An Attempt at Perspective
Now that pitchers and catchers have reported, with their position-playing brethren to soon follow, one would imagine that the hot topics of baseball would center on the Giants’ defense of their title and whether the Phillies will be the first team to have four pitchers each record 30 or more victories in a season.
In short, after four months of free agency, trades, and arbitration, it’s time to focus our attention on the field. Let’s play some baseball–and if you really want to have fun, we can discuss WAR, VORP, and UZR.
Unfortunately, though, the debate of just how gloriously Zack Greinke’s xFIP is going to translate to the Brewers, thanks to his ten starts against the Astros/Pirates/Nationals in 2011, is not The Big Headline of Spring Training.
Instead, everyone is now left to speculate whether this will be the last season Albert Pujols is seen in Cardinal red. You see, Pujols is eligible to become a free agent after the season, and, as Baseball’s Greatest Player, believes that the open market will net him a more valuable offer than the $200 million and ownership stake he rejected this week.
Over in Surprise, Arizona, the American League champion Texas Rangers are experiencing some discord with the team’s leader, Michael Young. Looking for more playing time, Young has requested a trade. While several teams have expressed an interest, the primary obstacle to a deal is that his contract calls for $16 million in each of the next three years; around the league, though, he is viewed as only a $6-7 million per year player. Imagine being viewed by your boss as “only” a $7 million employee!
When you read these stories in the news, and see that the average salary for a Major League ballplayer is now more than $3 million, it is quite easy to look at the Minor League players (such as your RockHounds) through the same, he-has-more-money-than-Senegal lens.
For more than 99 percent of MiLB prospects, though, this simply is not the case. While Shane Peterson, Justin Souza, and Lance Sewell may one day sign their own deals comparable to CC Sabathia or Alex Rodriguez, they, for now, are not the among the ranks of their millionaire, MLB cohorts.
Last season, Baseball America‘s Garrett Broshius wrote an excellent article highlighting some of the unglamorous, and largely unknown to the public, aspects of being a Minor League ballplayer. Although Broshius was writing about a Giants’ affiliate, the exact story could be told about any Minor League franchise. In fact, several RockHounds last summer borrowed the team chaplain’s car if they needed to make a trip around town.
One of the reasons that the players’ union guards free agency so closely is that it is the only time a player is truly able to market his services to the highest bidder. For a player’s minor league career, and his first three years of Major League playing time, teams are able to set a salary, with very few player protections in place. Moreover, the union only represents players who have accrued service time in the Majors; until a player debuts in the Big Show, he has no formal representation (other than his agent).
In fact, a first-year player in the minors will make a maximum of $1,100 per month. Moreover, the players are only paid during the six-month baseball season. During the winter, they receive no income from the parent clubs, so many work at least one job–and live at home–to get by until Spring Training begins.
Like everyone else, the players have expenses (rent, utility bills, gas), but they also face additional strains on their weekly check. For example, each player is required to pay clubhouse dues; this money goes to the clubhouse manager, who is responsible for providing meals for the players and preparing their equipment and uniforms for the game. In the Texas League last season, dues ranged from $5-7 per day.
When a player is added to a club’s 40-man roster, the collective bargaining agreement mandates that he receive a minimum of $67,300 while in the minor leagues. Of course, only 15 players from the minors are on that list (once the 25 active Major Leagues are accounted for), and most of those are “insurance” at Triple-A, ready to be called up in the event of an injury or trade. In 2010, for example, only four players of the 49 men who appeared as RockHounds were on Oakland’s 40-man roster (Fautino de los Santos, Pedro Figueroa, Adrian Cardenas, and Justin Souza).
To be sure, there are many great perks to being a professional baseball player. For most people, it is a childhood dream. I would quit my job, today, for an offer of a professional contract. However, when you see several players signing deals worth more than $100 million, or declining nearly double that amount, it is very easy to expect all of them to have that luxury.
Remember, then, when the ‘Hounds take the field: these are not the ten-figure stars you see on SportsCenter every night. Soon, they may well be, but, for now, they are playing the game because they love baseball, not because they love money.