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The selfish fan argument for paying minor leaguers

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Baseball losing talent because of a refusal to pay a living wage to minor leaguers is terrible for the sport.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals-Workouts Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Last Friday, as part of a United States Senate spending bill, a provision originating from Save America’s Pastime Act was enacted which will allow teams to continue paying Minor League Baseball players salaries which, given the extraordinary wealth of Major League Baseball, are egregiously meager. Whitney McIntosh outlined the matter for SB Nation and noted that while MLB players who make the league’s minimum salary are still extraordinarily wealthy compared to the population at large, most minor leaguers have to take out second jobs in the off-season just to make ends meet.

In a terrific post for Viva El Birdos last month, Tyler Kinzy told a story which localized the issue of minor league pay to the St. Louis Cardinals—minor league pitcher Trey Nielsen, who spent 2017, his age-25 season, alternating between AA Springfield and AAA Memphis, stepped away from baseball because of the financial limitation of the profession. For as much attention as middle-class free agents not receiving big paydays this off-season became a major story, they still easily received enough compensation to live comfortably for the rest of their lives—minor leaguers are not always compensated enough to survive.

The ethical argument for paying minor league players more is simple—Major League Baseball is extraordinarily profitable and expecting its teams to pay its employees a living wage is not unreasonable. If the $144 million that the San Diego Padres are paying Eric Hosmer were instead distributed to the 25-man rosters of every affiliated MiLB team, every player would receive a $23,319.83 raise—hardly MLB money but at least above the poverty line.

Of course, the problem isn’t Hosmer taking that money—it’s not as though the alternative was distributing it to minor league players. It was the last step in a process filled with countless broken dreams in which some players, like Hosmer, earn so much money that their earlier financial sacrifices pay off in full and beyond, but in which many more players never do earn decent pay, like Nielsen.

While “they’re chasing a dream and getting paid to play a kid’s game” is a convenient narrative which makes billionaires suppressing wages of the lowest rung of the organized baseball food chain seem less immoral, economic reality sets in.

Truthfully, while Trey Nielsen was a decent minor league pitcher and he occasionally popped up on the lower tiers of Cardinals prospect lists, he was probably never going to make it to a big, big-league payday. Even if he stuck around and, in the miracle of all miracles, cracked the Cardinals’ 2018 Opening Day roster (considering what the Atlanta Braves are currently doing with Ronald Acuña, this borders on inconceivable), he wouldn’t be in line for free agency until he was 32 years old. But from a purely fan-centered perspective, one which is apathetic to the very human plight of minor league players, that the player pool is depleted when a player like Trey Nielsen is forced to retire for financial reasons is an inherently negative thing.

Trey Nielsen was the 905th overall pick in the MLB amateur draft in 2013—certainly not a high number, but a spot which has produced two Major League players. Several fellow 30th round draft picks have gone on to successful careers in the Major Leagues, including Eric Gagne, Darryl Kile, Damion Easley, Doc Medich, and Scott Feldman. Gagne was a Cy Young Award winner, Kile and Easley were All-Stars, and Medich and Feldman were (and Feldman is) solid MLB players who elevated the quality of the league. If one of them steps away from the league as a whole, the replacement would be a worse player.

The Cardinals, in particular, have a roster which has reaped the benefits of late bloomers. Only one projected member of the starting lineup, Kolten Wong, was a first-round pick, and although he wasn’t a capital-E Elite prospect, he ranked among MLB’s top 100 and received a $1.3 million signing bonus after he was drafted in 201 1 out of the University of Hawaii. Wong earned life-changing (if not “enough to retire”) money before his first professional plate appearance, and he was on a fast track to Major League Baseball.

The real issue comes with a player like Tommy Pham, a 16th round draft pick in 2006 who made his first career plate appearance in Major League Baseball at an older age than Trey Nielsen was when he decided that the lack of income which comes from a career as a minor league baseball player was enough to deter him from pursuing his dream of playing in the big leagues any further. Pham earned a $325,000 signing bonus out of high school, but the events of the next eight years gave him ample reason to question his future.

The prevailing narrative when a Pham or a Jose Martinez comes up in his late twenties (or in some cases later) is that he never gave up on his dreams, but personal circumstances also tend to impact whether or not a player can afford to give up on his dreams. The current system punishes prospects with families, or with other professional ambitions, or with extenuating family circumstances which demand that they do something for a living besides earn four figures (as MiLB is considered seasonal work, this is often what it turns out to be) a year while constantly traveling and thus being unable to have a second full-time job.

Even if you do not take pity on players forced to make these decisions (which you should, but alas), the player pool thins out. When a middling reliever makes eight figures in free agency, the common refrain among baseball fans is that athletes should choose baseball if they have the opportunity to pick between multiple sports. A case like Jeff Samardzija, a pretty good but hardly elite starting pitcher who was also an All-American football player at Notre Dame, seems to prove it—fellow 2005 All-American wide receiver Calvin Johnson is one of the greatest receivers in NFL history and earned $113.8 million in his now-over career, while Samardzija is guaranteed $120.3 million through 2020 despite making just one All-Star Game.

But Samardzija is a case of a player who made it to Major League Baseball at 23. He was an exceptional talent and he had two fairly lucrative choices. Trey Nielsen had two less glamorous choices—play for peanuts in the minors or get a more conventional nine-to-five job and abandon his dream.

The selfish fan may not notice Nielsen’s absence and this is why it is unlikely anything substantial will be done to increase minor league wages—if Nielsen has the talent to become a star, we don’t know it, and now, we never will. And if Tommy Pham or Jose Martinez had been forced by circumstance to walk away from baseball in 2013, we wouldn’t have noticed. But it is sure easy to notice how these players enhance the overall quality of Major League Baseball now.

Because we don’t know what we’re missing, it’s easy to ignore that baseball isn’t living up to its fullest potential. It’s one thing if, say, Russell Wilson decides to be a highly-paid quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks rather than languish in the minor leagues for the Colorado Rockies. But if Major League Baseball, a multi-billion dollar industry which is extraordinarily profitable, is unable to keep salaries competitive enough to keep its prospective talent, it is fair for fans to be disappointed that the league is not doing its due diligence to make its product better.

Ignoring for a moment the very human reasons to pay players a living wage, baseball owners are hurting their own product just to save what amounts to chump change in hopes that fans won’t notice. But we should.