Major League Baseball is a multi-billion dollar business, with the average team valued at close to $1.8 billion.
When business is really good, the best baseball players in the world reap the benefits. For instance, Anthony Rendon signed a seven-year, $245 million contract last December.
In 2019, the MLB player annual minimum salary in was $555,000. Players also have a union, which collectively bargained for minimum salaries, health benefits and pensions. As MLB determines when it will return to playing in 2020, this union reportedly is expected to look over a proposal by the owners for a shortened season.
However, the vast majority of ballplayers —who toil with teams connected and not connected to MLB clubs in hopes of reaching the majors— are playing in a much different economic playing field. Most of these so-called minor leaguers, of which at least 25-35 percent are Latino, are low wage workers, uncertain about their future as they train from home and wait to see if COVID-19 prevents them from playing baseball this year.
“The good thing is that I’m spending time with family and practicing each morning,” said Eddy Tavarez, a pitcher in the Milwaukee Brewers organization who lives in San Cristóbal, Dominican Republic. He like other minor leaguers are being provided $400 a week and health benefits through May 31. “The bad thing is that this [coronavirus] is getting worse every day and after 4 p.m. we have to be inside the house until the next day.”
The Dominican Republic has reported over 6,000 cases and close to 400 deaths, extending a nationwide curfew until at least May 17. In the midst of this crisis and without weights at home, Tavarez practices using a workout plan the Brewers sent him and throws bullpen sessions to a friend who lives nearby.
And the challenges don’t apply just to Dominican players.
“I’m gonna speak for the Venezuelan players. They would rather stay over here [in Florida or Arizona], plus with the situation back in Venezuela, it ain’t easy,” said Lipso Nava, a coach for the San Francisco Giants’ minor league team in Richmond, Virginia.
Venezuela has been experiencing ongoing political, social, and economic issues. Add a global pandemic and the U.S.-imposed travel restrictions has put Venezuelan players in a tough situation, keeping them mostly in the areas where their MLB club hosts spring training—either staying in a hotel as part of their pay deal or simply “crashing with an American or Latino player” as Nava put it.
COVID-19 is not the only thing impacting ballplayers’ ability to make a living in the present and near future. From the bottom (Dominican or Venezuelan academies and rookie ball) to the top (AAA, the last stop before MLB), pay ranges from as little as $3,500-$7,500 to about $10,500 per summer, way below the federal minimum wage of $7.50 per hour.
In 2019, at least 25-30 percent of ballplayers who appeared in an affiliated minor league game were Latinos born or raised in the U.S., Canada or Latin America, totaling about 4,460 players. This total doesn’t even include independent league baseball (minor leagues not affiliated with any MLB club), the Mexican League (which employs hundreds of mostly Mexican and other Latino ballplayers), and pro leagues overseas in Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. Though the Mexican and Asian leagues pay pretty well —you can make several thousand dollars a month in Mexico or potentially millions a year in Asia— most Latino ballplayers play in the affiliate minor league system.
Though players from Latin America can enjoy an exchange rate when back home, they are not immune to the strain of helping themselves and their families even during a normal baseball season.
“I remember going over to one Latino teammate’s apartment after a game and they had eight guys in a three-bedroom apartment. They were all on air mattresses,” recalled Garrett Broshuis, a former minor league pitcher turned lawyer who started an organization called Advocates for Minor Leaguers. “A lot of the Latinos are helping their parents out, with the tiny paychecks they have. One of my best friends in baseball would send $20 a month to send to his pregnant fiancée.”
The proposed shrinking of the MLB Draft and talk of minor league team contraction are also adding to the uncertainty. Earlier this month, MLB cut the annual draft to just five rounds, which some have argued would limit opportunities especially for Puerto Rican and U.S. Latino players. In April, a report came out that Minor League Baseball (MiLB) may be willing to accept the elimination of 40 teams, which MiLB later denied.
During this COVID-19 crisis, minor league teams are in a particularly bad spot because unlike MLB —which generates TV, online and sponsorship revenues— minor league teams rely almost exclusively on ticket sales and “butts in seats” revenue like parking, concessions and in-game promotions.
“[Contraction] is going to have an overall effect on recruitment of these players absolutely. Less teams, less players, right?” said one certified MLB agent whose client base is primarily from Latin America. “Teams are going to be a little more selective and at the end of the day, it’s a monetary issue, a budgetary issue.”
Indeed, estimates show it would take about $2 million per team to pay minor league players the federal minimum wage, which would cost about $15,000 a season. So though minor league franchises are in many ways small businesses with acute struggles during this crisis, MLB franchises pay for minor league player salaries, not the affiliated minor league teams. It’s all about whether MLB will pay for the players and right now, MLB teams can afford $2 million.
Despite all this uncertainty, one thing is clear: the baseball business will go through significant changes. One MLB team, the Toronto Blue Jays, independently raised minor league player wages by more than 50 percent. The changes to the MLB draft could be a first domino to drop, as it may then impact how players from Latin America come to terms with teams. Will some or all of the minor leagues cancel games this season? If so, how will players be compensated if at all? Will there eventually be an international draft? Also, if there are less affiliated minor league teams, would the independent leagues like the American Association or the Atlantic League expand and hire more players? The next collective bargaining agreement between MLB and MLB players —scheduled for after the 2021 season— would certainly impact the future of minor league player pay.
Baseball as we know it now could indeed change.
Michael Collazo is currently CEO of Dahday, LLC, a ticket brokerage. From 2003-2008, he worked in the front office of the now-defunct Newark Bears, formerly of the independent Atlantic League. Twitter: @MCollazo215.