Minor Leaguers Lack a Safety Net. A Plan Is Hatched to Champion Their Cause

Before a spring training road trip one day during his 11 years in the minor leagues, Ty Kelly recalled recently, the team issued the same lunch to each player: a white-bread sandwich with one piece of deli meat and cheese, an apple, a squeezable yogurt package and a granola bar. Kelly and other players wanted to make salads before leaving their team’s facility but were told they could not have anything else. The boxed meal was it.

“I went to a couple coaches, and essentially they said, ‘We had it worse’ and to deal with it,” Kelly said.

Long before the coronavirus outbreak threw their livelihoods into deep uncertainty this month, minor league players have endured wages ranging from roughly $1,000 to $15,000 per season; poor nutrition and facilities; sharing one small apartment with several teammates; and often working side jobs to pay bills.

Unlike major leaguers, they have no union and fear speaking up against the M.L.B. teams that employ them, because that could jeopardize the chance of reaching the majors and a big payday. Spending one day in the major leagues, on a prorated portion of a minimum annual salary that was $555,000 last season, would be worth more than a month in the minors.

“We’re trying to end this culture of silence,” said Garrett Broshuis, 38, a former minor league pitcher in the San Francisco Giants organization who became a lawyer in St. Louis.

Broshuis — along with several other former minor league players, an active major leaguer, a labor activist and a marketing adviser — has formed a nonprofit called Advocates for Minor Leaguers. It will be unveiled on Friday.

The organizers hope to create a clearinghouse — through a website, social media accounts and their own efforts — for aggrieved minor leaguers to anonymously report their concerns, receive help and be represented with some group strength.

“Without a collective voice, without representation at the bargaining table, they’ve just been left behind,” said Broshuis, who has been leading a class-action lawsuit against M.L.B. teams over minor league wages since 2014.

“You can make a powerful statement,” he added, “if you say you represent the interests of 1,000 minor league player members, which one day we hope we can say.”

Broshuis and his fellow organizers feel even more emboldened now, given the uncertainty thousands of minor leaguers face because of the cancellation of spring training and the indefinite postponement of the regular season.

Like their big league counterparts, minor leaguers do not receive paychecks until the regular season begins, which will not happen until mid-May at the earliest. But minor leaguers have much smaller security blankets — especially if they didn’t get large signing bonuses. Many have returned home this week desperate to find part-time work, such as food delivery. As Kelly put it, the pandemic has “exposed their situation.”

“It’s a time of struggle for a lot of people, and it’s a time of struggle and anxiety for a lot of minor league players as well,” Broshuis said. “This just further demonstrates why there needs to be a group out there providing a voice and providing players with a platform to speak up, even if it’s anonymously.”

As concern about the pandemic shut down spring training last week, crowdfunding campaigns to support minor leaguers popped up. Some M.L.B. teams continued paying minor league players their usual spring training allowance, $25 per day. Some teams paid even more.

Then on Thursday, M.L.B. announced that each minor leaguer would receive a payment equal to what he would have received for the canceled portion of spring training. According to news media reports, each player will get $400 a week for three weeks — more than the usual spring training allowance of $100 to 200 per week. M.L.B. said it would continue discussions about how to compensate players from April 9, the original start date for the minor league season, to whenever the season actually begins.

But the pandemic and emergency measures aside, the leaders of Advocates for Minor Leaguers see many longstanding injustices to address. Broshuis said the effort to form the nonprofit — which is registered in Missouri and has federal tax-exempt status — was galvanized in the off-season when M.L.B. proposed severing the major league affiliations of 42 teams in lower levels of the farm leagues. He noted that 1,000 minor league player jobs were at stake.

Ultimately, Broshuis would like baseball’s minor leaguers to have their own union, so they can collectively bargain with major league franchise owners.

“But in the interim, we’re not going to stand by and just hope and pray that a union forms,” he said. “We’re going to do what we can as a nonprofit advocacy group, and there’s a lot you can do.”

While Broshuis acknowledged that the nonprofit would not be as powerful as a true union, he said that without collective representation minor leaguers were susceptible to exploitation such as wage suppression. He noted that while the inflation rate in the U.S. has been about 400 percent since 1975, minor league wages have increased only 75 percent since then.

Before last season, the Toronto Blue Jays issued 50 percent raises to their minor leaguers, and a few other teams, such as the Chicago Cubs and the Giants, have followed suit. Beginning in 2021, M.L.B. is mandating a minor league wage increase of between 38 and 72 percent. But efforts to increase pay for minor leaguers were hindered by the “Save America’s Pastime Act,” which Congress put on page 1,967 of a 2018 spending bill to strip minor leaguers of protections under federal minimum wage laws. M.L.B., which lobbied for the act, has likened minor leaguer players to seasonal apprentices, similar to musicians, artists and actors.

Broshuis has various goals for the new organization: a petition drive to establish a starting minimum salary of $15,000 for minor leaguers; informing the public and lawmakers on the effects of M.L.B.’s longstanding antitrust exemption and the “Save America’s Pastime Act”; helping players in individual conflicts with their teams; and gaining some control over the minor league drug policy, which M.L.B. can unilaterally change.

Broshuis’s fellow founders include Kelly; Matt Pare, a former Giants minor league player who made a video series called “The Homeless Minor Leaguer”; Raul Jacobson, a former Mets minor league player who is in law school; and a veteran major leaguer who asked to remain anonymous to protect his employment opportunities, but who also said he planned to recruit other big league players to support the cause.

Kelly, 31, who slept on an air mattress and received money from his parents for groceries during off-seasons in his minor league days, played parts of three major league seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies and the Mets. He said he hoped to make videos with Pare highlighting the struggles of minor leaguers.

“We just want to be able to provide that voice for guys,” Kelly said, “and let them know that it’s OK to want to be able to live above the poverty line.”

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