ST. LOUIS — It’s a story almost every minor-league baseball player can tell, through personal experience or observation, and it usually involves players pooling cash to buy austere ingredients for a shared meal or bunking together during the season, sometimes six to a flat. Wages are low for most players who don’t receive exorbitant bonuses, pennies are pinched, careers are abandoned, and social media has brought more and more attention to these working conditions.
In the heat of a baseball season, they can be spartan.
Now, take away the salaries.
An ongoing attempt to bring more attention to the working conditions many minor-leaguers face has become acute this week during a global pandemic that shut down baseball, ended spring training, and sent minor-leaguers home. In response, a St. Louis-based attorney and several former players announced Friday the creation of Advocates for Minor Leaguers, a non-profit advocacy group incorporated in Missouri.
During a conference call, Garrett Broshuis, a former Mizzou and pro ballplayer who is now a lawyer in St. Louis, drew a distinction between the group and a minor-league players’ union, though he added Friday’s formation could be a step in that direction.
“I think that this moment we’re in right now is the prime example why there needs to be a voice for players, and ideally it would be a union,” Broshuis said. “Maybe this is the moment that helps galvanize that kind of effort. That’s relatively unknown right now. That’s why we decided to launch in the interim – (to) try and provide that voice and try to advocate on behalf of players and down the road if there is an effort, we would fully support it. But now we’re going to do what we can as a non-profit advocacy.”
Already this week, Major League Baseball and its member clubs presented a stimulus plan to get minor-league players immediate cash during the coronavirus crisis.
The Cardinals announced Tuesday that they would pay minor-league players the remainder of their per diem from spring training, which was set to last until April 6. That per diem is $25 a day. On Thursday, MLB upped that figure across the game – announcing that most minor-leaguers would receive, in a lump sum, the equivalent of $400 a week, or $57.11 per day through the end of spring training. Baseball America first reported the new figure. Teams are also allowed to increase that sum by choice.
The Cardinals described their move as an initial step to help minor-leaguers, not the final step. Other ways to help players were under discussion, and at some point the Cardinals and other teams will have to decide what to do with player salaries.
Players are not paid during spring training.
Their salaries begin with the season.
That is true for players on the 40-man roster as well – who also receive a per diem during spring training, but no salary. The players on the 40-man roster are represented by the Major League Players’ Association, arguably the strongest union in professional sports. The majority of professional baseball players, however, do not qualify. The Cardinals, for example, had around 70 players in their major-league camp, 40 of which were on the 40-man roster. Nearly 200 other players in the organization were on minor-league rosters and not represented by a union.
“Why there is a need for someone to be speaking for the players, collectively,” Broshuis said. “Nobody is doing that on behalf of the minor-league players. And so they’re just at the whims of the commissioner’s office – who thankfully did the right thing in the interim, and will hopefully do the right thing in the future when it comes to paying these players the salary once the season was originally scheduled to begin.”
Major League Baseball has stopped baseball operations and shuttered spring training facilities as a result of the spread of coronavirus. The start of the major-league season has been pushed back by at least 10 weeks for its originally scheduled opening day, this coming Thursday. Players at every level have been encouraged to return home. The commissioner’s office has also provided every club with information to provide all players about social distancing, and teams are either limiting access to their facilities to avoid large groups, or locking the facilities.
The Cardinals closed their minor-league spring training two days after it officially started, and the staff worked to reserve and purchase around 170 flights home for players. That day, as they left the Roger Dean Stadium facility, several minor-leaguers declined comment when asked.
Players have been instructed to direct any media requests to the team, according to an official.
“Guys are just trying to figure out where to live for the foreseeable future, how they’re going to pay for wherever they’re living,” said Ty Kelly, a former Cardinals’ minor-leaguer who reached the majors and has recently retired. “Not everybody is able to go home and just bunk up with their parents for a month or two. A lot of guys are in no man’s land and are trying to figure out what’s going to happen. It’s not an easy time for anyone who is trying to find work right now.”
The formation of the Advocates for Minor Leaguers comes at a time of national crisis as well as a fragile time for minor-league baseball. Before the coronavirus halted spring training, put the minor-league season in jeopardy, and left players uncertain about their salaries, there was already a proposal from Major League Baseball being discussed to lop off some affiliates, shrink minor-league baseball. Individual teams had responded to the salary issues by increasing wages for minor-leaguers – and the Cardinals were working toward doing the same. A new agreement between minor-league baseball and Major League Baseball was being negotiated with wages, travel, and facilities being hot-button issues.
And, in the near future, MLB and its players’ union has an expiring Collective Bargaining Agreement that, until recent events, was leading toward acrimonious negotiations.
Into this crucible, Broshuis, Kelly, and a handful of others decided to announce the group that had been in the works for a while – the Advocates for Minor Leaguers. The other founds are Bill Fletcher, a labor activist; former pro ballplayers Matt Pare and Raul Jacobson, who is also a law school student in his post-playing career; Lisa Raphael, founder of Relatable Content; and a former major-league player who has requested anonymity. The stated longterm goal of the group is to “double players’ salaries to $15,000 a year.”
Kelly, who spent part of 2015 with the Cardinals’ Class AAA affiliate, articulated how the group had to change the culture of minor-league baseball, one that includes “very much the sentiment of, ‘If you don’t like it, play better.’ (That’s) the overarching theme of minor-league baseball.”
With a country in upheaval, citizens sheltering in place, and workers at industries around the globe losing jobs or bracing for an economic sinkhole, the longterm goals of a group representing professional athletes may seem out of joint. New York Yankees minor-leaguers, players the new advocacy group aims to represent, remain quarantined after two peers have tested positive for COVID-19, the coronavirus.
In that context, Broshuis was asked how, in the short term during a national crisis, the advocacy group would operate.
“How can we as an organization help with that?” he said. “Well, once is by immediately increasing awareness of this issue, and making sure that MLB does the right thing and decides to pay the salaries of these players once the season should have begun. Now, you’ve seen some incredible decisions from business owners around the country to do that in other organizations. MLB itself has made a commitment to pay the salaries of stadium workers at the time that the season was scheduled to begin. The same steps should be made for minor-league players as well.
“They are their employees,” Broshuis continued. “They owe these players a duty. They’re also the future of baseball, and we as an organization need to make sure they take those steps.”
The purpose and goal of the advocacy group were both detailed during a conference call Friday morning. As a non-profit advocacy group it wants to include fans as well as corporations and former major-league players as members and contributors to their cause. Current minor-league players will be allowed to join for free.
One active minor-league was on the conference call.
Andrew Church, a 25-year-old righthander in the New York Mets organization, echoed the anecdotes offered by the former players. They described how teams help players with meals and housing during spring training to go with the per diem – but now there are meals at the facility or housing for players. Church referenced how, as a second-round pick, he had finances that allowed him to “fund a career.” He saw other players leave baseball “for the sole reason they couldn’t afford it anymore.”
The last question of the conference call was directed to Church, the only active player who participated in the announcement. He was asked if he expected backlash from the Mets.
“I would hope that I wouldn’t need to be concerned,” Church said. “These are basic working rights. For me to speak out for the players … If there is backlash for that, then there’s backlash for that. I think it’s what’s right.”
Keep up with the latest Cardinals coverage from our award-winning team of reporters and columnists.