• Henry Gutkin

Landmark Partnership with MLBPA Gives Newfound Hope to Minor Leaguers

At last, a seat at the table. After decades of world-class talent being showcased in poor conditions, the players of minor league baseball will finally get a chance to improve their standing thanks to a fast-developing partnership with the MLBPA. Tony Clark, director of the Players' Association, announced the union’s intention to represent minor leaguers on August 29th, and within seventeen days, a majority of minor league players signed on to his proposal. So on September 14th, minor leaguers’ union-authorization cards were validated, giving them the chance to benefit from the representation of the MLBPA in future collective bargaining negotiations. Previously, minor leaguers were held accountable to a set of rules unilaterally determined by MLB. The representation of the MLBPA now allows for a just negotiation of the minor leagues’ rigid policies.

The rights of minor leaguers have come to national prominence over the past three years, particularly after the COVID season of 2020 left many players without a living wage or the developmental resources to continue progressing their careers. Since the pandemic, Harry Marino led the Advocates for Minor Leaguers on a campaign against the harsh standard of living that players face prior to making it to MLB. Marino’s argument is simple: The minor leagues’ structure for player development is unfair, ineffective, and unsustainable so long as the players continue to work without receiving proper compensation and care from their employers. Players must perform at elite levels while sustaining themselves on an annual salary below a living wage. Some work multiple jobs during the offseason to cover their living and training costs.

In 2021, AML board member and former New York Met Ty Kelly went viral with this image that demonstrates just how unsubstantial their benefits are at the lower levels of the minors. Just one slice of ham and American cheese must suffice for a summer doubleheader.

Marino and the Advocates won several smaller victories over its first two years, including requiring teams to provide their players with housing and catalyzing a Senate Judiciary hearing regarding MLB’s antitrust exemption. But this week’s announcement will make further victories increasingly attainable. To be clear, the bargaining unit for minor leaguers will be separate from that of the major leaguers. The rules of whatever CBA reached between MLB and the MLBPA regarding major league franchises will apply only to contracts directly between the franchise and its major league players. However, the support of the MLBPA will massively improve the capabilities of Marino’s team, which will continue its work under the MLBPA banner. Marino and the Advocates spent the last two years operating on the back of grassroots fundraising and support from individual major league players. They will now benefit from the well-funded and well-regarded MLBPA’s guidance and affiliation.

The path to Major League Baseball is longer and more complex than most professional sports’ highest level. To go through the minors is to walk a tightrope.

Yankees Prospects Anthony Volpe and Jasson Dominguez look on during a scrimmage from 2022 Spring Training. Photo courtesy of Eli Fishman.

The walk begins with the boundless optimism of a young man signing his first contract, sometimes being given millions of dollars upfront to nudge them further along the rope. But just ten percent of minor league players step off the rope and onto a major league diamond. Those ten percent make an average of $4 million annually; some of them go on to national stardom; they are the faces that make the fans love the game. But the ninety percent who fall see a minuscule fraction of that. Instead, they are stuck down below, looking up to their former teammates, knowing those who make it no longer have to deal with continental breakfasts and endless bus rides across the country. This is the plight of the minor leaguer.

With their partnership with MLBPA, that will not change. The minor leagues will never be glamorous. For as long as professional sports exist, there will be thousands of people who almost make it to the big stage. But the new affiliation with the MLBPA will allow the almosts, the maybes, and the stars of tomorrow to live out their admirable athletic careers under their terms. If they choose to keep swinging, they will be able to do so with significantly more financial stability should their new bargaining representative succeed in future negotiations. All signs point in the minor leaguers’ favor as they reach this benchmark partnership.


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