively, trying to dissect every single play. Many also suggested that part of the fun had been removed from watching, but as one individual stated, "It's still great to watch."

Friday, October 2, 2009

Buscones and Cocaine: What the hell? And what to do?

Perhaps no force has shaped the growth of Dominican baseball more in the past 20 years than the buscón. (Hint: it rhymes with the thing you dip into your coffee.) And yet, hardly anybody in America has ever even heard of the term. When one of them is caught with 293 kilos of cocaine, a couple of submachine guns, and a rifle with a silencer, maybe people should start paying attention.

(see Melissa Seguaro’s piece here: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2009/baseball/mlb/09/27/dominican.trainer/index.html?eref=twitter_share)

It sounds like a recipe for a Quentin Tarantino movie. According to one estimate, the cocaine that Jose Gabriel Arias Castillo possessed was worth $5.86 million. It's enough cocaine to get a herd of elephants high for the rest of their lives. The former Phillies’ minor leaguer turned buscón even used baseball equipment bags to conceal the drugs. So what the hell is a buscón?

A rough literal translation is “one who searches.” In America we’d call them bird dogs. The buscón lives in all parts of the Dominican, turning over every leaf in their talent quest, often plucking kids out of their families’ houses at age 12 or 13, promising them a better life at their “academies.”

“Throw a scout, a coach, and an entrepreneur into a blender, then mix, and you have a buscón,” Jim Salisbury of the Philadelphia Inquirer once said.

The buscones often care for the kids, providing them with food and training. The business, totally unregulated, has exploded, and every MLB team deals with buscones when they sign Dominican players.

Often the players do not pay for the services of the buscón upfront. Many parents of American kids pay for baseball lessons, but parents in the Dominican can’t afford to do so. Instead, they agree to pay a portion of the kid’s signing bonus, if there ever is a signing bonus. The buscón accepts a high degree of risk, and so the parents agree to pay 25 or 30 percent of a signing bonus; even 50 percent is not unusual.

Teammate Angel Villalona told me earlier this year that he gave his buscón $750,000 of his $2.1 million bonus, a percentage of more than 30 percent. Agents in the states, in comparison, typically receive around 4 or 5 percent for their services.

Despite this, almost every Dominican teammate speaks highly of the buscones. On a long bus ride recently, we talked about them.

“They give you better food, they give you a better bed, and they teach you the game,” one Dominican told me. “A lot of kids are poor and their parents can’t feed them. This way they’re taken care of, especially if they have talent. They even give them protein shakes.”

Many speculate as to whether or not they give more than protein shakes, and MLB even maintains a list of buscones known to distribute steroids. Yet with no way to perform drug testing on players not under contract with MLB teams, there is still speculation that at least some young kids are receiving steroids as part of their training.

“Some are bad people,” my Dominican friend conceded. “Most don’t give steroids, as this would give them a bad name if they were caught. But some do.”

Other buscones are involved in the business of forging documents. In the post-911 era, requirements for documentation have increased, and MLB has even begun the controversial practice of performing DNA testing on some prospects to try to deduce a true age. This has made document forging more difficult, but with so much money being paid to the buscón, there is tremendous incentive to falsify ages. A sixteen year old with tremendous raw talent might receive a signing bonus in the millions, whereas a nineteen year old with the same raw talent may receive a signing bonus in the low six figures.

The buscón no doubt plays a valuable role in the development of Dominican baseball talent, but the business needs greater regulation. Many buscones are legitimate baseball men. Several former professional players operate as buscones, including MLB star Ramon Martinez. Professors and accountants can be found in the ranks of the buscón, but just as many sleazier subjects can be found as well.

These sleazier subjects need to be found and eliminated. Also, some sort of standard on services provided and payment accepted needs to be established. Until these things are done, there will be too many kids being misused by the likes of Arias Castillo, with his submachine guns and cocaine ring.