I have to admit to being a bit confused.
A little over a month ago, Blue Jays President/CEO Mark Shapiro, when questioned about the incredibly low wages minor leaguers receive, said, “look, it’s short-sighted to just say ‘pay them more’,” sighting improvements in a whole host of areas in the Blue Jays player development system. The implication seemed to be that at least for the time being, with upgrades to the team’s training complex, the hiring of a small army of off-field staff to help the players train, recover, and eat in a manner befitting high performance athletes, a raise in pay was at the bottom of the team’s list of priorities.
Then, on the weekend, Emily Waldon and Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic broke the news that the Blue Jays would be increasing the rate of pay among their minor league players by 50%, an amount that is estimated to add anywhere from $750 000 to a million dollars to their PD budget.
Shapiro and the Blue Jays, of course, didn’t have a sudden change of heart in this matter. He has publicly stated the need to put players at the forefront of their development program, and he’s savvy enough to know that until such time as this issue is addressed, it will only grow. In fact, it’s reasonable to assume that even with a favourable Congress acting on its behalf (Saving America’s Pastime Act sounds like something only Doug Ford could appreciate), baseball might be facing an uphill battle in the form of several lawsuits, and maybe the Blue Jays read the tea leaves and felt it was best to get out in front of this whole thing.
And while this raise in pay doesn’t bring the salary of a minor league baseball player anywhere close to poverty level, it may allow players who play for full season teams to eat better, and maybe even sleep on something other than an air mattress. In the Blue Jays system, at the short-season level, players are housed either with host families or in a dormitory-type setting. For the full season teams, this is just the latest in a series of upgrades for their players. In the last few years, the team has added a second bus for road trips (allowing players who are for the most part larger than the average Greyhound passenger more room to stretch out and rest), increased salaries and time off during the season for coaching personnel, and nutritionists on staff to make sure that not only is the spread available to the players in the clubhouse appropriate to their needs, but also to educate the players on how to eat and prepare healthy food away from the ballpark. At the Blue Jays minor league complex this past weekend, it was noted that many of the team’s Venezuelan prospects, whose families face considerable economic uncertainty back home, were visibly relieved at the news.
In the long run and larger scheme of things, what difference will this make? For starters, the Blue Jays hope that they don’t stay out ahead of the curve in this regard for long, that other teams will quickly follow suit. Quoted by John Lott in The Athletic, Blue Jays director of baseball operations Mike Murov hopes this breaks something of a log jam:
It’s not a (collective-bargaining) issue, it’s not a union issue. It’s a change that somebody has to just do. There’s a lot of inertia within this game, and you have to be able to zoom out and figure out what the right thing is to do.”
Baseball has been able to pay their minor leaguers peanuts for so long because, well they’ve been allowed to. Legislation has been on their side, as has the MLBPA, which in many ways has been just as complicit.
What else might this raise in pay do? For the top prospects in the system, many of whom were signed to huge bonuses, not a lot. The Blue Jays spent about $9.76 million on 27 draft picks last summer; their top three draft picks (Jordan Groshans, Griffin Conine, and Adam Kloffenstein) ate up about three-quarters of that allotment. So, for the guys who signed for (far) less than that – the median bonus was $100K – this raise in pay at least reduces the amount of that bonus they have to tap into in order to survive. Or perhaps it means only having to take a part-time job in the off-season so that they can focus on training. And those are the players the team was thinking of. For the cost of not much more than one player at the minimum MLB salary, the Blue Jays have potentially deepened their talent pool, and even if that only produces one MLB player per year, it seems like a sound investment.
For some who seem to lack the empathy gene, this might be a non-issue. These guys are living the dream, they could argue, so who cares what they’re getting paid? In the words of Dirk Hayhurst, whose return to the writing game is a good thing, it’s exploitation, plain and simple.
Will this bring a World Series to Toronto? That’s incredibly hard to say. And there’s still a long way to go in reaching equity for these players – take the plight of (unpaid) minor leaguers invited to spring training. In this day and age of minimum wage roll backs, so-called right-to-work legislation, and a general failure of the wages of the average person to keep up with the 1%, it makes one a little bit prouder to be a Blue Jays fan,though. It’s the right thing to do.