Copyright 2014 Charleston Newspapers
On March 27, the Detroit Tigers signed star hitter Miguel Cabrera to a 10-year contract extension for $292 million.
With 162 games in a season, the 30-year-old Cabrera will be paid more than $159,000 for every game once the extension kicks in.
But Cabrera is the exception. Most minor league baseball players get less than $7,500 for playing an entire season of 142 games. And some of them believe that's not enough.
Three former minor league players sued Major League Baseball and Commissioner Bud Selig in federal court on Feb. 7, arguing they were underpaid for their work and exploited by contracts minor league players are often required to sign.
In March, the suit added 17 additional other former minor league players and one active minor leaguer.
The players who filed the original lawsuit - Aaron Senne, Michael Liberto and Oliver Odle - played minor league baseball between 2007 and 2013. They hope to turn their action into a class-action lawsuit representing all past and future minor league players. "Major League Baseball, the legal complaint begins, "traces its roots to the 19th Century. Unfortunately for many of its employees, its wage and labor practices remain stuck there.
The anti-trust exemption enjoyed by Major League Baseball, the suit argues, allows all 30 teams "to openly collude on the working conditions for the development of its chief commodity: young baseball players.
"This anti-trust exemption, however, in no way provides an exemption from the federal and state wage and hour laws that [MLB teams] routinely violate, according to the lawsuit. Those laws, the lawsuit claims, include the federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and state laws guaranteeing minimum wages and overtime pay.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco, makes several claims, including one to require major league teams to compensate minor league players for unpaid and overtime wages.
The minor league baseball season began last week, and Charleston's team - the West Virginia Power, the South Atlantic League affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates - opens its 10th season in Appalachian Power Park on Thursday. No former Power players are part of the lawsuit so far, and Adam Marco, the team's marketing director, said the claims in the lawsuit don't reflect directly on the Power.
"Honestly, we are a separate entity. We are caretakers of the West Virginia Power name. But the Pittsburgh Pirates pay the players. The Pirates decide who goes to what level, who advances, who goes up to the majors, Marco said. "We sign a player development contract with the Pirates. We serve as the outlet for them, as a place for them to have their players play.
All unionization issues raised in the lawsuit, Marco stressed, are "more of a question for the Pittsburgh Pirates. We in the West Virginia Power branch have no control over the players. We provide them with a facility to play in and a league to play with. Not many people understand that side of it.
Dan Hart, with the Pirates media relations department, did not return a phone call. Nor did Greg Morris, communications director for the MLB Players Association, which represents players on the 30 major league teams.
MLB spokesman Patrick Courtney said Friday that Major League Baseball has "no comment other than that we will vigorously defend our position.
Michael McCann, a lawyer who wrote a Sports Illustrated column in February shortly after the suit was filed, predicted that the MLB might argue that "under the FLSA, professional employees' are usually exempt from FLSA benefits and that classification includes those who perform original or unique work.
The law's statute of limitations, McCann added, often limits the ability of individuals to collect unpaid wages and benefits for more than two or three years.
But baseball does not enjoy a formal exemption from federal wage and overtime requirements, McCann said, making it more difficult for the MLB to convince a federal judge to dismiss the case.
"The longer the case goes, the more willing baseball may be to settle and perhaps change the way minor leaguers are paid.
Currently, contracts with minor league players are usually signed for seven years.
Those contracts typically allow MLB teams to reassign, or terminate, any minor league player at any time. They also prevent minor league players from leaving their teams to play for other teams, even outside the U.S., unless those players get permission from MLB Commissioner Bud Selig.
The conditions for minor league baseball players are set in the collective bargaining agreement between Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association. The first such agreement was signed in 1968, after Marvin Miller, a former lawyer for the United Steelworkers, took over as director of the players association.
During Miller's years as executive director of the association, the average player's salary rose from $19,000 in 1966 to $326,000 in 1982. Miller also negotiated a requirement to give players "free agent rights to negotiate new contracts with other teams.
The most recent collective bargaining agreement, the lawsuit states, requires major league teams to "pay major leaguers a minimum of $500,000 per season&.
"Most minor leaguers earn between around $3,000 and $7,500 for the entire year despite routinely working over 50 hours per week (and sometimes 70 hours per week) during their five-month season, the lawsuit states.
Sometimes, three or four players might crowd into rented apartments near their home-team fields. Other players have stayed with local families during home stands.
Yet the people and investors who own most minor league teams have no control over payments made to players in their franchises.
Today, roughly 6,000 minor league players are in the system that includes: Rookie and Short-Season A, Class A, Advanced Class A, Class AA and Class AAA baseball teams.
Amateur baseball players from the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico are all required to participate in the 40-round draft MLB holds each year, the lawsuit also points out.
Some high draft choices get six-figure, or even seven-figure, bonuses. But most drafted players, the lawsuit states, get bonuses of about $2,500 when they sign up.
When talking about the West Virginia Power's relationship with their plays and the major league Pirates, Marco mentioned former Power player Starling Marte. Marte, who wasn't subject to the amateur draft because he is from the Dominican Republic, signed an initial contract with a bonus of $85,000. Now the Pirates' left fielder, the 25-year-old Marte signed a contract extension in March that will pay him at least $31 million through 2019.
"We have a working relationship with the Pirates. It has been great, Marco said. "We appreciate the talent they have sent to play in our stadium.
Reach Paul J. Nyden at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5164.