Opinion: Congress’ Bush-League Omnibus Provision an Embarrassment

Lawmakers want to financially shiv minor league ballplayers.

The Potomac Nationals, a Class A minor league team, looks to hit some home runs in Woodbridge, Virginia, last month. (Courtesy Potomac Nationals/Instagram)
The Potomac Nationals, a Class A minor league team, looks to hit some home runs in Woodbridge, Virginia, last month. (Courtesy Potomac Nationals/Instagram)
Posted March 23, 2018 at 5:03am

Anyone who wonders why Congress is more unpopular than a myopic baseball umpire who hates the home team need only look on page 1,967 of the omnibus spending bill.

If you are one of those slower readers who are only halfway through the densely worded 2,232-page draft document that was dumped on late Wednesday night, this column represents your salvation.

Even a dedicated reader may have flagged a bit on reaching page 1,689. That page features a 127-word sentence filled with the kind of bureaucratese designed to reduce an English teacher to tears: “That, notwithstanding any other provision of law, upon the request of the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, project funds that are held in residual receipts accounts subject to a section 8 project-based…”

Against this landscape, page 1,967 bursts through the clouds of clotted prose like the sun on a spring day shining down on the newly mown grass and chalked baselines of a professional baseball field. What could be more uplifting than to come upon a section with the all-caps headline, “SAVE AMERICA’S PASTIME ACT.”

Any red-blooded baseball fan might assume that this provision is Congress’ way of striking back at an insidious threat to the Boys of Summer — maybe North Korean fungo bats imported in defiance of the embargo or Russia dumping badly stitched baseballs as a way of undermining cherished American institutions.

Keeping costs down

But on closer reading, the purported threat to America’s pastime comes from 21-year-olds riding the buses in the deep minor leagues and hoping that they can afford a post-game $5.79 Burrito Supreme Combo dinner at Taco Bell. The goal of this high-minded legislation is to prevent most minor-league ballplayers from earning fair wages by defining them as seasonal workers with about the same rights as editorial interns at Vogue.

One of baseball’s dirty secrets is that many minor league baseball players earn as little as $1,100 per month and are expected to work for free like Little Leaguers during spring training. For those keeping score at home, major league baseball — which pays the salaries of all minor leaguers — took in $10 billion in revenue in 2017.

Yes, Royce Lewis, the first player chosen in the 2017 amateur draft, received a $6.7 million bonus from the Minnesota Twins. But the baseball draft runs for 40 rounds — and players taken towards the end can get as little as $1,000 and a congratulatory phone call. Plus, the rosters of minor-league teams are filled out with undrafted players (many of them college players who had hoped to hear their names called at the draft) who sign without expectations of any bonus.

In the last few years, major league teams have faced the threat of class action law suits from former and current minor leaguers asking for the normal minimum wage and overtime protections available to workers under labor law. While the litigation has faced an uphill legal struggle (partly because of the sport’s anti-trust exemption), the lords of baseball have become skittish about continuing to depend on their clout in court.

If every minor-leaguer were paid a modest $15,000 for a five- or six-month season, the additional cost to each major-league team would be maybe $2 million. In comparison, the Miami Marlins were sold last fall to a consortium with Derek Jeter as the front man for $1.2 billion.

A little influence

But the baseball owners — who love to scream poverty as they lurch from tax-payer-funded stadiums to lucrative new TV contracts — quickly found a cheaper way. All it took was $1.3 million in lobbying expenses in 2017, particularly a $400,000 payment to the Duberstein Group.

On Capitol Hill, a lobbyist for the MLB is almost certainly a welcome relief after obligatory meetings with delegations of soybean producers. With dreams of World Series tickets dancing in their heads (with none of those pesky markups by scalpers), legislators tend to feel sympathetic towards the occasional requests from the wealthy baseball owners.

While the precise details remain murky, it is a safe guess that is roughly how the SAVE AMERICA’S PASTIME ACT ended up on page 1,967 of the must-pass omnibus bill to fund the government. It wasn’t like underpaid ballplayers dreaming of a brief cup of coffee in the majors had their own lobbyists screaming, “Fair Play for Shortstops.”

The new legislation does guarantee that ballplayers will receive the minimum wage — but only for a 40-hour week and with no payments for spring training. But that so-called reform would only lift monthly salaries to about $1,250.

The provision that rankles would bar any overtime payments. Ever. Remember that the games alone take around 20 hours a week. And that’s even with the new cockamamie rule that begins all extra innings in the minors with a runner on second base.

(If the runner were on third base, he could be named in honor of George H.W. Bush).

Remember that most minor leaguers fall far short of their ambitions. Baseball journalist Joe Sheehan calculated that only about one-third of the 664 players in the Florida State League in 2012 ever made it to the majors. So most hard-pressed minor-leaguers will never have that big-league payday that rewards their bush-league struggles.

Of course, like millions of other baseball fans, I would gladly sell my soul to the devil in “Damn Yankees” for a decent year as a crafty lefty in the minors. But that reality does not justify the economic exploitation of these real-life dreamers with gloves and spikes.

The larger principle here — that transcends baseball — is that in today’s Congress, those with economic power constantly give a shiv to those who are vulnerable, whether they are young ballplayers or college students with a troubled immigration history.

That’s why, sitting here in the journalistic bleachers, I offer a loud Bronx cheer to the sponsors of the SAVE AMERICA’S PASTIME ACT. 

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.