DUNEDIN, Fla. — Ken Giles was hunting for minor-leaguers in the Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse. He was a man on a mission.
“Sunday, we got ice cream in the back and I can’t get the minor-league guys to go in and have some,” Giles said in mock seriousness. “Gummy bears, too. Load it up.”
A minor-leaguer’s existence in spring training is something just shy of indentured servitude, and it doesn’t get much better in the regular season. Unless you are a Blue Jays minor-leaguer. You won’t be living high on the hog in Lansing or Bluefield or Buffalo, but you could be earning 50 per cent more than the guy across the field.
And Blue Jays vice-president of baseball operations Ben Cherington sees the team’s unilateral decision to give minor-league players a 50 per-cent pay increase as something beyond simply “doing the right thing,” although sometimes that alone is reason enough to enact change.
It’s just logical, especially if as an organization you have decided to be player-oriented.
“We talk about giving our players the best possible resources to have success, and it’s getting harder for players in the minors in terms of housing or making the right choices on and off the field,” Cherington said Sunday, after a report in The Athletic detailed that Blue Jays minor-leaguers at every level are receiving increases.
The announcement came despite the fact that Major League Baseball successfully lobbied Congress last season for passage of a bill that classified players as “seasonal workers” in response to lawsuits alleging minor-league pay, which is less than minimum wage and has few built-in protections, violating the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
“We’re serious about giving our players the best possible resources,” said Cherington, who is also a former general manager of the Boston Red Sox. “This puts more money directly in their pockets.”
Minor-leaguers receive between $1,100-$2,000-$2,500 in-season from Single-A to Triple-A, and also receive a $25 per diem – half of which often goes to pay clubhouse dues. They are not paid in spring training or the off-season.
Cherington said the organization began thinking about increasing minor-league pay last spring, soon after minor-leaguers signed ‘addendums’ that spell out exactly how much they’re being paid in the upcoming season.
“Basically, a player is called up to the desk at the minor-league office to sign his addendum and some of them don’t even read it,” he said.
The Blue Jays did not sound out or tip off other organizations about any imminent move, but did notify their minor-leaguers about it. Cherington said discussions began after last spring’s addendums were signed, and the extra money will come out of baseball operations, just as any major- or minor-league payroll matter.
“It was an organizational decision,” Cherington said. “There was unanimous support for it. Zero pushback.”
Cherington said he was unaware of any industry-wide response to the news, but noted it was “something that just came out this morning.”
“I hope the reaction is that other teams see fit to do it,” Cherington said.
The issue of minor-league pay has been a thorny one for the game. Attendance in the minors was down last season, but the optics of athletes earning less than minimum wage at a time when Major League Baseball generated a record revenue of over $10 billion (U.S.) were difficult. Add, unless legalized gambling in the U.S. is regulated in a manner that somehow excludes gambling on minor-league games, the game could find itself in a position similar to lower-level soccer leagues in Europe, where lowly paid players are susceptible to payoffs from gamblers.
Indeed, Pat O’Connor, president and chief executive officer of Minor League Baseball, told the Boston Herald last week that “it’s not if, but when,” Minor League Baseball experiences a gambling scandal.
Reggie Pruitt, a 21-year-old right-hand-hitting outfielder at Single-A Lansing, was one of the call-ups from minor-league camp for Sunday’s 9-8 win over the Minnesota Twins. He seemed to be debating Giles’ ice-cream offer.
“We had a meeting a couple of days ago and they basically showed us a graph and gave us the good news,” said Pruitt. “Everybody was ecstatic. Everybody was clapping and cheering. I love it. For what we go through … it’s cool to be part of the one organization that are doing this for their minor-leaguers.
“It’s not the Majors, but we’re out there every day playing baseball and doing our thing and instead of peanut butter and jelly, I can get real meals and recover after some long, hot days,” he said. “That little bit extra is going to go toward helping the body withstand some things.”
Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo played in the minors for 10 years and managed another 17. He seemed surprised by the news.
“That’s a lot of extra money, that’s awesome,” he said. “Whoever did that, I want to thank them, being there as long as I was.”
There is still much more to do, of course, and it will be fascinating to see who follows the Blue Jays and how rapidly they do it. But putting extra money in somebody’s pocket is never a bad thing. It may not be worth of popping open champagne, but an ice cream sundae would at least seem in order, no?