Saturday, December 3, 2011

Voiceless: The CBA's negative impact on minor leaguers

Around 2 a.m. the baby began crying. Elena, already with a mind of her own, decided that the middle of the night was a perfect opportunity to play.

Eventually she went back to sleep. My mind began to drift, and I wandered from the comfy confines of my bed, my Venus at my side, to the uncomfy confines of an old friend: a shoddy bus seat.

Surrounded by other guys with the moon providing the only light, the engine whirred as Ryan Adams burst through my earbuds.

“Going nuclear…nuclear…”>

The wilderness separating two working class towns passed as I glanced outside the bus window, my heart heavy but my wallet light.

“Give me an answer!!! Give me an answer!!”

And suddenly the baby was crying again.

I awoke from my travels, the memory flickering but failing to flee, as thoughts filled the slow synapses of my brain. The memory had no doubt been prompted by two emails that I received recently from former teammates. Both were upset about the recent CBA. I couldn’t sleep as I thought of these emails and the feeling of being on the road again with no money and a dream, and McDonald’s providing the fuel for each night’s game.

So at 3:47 a.m. I got up and wrote this.

As most readers know, baseball recently announced its new five-year collective bargaining agreement. As opposed to both football and basketball, MLB reps and the MLBPA bargained behind closed doors and hammered out a deal.

Yes, we should cheer. (As did this columnist.)

Yet there was just one problem with this bargaining process. The majority of professional baseball players had no voice during these negotiations.

The Major League Baseball Player’s Association represents only major league players and players on the 40-man roster. However, the vast majority of professional players under contract with MLB teams toil in the minor leagues. The player’s union does not represent these players.

Without a union and without a voice, minor league salaries have barely budged in the last 35 years. Conversely, average major league salaries have increased by almost 7000 percent. The gains derived from three decades of great prosperity in the game—including gains made in the business of the minor leagues—have been distributed only at the very top.

Each time a bargaining agreement is reached it impacts minor leaguers’ lives. For instance, the 2006 CBA made a significant change to the Rule 5 draft. One of the only vehicles for mobility once a minor leaguer is locked into his initial seven-year contract, the 2006 CBA pushed back the Rule 5 eligibility requirements by an entire year. The result was a direct, negative impact on minor leaguers. And not a single soul represented minor league players through the negotiating process.

During this year’s negotiations, MLB owners pushed for a mandatory slotting system for the amateur draft (here are some of my old thoughts on this). If implemented, players drafted in the top rounds of the draft would have been unable to negotiate signing bonuses. Since virtually all draftees first enter the minor leagues, this too would have impacted minor league players. Minor leaguers earn only between $5000 and $10,000 for an entire season of play. This makes the negotiation of the initial signing bonus very important, as many players rely on the signing bonus as a source of income throughout their minor league career. Moreover, around ninety percent of minor leaguers never reach the major leagues, so the negotiation of the initial signing bonus often represents their only chance to negotiate with a MLB team.

Thankfully, a mandatory slotting system was not instituted, but the alternative is almost as egregious. The union and owners agreed to place a cap on the amount a team can spend on the draft. While less intrusive than mandatory slotting, the change will still negatively impact minor league players, as it will likely reduce the overall amount spent on signing bonuses.

What did the union get in return for these changes? Greater wealth for players on an MLB roster. In 2006, they gained an increase in salaries for players on the MLB 40-man roster. This year, they gained a substantial increase in the minimum salary for MLB players, who will now earn at minimum $500,000 when the agreement expires in 2016. Meanwhile, the majority of professional baseball players—the minor leaguers—will probably still be earning below $10,000 in 2016. After all, their salaries have barely budged in three decades, and without representation in the bargaining process, there will be no incentive for owners to increase their salaries.

Knowing this might occur, I wrote to both MLB and MLBPA during the negotiations. I knew my efforts would most likely be futile, but just as the author of an amicus curiae feels compelled to weigh in on a Supreme Court issue, I felt the need to give my thoughts.

So yes, we should cheer baseball for reaching a new deal, but we shouldn't cheer them for leaving minor leaguers without a voice. But, hey, at least the big leaguers are seeing their lives improve.

(See the summary of the 2011 CBA here.)

Note: I'm not blaming MLBPA for the negative effects that each CBA has on minor league players. Their duty extends only towards the players that they represent. When negotiations affect minor league players, it does so because a subject of bargaining tangentially extends into the realm of minor leaguers, such as the Rule 5 draft and the Rule 4 draft. Without MLBPA bargaining over these matters, MLB could unilaterally impose whatever changes they desired without any resistance.

The system--not MLBPA--is at fault.