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MLB: Actually, minor leaguers should be paying us

MLB says that minor leaguers actually benefit more than teams do from spring training being unpaid

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MLB has worked hard for decades to try to win the p.r. battle with the MLBPA, blaming rising player salaries for increased ticket prices and free agency for certain teams not being able to win, presenting this as “millionaires fighting billionaires” and acting like any potential work stoppage is due to spoiled players not being grateful for the fact that they are getting rich playing a kids game. The attempt to use the public relations war as a way to put pressure on players came up just last week, as ownership’s request to invoke the federal mediation process was largely seen as eyewash rather than something legitimately intended to help reach a resolution.

With spring training about to be delayed, and the canceling of scheduled spring training games seeming imminent, it is thus ironic that MLB has created what should be a p.r. disaster for itself in federal court yesterday — a disaster where, to heighten the irony, at issue is compensation for minor league players during spring training.

Evan Drellich of the Athletic reported Friday on a hearing in a class action lawsuit that has been going on for almost a decade over the fact that major league teams do not pay minor leaguers during spring training. MLB has taken the position that this is a “training period,” while the lawyer for the players noted that “they’re operating under the same employment contract that requires them to perform services, quote, ‘throughout the calendar year’.”

In a particular offensive line of argument, Elise Bloom, the lawyer handling this suit for MLB in yesterday’s hearing, argues that really, no money changing hands during spring training benefits the players, rather than the owners:

“It is the players that obtain the greater benefit from the training opportunities that they are afforded than the clubs, who actually just incur the cost of having to provide that training.”

* * *

Bloom was elaborating on arguments made last year. MLB hired an expert at a rate of $775 per hour who argued that players in spring training actually receive a value of $2,200 weekly from their teams, based on what youth and amateur players pay for baseball training.

“This figure is an estimate of the costs plaintiffs would have had to incur had they attended a baseball prospecting camp instead of participating in the minor leagues,” Denise Martin, senior vice president at NERA Economic Consulting, wrote to the court.

Martin wrote that the estimate was based on the cost of baseball camps and instructional schools that “offer training and activities of the same general type that are made available to minor league players.” Martin provided the cost of hourly private lessons in various states, and the cost for attendees at prospect camps hosted by colleges. “It is apparent,” she wrote, “that the services offered at these prospecting camps are broadly similar to the activities made available to plaintiffs during Spring Training.”

“For example,” Martin submitted last year, “the website for IMG Academy, one prospecting camp, indicates that its instruction includes ‘sport instruction, group physical conditioning, group mental conditioning, specialized small group training and seminars on mental toughness, nutrition, speed/movement/balance, leadership training and vision/reaction.’”

The way that MLB has treated minor leaguers for decades is gross. Steps have been taken to improve working and living conditions for minor leaguers in the last couple of years — steps taken largely due to the fact that efforts have been made to bring public attention to the plight of minor league players, resulting in pressure on owners to change things, although there is a long way to go. And so this sort of argument shouldn’t be surprising.

Nevertheless, it boggles the mind that, at the same time owners are locking out the players, delaying spring training and putting the start of the season in jeopardy, over the players demands that owners pay players with less service time more, increase incentives for teams trying to win, and address team’s opening manipulating the service time of young players, MLB’s lawyers are making a public argument this tone deaf. Just the optics of the league paying a $775 per hour expert for an opinion used by a lawyer who is likely billing at an even higher rate that minor league players should be grateful for getting to be at spring training without being paid — that, if anything, the players should be paying the teams for the privilege — would seem to dramatically undermine anyone’s belief that the owners are the “good guys” in any of these fights.

In looking at Ms. Bloom’s bio on her firm website, the first line says that she is “widely hailed” as one of the “most creative” litigators in the employment field.

And I will say, it is definitely a creative argument. A clever argument. They’re definitely clever.