Friday, April 2, 2010

Food Stamps and Baseball: the tale of imaginary friend Mickey Cobb

As I stated in my previous post, the Baseball America article on minor league salaries was finally published. Yes, I know, it had become some mythical balloon floating around in the troposphere by now. Unlike the balloon boy fiasco, hopefully it contained more than just hot air.

I bored you with some stats in my previous post. Basically salaries have been grounded like a dead hawk the past 35 years, while inflation has been building faster than 1990s suburbia. Meanwhile, baseball profits are at an all time high, and MLB salaries have risen by 7000%.

But enough of that. Today we're going to tell a little bedtime story. It's a little fictional account about food stamps and poverty, enlisting the help of an imaginary friend. (Because it's better to embarrass an imaginary friend than a real friend.)

My imaginary friend is a minor league baseball player (shocker). Since my friend needs a name, we'll call him Mickey Cobb. Mickey hails from a land as open and free as a Galilean moon: Oklahoma. The name of his town? Cottonmouth. Always a natural athlete, Mickey was popular in high school but never won any contests such as Prom King. In fact, he elected to not even go to prom--he hates the choking confines of a tux. (Not to mention the terrible feeling of posing for pictures.) Instead, he sat around a bonfire with a couple of his baseball buddies, watching Bill E. Bobb crush empty cans of Keystone off his forehead. Later, others joined the circle of post-prom reminiscing, including the Prom Queen, who quickly huddled next to Mickey close to the fire (as far away from Bill E. as possible).

Mickey attended a local junior college where he developed as a player and continued to date Prom Queen. He then attended Some Southern University in Western Oklahoma--a well-known baseball powerhouse. His junior year, Mick had high hopes of getting drafted, but the scrimmage prior to the start of the season a hamstring was strained, which hampered (couldn't help myself) him the entire season. Both his power numbers and his ability to play the outfield diminished. Draft day passed without his name being called.

With the coming of his senior year, Mickey worked harder than ever. He knew it was his last chance to make his dream a reality. The hard work paid off. Mickey became an All-Conference player, and in early June the moment finally came. He heard his name called in the 12th round of the draft.

As a senior signee, Mickey had no leverage. He quickly took the first offer given him by the BlueBuzzards, and signed a uniform contract with a $5,000 signing bonus. He immediately took the bulk of the bonus to the local Cottonmouth jewelry store, where he bought a diamond solitaire engagement ring for Prom Queen. All of Cottonmouth, Oklahoma rejoiced.
Mickey has now played a year and a half in professional baseball. He enters his second spring training after making the Sally League All-Star team the previous year, posting a .297 average with 16 homeruns. Though he's not considered a top prospect yet, the eyes and spitcups of the organization are upon him. He hopes with another All-Star caliber season he will move into the upper ranks of the system.

Last season Mickey made just over $6000 for the year. He went to instructional leagues for all of October and also attended a two week workout camp in December. Additionally, he was invited to a mini-camp beginning two weeks prior to spring training in the middle of February. He earned no money for his time spent at instructional leagues or at spring training. All of these things--combined with a tough local economy--made it impossible for him to find work during the couple of months spent in Cottonmouth. His baseball salary was his only source of income.

Prom Queen worked odd jobs--20 hours a week at a golf course during one summer month, part-time at a restaurant 2 winter months--but she too found it hard to find work while living as a gypsy. In all, she earned $3,000 herself. Combined they earned $9000 last season.

Their bank account is as empty as an Easter tomb. Even though they're now married, they again lived with their parents in the offseason. This season, they're living with three other players, all crammed into a two-bedroom apartment, yet they still pay almost $400 per month for rent.

More and more, Mick and Prom Queen are finding it difficult to pay for groceries. Finally they make a tough decision. They inquire to see if they are eligible for food stamps.

They open up Mick's old laptop--a Christmas present from his freshman year in college that is as slow as a sailboat on a windless day. After a few minutes, the power of Google directs them to a website that gives an instant estimate. Prom Queen types some information into the calculator. FNS SNAP eligibility screening proclaims they are eligible for between $357 and $367 per month in food stamps.

They also look into other benefits. They find that they are well below the established poverty guidelines which qualify them for a myriad of things. In fact, they are more than $5000 below the threshold of $14,700 set by the government for a family of two.

Mick and Prom Queen quietly go about the process of applying for these benefits. They are embarrassed about their situation, but they don't know what else to do. Their parents have no money to help them. Prom Queen can't find work. And Mick's meager salary is set by his original contract. They've done their best to avoid credit card use. They're pinching pennies as much as possible--Prom Queen hasn't bought a new shirt in months--yet they need help. Not even Bill E. Bobb's awesome powers can rescue them.

