Congress to Baseball Owners: The Fix is In

If the 2018 omnibus spending bill wending its way through Congress this week doesn’t pass, a government shutdown could close national parks and prevent us from enjoying certain activities we had planned. Something in the bill itself could do the same — prevent us from enjoying certain activities we had planned.

Spring is officially underway and some of us can’t help but think about baseball. It’s how we were raised. The sound or smell of any lawn being mowed conjures memories of ball fields and pinstripes.

What does professional baseball have to do with the federal government’s annual spending bill? More than you might have guessed. But then again, any plan that spends $1.3 trillion is bound to have an effect on just about anything.

By any measure, this spending bill is gargantuan. It’s the largest spending bill ever. It’s 2,232 pages long. Everything Congress wants to get done this year before the midterm elections is in this bill, so every paragraph counts. Here’s a little passage you may have missed.

Right there on page 1,967, Congress addresses professional baseball. It lifts language from the failed “Save America’s Pastime Act.” The standalone bill sought to exempt minor league baseball teams from the Fair Labor Standards Act. It didn’t gain traction on Capitol Hill, but the same language has been tucked into this mammoth bill.

Why does America’s pastime need saving? Teams that spend millions for a good fastball pitcher during their pennant stretch fail to pay some of their minor league players the minimum wage. This has prompted a couple of lawsuits and talk of a class action suit. All professional baseball players should be paid at least the minimum wage. Or not, says this Congress.

Next time you’re at PK Park to watch the Ems play, while you’re waiting in line for a $6 microbrew, do the math. Could you live on a stipend of $1,100 a month, which is what some first-year minor league players make? They are paid nothing during the off-season.

I contacted management at the Ems to find out how they’re handling Oregon’s minimum wage laws. They referred me to a spokesperson for Minor League Baseball, who told me any comment would have to come from Major League Baseball. If you’re scoring that defensive maneuver, it was a classic 6-4-3 double play.

The President of Minor League Baseball, Pat O’Connor, told the Washington Post last week: “…the formula of minimum wage and overtime is so incalculable. … It’s not like factory work. It’s not like work where you can punch a time clock and management can project how many hours they’re going to have to pay for.”

Some make the comparison to musicians who gladly play gigs for whatever the tavern owner can afford to pay, or at open mike nights for nothing at all. They are willing to forego a minimum wage so they can pursue their dream. How is a ballplayer any different?

Here’s how. The musician can walk across the street and play at a different tavern if better pay is available. Professional baseball players cannot. They’ve signed a contract with a particular team that binds them to a financial arrangement that may not be sustainable for them.

The baseball franchises insist that they are investing great sums to develop these young players, helping them to reach their dream of playing in the Majors someday. Maybe that makes sense and maybe it doesn’t, but two thoughts come to mind.

First, isn’t every minimum wage employee hoping for a chance to make more at a higher level, once they have developed the skills that their company has demonstrated it needs? That effort-for-advancement dynamic is universal.

Second, if developing skills is what really mattered to the youngest players, wouldn’t it make more sense to go to or stay in college, where that training is offered? There’d be a small pay cut to play for a university, but at least they’d throw in a college education to seal the deal.

Those players could study accounting, or law, or political science. That way, if their dream of diamonds doesn’t work out, they could always run for Congress.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.