It’s October. I am sort of enjoying the baseball playoffs. By “sort of,” I mean it is a distraction from the all of the daily disasters breathlessly reported on the news channels. And the quality of baseball, when batters actually make contact with the ball, is pretty good.
The game has changed a lot though since I first came to love it when the Swingin’ A’s and the Big Red Machine controlled October in the ‘70s. As an example, last Tuesday the Tampa Bay Rays used four pitchers to strike out 18 Yankees. There are 27 outs in a major league baseball game. Eighteen of them were recorded with a “K” in the scorebook. And the Yankees are supposed to have one of the most dominant lineups in baseball.
All those “Ks” are boring. So while I enjoy the distraction, it is not as distracting as it could be. Like lots of things in America, the game has gotten worse not better. But like I love my country, I still love the game.
The game is going through another major change in the coming months. The entire minor league system used to develop talent for the major leagues is being modified. These new minor leagues are not George Barnhardt’s and Duke Delpo’s Waterbury Dodgers.
There was no minor league baseball in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. When minor league baseball resumes in 2021 hopefully, the design of the system will be much different. 42 of the current teams will no longer be affiliated with major league partners. The number of leagues will be streamlined down to four. And the minor leagues, like the Eastern League and the Pacific Coast League will no longer be operated independent of Major League Baseball.
Essentially, the system will go from independent organizations and leagues to one that looks more like a franchise system operated by major league baseball who will provide all of the operational and administrative systems to the minor league teams. Major League Baseball will have complete control of the entire system.
The idea is that through this new system, minor league teams will be able to generate higher revenues. It could also lead to higher prices as MLB owners try to dip their hands into the pockets of minor league operators.
What will this mean for players? It is hard to say. Last week the U.S. Supreme Court granted a group of minor league players “class action” status to allow them to pursue a claim that during the years they spent toiling in the minor leagues, they were paid less than minimum wage. Minimum wage laws are extremely punitive to those employers who fail to comply, even baseball teams.
The lawsuit began in 2014 when a group of minor leaguers sued major league baseball arguing that their annual pay of less than $7,500 violated wage statutes. Major League Baseball had used its big lobbying machine to try to convince Congress that wage statutes should not apply to ballplayers. The effort failed.
It turns out that most minor leaguers work fifty to seventy hours per week and were earning wages below the poverty level. They are not paid at all during spring training which lasts six to eight weeks.
The class action status poses a problem for Major League Baseball. Because the wage statutes are punitive, MLB could be on the hook for three times the actual damages owed to players. There could be as many as 15,000 players in the group that are eligible to collect damages. The case bears watching as we meander through the long winter on our way to a new baseball season. MLB owners faced with huge revenue shortfalls this past season could be looking down the barrel of a loaded gun.