Mickey tries to put these things out of his mind. He goes to the park each day, hoping beyond hope that he will soon be promoted. He knows he has talent, but so do many others. The chances of reaching the big leagues are slim, but he must continue to believe.

Each day he signs a few autographs before entering the clubhouse. Playing for his new team in the Midwest League, seven or eight thousand people watch him play each night. These people cheer him, and many already know his name. Being an All-Star the previous year, he's one of the centerpieces of his new team's marketing strategy. He's on the cover of the program and will routinely make visits to schools. He talks to the local press and makes radio appearances. And Mick never turns down the opportunity to say hi to a kid.

The minor league team will directly benefit from these things, but they will pay no part of his salary. They won't even help with housing. Instead, the major league team will pay his salary, and they have no incentive to increase it. After all, with only a small percentage of minor leaguers contributing at the big league level, it's in their best interest to pay minor leaguers as little as possible. Constantly in a battle with the MLBPA--which does not represent minor leaguers--they try to use almost all their resources on the big league budget.

While Mickey's at the field each day, Prom Queen goes to the grocery store. As she approaches the register, she takes the food stamps out of her purse, hoping that nobody will recognize her as a ballplayer's wife. Having paid for the food, she grabs her bags and quickly walks out with her head cast slightly towards the ground. More than ever, she misses the simplicity of her Cottonmouth youth with every step that she takes.


Michael Taylor said...

Great piece in Baseball America, Garrett -- it was worth the wait. As happy as I am to have Opening Day finally come (go Giants!), it's depressing to learn how the gilded house of baseball has been built on a foundation of such ruthless exploitation. It's a disgrace that a parasite like Scot Boras -- a man who has done more damage to baseball than all the strikes, lawsuits, and steroids combined -- grows fat and incredibly wealthy while the living conditions of minor leaguers keep getting worse.

It's sad to realize that under the Norman Rockwell glow, baseball remains at heart a sweatshop industry.

Jason Wolf said...

Unionization is on the horizon, don't you think? If the minor league umpires can do it, the minor league players can, too. I suspect several major unions will be closely monitoring the umpire union situation.

lance aka lc said...

Damn G man i was just looking for you on the Giants minor league rosters and didn't see you. a little searching led me here.

Sorry to hear that you retired, I think you are an excellent pitcher, and having watched you handfuls of games, I can honestly say your team always had a shot every time you toed the rubber. I know there are a lot of choices to make in life, but If it's feasible i think you should try to remain in the game as a player and ultimately as a coach. Either that or go to law school, a guy like you could make it through with your eyes closed.

and as far as the food stamps and baseball, I guess baseball is a chance a guy has to take, if possible. My deceased grandpa who adopted and raised me was born in 1918...the Cardinals sent some local scouts to watch some of the Hillhouse High games, and my Pa was offered a chance to play in the system. He was 18 at graduation, and had a kid on the way. Back then i think they offered him like 8 bucks a week. With a kid on the way it was not something he could entertain. Fortunately back then "industrial ball" was HUGE, and because of his baseball ability he was given a decent job at the steel mill for like 12 or 13 bucks a week because they needed him behind the plate. Back in the late 1970's, early 80's, when some of his classmates were still roaming the earth we'd sometimes run into them in the supermarket and stuff. They would tell me about how great a ballplayer sonny was and how he'd often hit the ball into the trees, the street, ect. What could have been we'll never know. But i will say i hope to someday be half the man he was.

I was in st. louis about a month and a half ago, i should have reached out we could have shot a game of pool.

If you ever need anything out CT way give me a shout. I'm slowly going back to work after a six year break...but still haven't disciplined my sleeping pattern, which explains this early morning rant. Best of luck Garrett!

gbroshuis said...

Jason: As you know very well, unionizing the minor leagues would be tough. But you point out that minor league umps have done it, and additionally minor league hockey players have done it as well. Both overcame similar obstacles. (And incidentally, both earn higher salaries than minor league baseball players.) I think you're right though, it would require help from a bigger union to do it.

Michael: Re: Norman Rockwell and sweatshops. Beautiful.

Lance: Great story about your grandpa! Have fun going back to work.

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Anonymous said...

Lance, why are you recommending law school for Garrett ("go to law school, a guy like you could make it through with your eyes closed")?

How does being a ballplayer translate into being a good law student?

lance aka lc said...

Because beyond the baseball thing he is a smart dude with good written and verbal communication skills.

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