For evening games, many of the players showed up to the field around noon. If the game started at 7 p.m., they’d be done playing at 10 p.m. at the earliest. Then it was back to the clubhouse to shower, listen to any last announcement from the manager, maybe answer questions from a local reporter. They’d be out on the street by 11 p.m. at the earliest. That’s an 11-hour shift repeated at least six times weekly. The only way to mark off time was to note how far away you were from the next paycheck and to try to figure whether your supply of cash could last that long. Ask a minor leaguer what day of the week it is; he will have no idea. That’s because it doesn’t matter. He is always working, and when he’s not working, he’s traveling to work on bus rides that can be up to 10 hours long.
But again, these are all things we know, right? Players are forever in the clubhouse. Baseball runs on an impossible schedule. Road trips are long. Buses are uncomfortable. The necessary shift happens when we see all this as labor. Young men who make less than a full-time fast-food employee are asked to work overtime without overtime pay, taking hardly any days off, and if they refuse to do what they’re told, they will be fired without severance. Sure, there’s a lot complicating this basic truth. These guys play a game, one that many of us love so much that we pay to watch them do it. They have agents who represent them, who supply them with free gloves and, in the case of a very lucky few, multimillion-dollar signing bonuses. A handful of them, usually the same lucky few, will make the majors. That aspiration is what they all play for. But aspiration does not change working reality.
Part of what draws us to the minor leagues is a sense of timelessness. You can pay $6 for a ticket, buy a cheap beer, sit with your family in old-school bleachers, and watch baseball at its purest, whatever that means. The players’ struggle fits into that sense of nostalgia and simplicity. They’re paid just like they were paid half a century ago. They find off-season work to get them from September to March, just like major leaguers did before their salaries exploded. I knew one player who sold paper at Staples, another who worked on his father’s landscaping crew. They did their jobs well and did not complain.
I remember interviewing one coach, a former player then in his mid-50s, at a picnic table overlooking left field. He was talking about the financial options available to his players, thinking back to his own waning playing days. He reminded me that some players already had college degrees, and some could find a way to go back and finish. Then he gave me a hypothetical scenario. A player returns to his small American hometown and applies for a post office job. It’s between him and another guy, but the player has the edge because he was in the minor leagues, carries himself with a certain pride and work ethic, and is maybe even locally famous. Nine times out of 10, the coach told me, the ballplayer gets that job.
Even without the particularly poignant choice of postal work as the sample secure profession, it’s a telling line of logic. The coach was offering me an ideal that a lot of us have, about baseball being tied to promise, fairness, and functional small-town America. It’s an ideal that had nothing to do with any of his players’ lives. The modern minor leaguer isn’t some talented local kid giving the game a whirl; he’s a pro who has been groomed in this single-minded pursuit for most of his life. Often there are a lot of people financially dependent on his talent. Some LumberKings actually saved part of their meager monthly salaries to send home to their families. Some had children to feed. Many came from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, having been moved from their hometowns in pursuit of baseball when they were 14 years old. They had committed everything to a game that committed far less than minimum wage to them.
I still love the minors. Watching single-A baseball gave me some of the best experiences of my life. Players battled admirably, local fans supported them with a level of care that I’ve never seen at any other sporting event, and beer was cheap. But none of those things would change if the players received a fair wage, and that’s something worth remembering, even as the 2014 season begins and there are major league superstars to watch on TV. In baseball’s multibillion-dollar ecosystem, most of the players, highly skilled workers who have trained extensively for their jobs, are paid wages that are illegal in any conventional industry. Yes, they have aspirations that we celebrate. We shouldn’t punish them for those aspirations.