The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

MLB overhauled the minors this season. Some advocates say it hasn’t been enough.

Major League Baseball overhauled the minors in 2021, but some advocates are pushing for more changes. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)
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In 2017, just after the Toronto Blue Jays drafted him in the 32nd round, hard-throwing reliever Jacob Condra-Bogan was sharing a living room floor with two teammates and three mattresses, the only way to pay for housing on his professional baseball salary.

A first-round pick, who had a little bit more to spare, had one of the bedrooms to himself. Another high-round pick had the other bedroom. But Condra-Bogan, who also was trying to finish a master’s degree, could only afford a little slice of floor.

“When I retired, I was one of the best 500 relief pitchers in the world. And I can’t even get minimum wage,” said Condra-Bogan, who retired before the 2021 season. “This is an entertainment industry where there is money. It’s not something small. I’m one of the best human beings in the world at what I do, and I can’t make a living off it.”

Major League Baseball restructured the minors before this season, part of an effort to “ensure a new set of standards in terms of facilities and player working conditions,” MLB said. But according to an advocacy group for minor leaguers, players are still paid so little — so far below minimum wage — that for many of them, playing professional baseball ends up costing money instead of providing a living.

The MLB-led restructuring — which included cutting 40 affiliates, promising pay increases of 38 to 72 percent for minor leaguers, reducing travel with more concerted scheduling efforts and more geographically logical leagues, and stepping up requirements for team facilities — was supposed to help. MLB has largely delivered on those promises, according to people in minor league baseball who say the travel is more tolerable and the quality of facilities more consistent.

“It’s really important for the game. And why do I think it’s important? I think it is part of modernizing the way that we develop players,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred recently said of the restructuring. “We will have facilities that are better and more equipped to develop professional players. We’ll have an economic model that allows us to pay those players better.”

But even with those changes, which are massive by professional baseball standards, most minor leaguers continue to live at or below the poverty line, according to Harry Marino, executive director of Advocates for Minor Leaguers, who said most minor leaguers make between $8,000 and $14,000 annually.

Asked about these conditions, an MLB official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as to freely discuss the situation, did not dispute that minor league pay is low. He admitted that while the reorganization of the minors under MLB’s purview has led to as much as a $500-per-month increase in some players’ salaries, part of the idea behind eliminating teams was to reduce the number of players in each system and therefore accelerate the pace at which players could learn if they really had a shot at the big leagues.

By eliminating an entire roster’s worth of low-level players, the thinking goes, teams will have to make decisions earlier in the development process — something critics argue will reduce the chances for late-round picks to scratch and claw their way to the majors.

That official said MLB views minor league baseball more as an apprenticeship — an opportunity for on-the-job training. He pointed to the bonuses that players receive when they sign with an organization as a form of preemptive compensation to help them make their way. First-round picks can make as much as several million dollars in a signing bonus, but many later-round players sign for a few thousand.

Multiple executives and MLB officials said those in the industry are beginning to view providing minor leaguers with housing, adequate meal money and other basic needs as competitive advantages, a potential edge in player development. But that approach is not widespread, and many organizations are still pinching pennies.

Why minor league players are still allowed to make so little

Minor league players do not have a union and are not represented by the MLB Players Association. They do, however, have advocacy groups such as Advocates for Minor Leaguers that help provide a unified voice. And they have a platform where that voice has some power — Twitter.

“Players have no avenue through which to sort of redress grievances or speak at all about the things that are happening,” said Marino, a former minor leaguer. “So our organization really at its core exists to provide a collective voice for the players who have just been systematically silenced for decades.

Advocates for Minor Leaguers has posted accounts from anonymous minor league players that detail housing crises, subpar meals and other examples of players struggling to get by. Marino said for every story tweeted, he hears a handful of stories from players who then ask him not to share them publicly. Fear of retribution, even for those who come forward anonymously, remains high.

Marino said his organization’s strategy is to force teams to take action by illuminating the hardships players face, even if only a small portion of the stories he hears makes it to the group’s Twitter account.

“I think that publicizing these things works simply because there’s no real response on the team side on this stuff,” Marino said. “It’s not like they have a real explanation of why players should be treated this way.”

The Houston Astros have tried to relieve some of the financial burdens on their minor leaguers by providing housing. The New York Yankees offer housing stipends to players in the Florida Complex League that extend beyond the competitive season, and they cover housing for their High Class A Hudson Valley team. The Philadelphia Phillies offer housing stipends to minor leaguers. But in many places, players are on their own.

For players switching affiliates, the cost of breaking a lease in one city and finding a place in another can often amount to months of salary — certainly more than the modest increases minor league restructuring provided. Advocates for Minor Leaguers recently posted about players for the Chicago White Sox and Texas Rangers whom the group said had apartment applications turned down because their income was deemed too low.

Meanwhile, team-sponsored postgame meals, such as the ones Oakland Athletics minor leaguers received that were made public by the group’s Twitter account, can range wildly in quality. Meal money doesn’t go far, particularly when players aren’t necessarily living in places that allow them to cook extensively and when they are traveling frequently.

“Coaches apologize to the players. Like, ‘I wish they would do more for you guys.’ Same thing with assistant GMs or farm directors. They’re always like, ‘Well, I wish we could do more,’ ” Condra-Bogan said. “I know you personally might not be able to, but there definitely are people that can.”

Food and housing are not the only things that chip away at paychecks. Players are often paying hundreds of dollars per month to train at high-profile facilities in the offseason. Outside of players who are represented by behemoth agencies that outfit their clients with the best cleats, bats and gloves, most minor leaguers must pay for those things themselves.

“I played with guys that were scared just looking at an inside pitch because they had three bats left to last for the next two months,” said Slade Heathcott, a former Yankee who now leads More Than Baseball, a nonprofit that offers grants and other assistance to minor leaguers. “Say breaking a bat means you have to spend $85 on a new one. If you break two bats in a day, that’s 30 percent of your paycheck.

More Than Baseball takes a different approach to helping minor leaguers, focusing less on publicly highlighting the problem and more on trying to work within the system. Heathcott said the group has more than 2,000 minor league player members and a variety of programs, including guidance and application assistance for players who want to pursue degrees and emergency housing grants.

Because of the number of players involved, he said, More Than Baseball also can help secure much-needed discounts on equipment or other costs of business. Several major leaguers, including Max Scherzer and Sean Doolittle, have offered financial support.

“That’s not their job, right?” Condra-Bogan said. “They’re fantastic people. But it’s not their job to take care of minor leaguers. That’s the organization’s job.”

“I think that there are 30 people who are responsible,” Marino said.

“There’s a lot of different people to blame. And I think that sometimes makes it easier for folks to disclaim responsibility,” he added. “To me, this ultimately comes back to the 30 MLB owners, because they’re the ones who have gotten together and said, ‘This is how we’re going to do it, and let’s underpay these guys.’ And they’re the ones that can fix this overnight.”