KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Now we're going to talk about Minor League Baseball. Right now thousands of players across the country are doing what they can to make the majors, and many of them are struggling. Minor League Baseball has never been a big money maker. Most players at this level don't even earn minimum wage. A lawsuit is trying to change that while young ballplayers try to hang on. NPR's Tom Goldman has the story.
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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Now, the one-two pitch. And Nash swings and misses, chased a fastball that was up and outside. That is the ninth strike out for Tyler DeLoach.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: In five Minor League seasons, pitcher Tyler DeLoach racked up 457 strikeouts. The 6-foot-6-inch lefthander was good enough to get to Triple-A, one level away from the promised land, the majors. But last year at age 25, he quit the game. DeLoach, from North Carolina, remembers the moment he made that very tough decision.
TYLER DELOACH: Yeah, exactly - when I got my W-2.
GOLDMAN: His wage and salary form said he made between $14,000 and $15,000 for a season of playing pro ball.
DELOACH: Even though this is a dream of mine, you know, this is the real world. You've got to pay bills. And this isn't getting it done.
GOLDMAN: The dream of making it to the big leagues had fortified DeLoach but then a jolt in 2015. His dad, who'd been a financial safety net, got sick and died. It forced DeLoach to take stock. Last season in Triple-A, he made 2,200 a month before taxes. Just one step up the ladder in the majors, the lowest paid players made 42,000 a month. After paying rent, student loans, car payment, clubhouse dues, food, gas cellphone, DeLoach hoped to break even. And like all minor leaguers, he got paid only during the season from April to September - no pay for spring training.
DELOACH: It starts to take away from the focus that you need in the game because you're trying to figure out, well, what do I need to do this offseason? Do I need to get a job? Like, how am I going to afford to do this?
GOLDMAN: But here's the thing about Tyler DeLoach. He was better off than most minor leaguers.
GARRETT BROSHUIS: The average Minor League Baseball player is getting around $7,500 or less.
GOLDMAN: Attorney Garrett Broshuis says that figure includes all levels of Minor League Baseball, and it's about half of what a full-time minimum-wage worker in the U.S. makes. Broshuis is leading the fight for better pay. He's a former Minor League pitcher who threw some high heat at Major League Baseball in 2014. That's when he sued MLB and its 30 teams. MLB pays Minor League salaries, and Broshuis wants minor leaguers bumped up at least to full-time minimum-wage pay.
BROSHUIS: This is a $10 billion industry that has seen just revenue grow exponentially in recent years. And so they can certainly afford to pay these guys $15,000 per year.
GOLDMAN: If each team paid that amount to its roughly 250 minor leaguers, it would cost about $3.75 million. That's a year's salary for one Major League player not quite making the average of 4.4 million. Major League Baseball can afford it but doesn't think it should have to. MLB responded to an interview request by emailing a statement. It says, federal guarantees of minimum wage and overtime pay don't apply to Minor League players. The majority of those players, says MLB, are short-term, seasonal apprentices. But minor leaguers typically sign a standard seven-year contract, and they work 50 to 60 hours a week at spring training and work during the off season on baseball skills and fitness all for no pay.
UNIDENTIFIED PLAYER: They're treating it as a professional business and calling it an internship or an apprenticeship. And I think that this is more of a profession than it is an internship.
GOLDMAN: This Minor League player asked not to be identified because he's afraid it might jeopardize his job, a job he says is full time. He's in his early 20s, plays Single-A ball in the Midwest, and he says he started feeling the money pinch this season. He supports the lawsuit, but beyond that, he's trying to engage fellow players in a conversation about changing the financial situation.
UNIDENTIFIED PLAYER: You know, all the players see it as far as it needs to happen. It's just a lot of people are so caught up. Hey, I need to, you know, do this to play. I don't want to look bad doing it. You know, I want to do the right things by the organization. And you know, I think you can do the right thing by the organization but also, you know, think about future players as well and be able to change things for the better.
GOLDMAN: There's no Minor League players union. Garrett Broshuis would love to see one in the future. For now, he's focused on the lawsuit which includes several thousand minor leaguers. Recently the suit gained limited class status. Broshuis says a trial date could be set within the next few weeks. Tom Goldman, NPR News.
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