A Minor League prospect is suspended for 100 games for violating Major League Baseball’s policy on banned substances, despite never having failed a drug test. A ballpark vendor works for $11,000 per year, going over three years without a raise as team profits soar. A Dominican shortstop dies of a preventable illness at an MLB team’s training academy because the team doesn’t employ a doctor or athletic trainer. What do these three cases have in common?
Absolutely nothing. Because “absolutely nothing” is what the Major League Baseball Players Association has done to correct the rampant injustices perpetuated on the workers and players who make up the silent majority of the MLB’s profit machine.
Success and Failure
Founded in 1953, the MLBPA has been extraordinarily successful at preserving the rights of actual Major League players. The union negotiated the first collective bargaining agreement in professional sports and paved the way for the modern free agency system by challenging the “reserve clause” (which prevented a player from joining any team other than the one he signed with). It has kept MLB as the only major professional sports league in North America without a salary cap, making the best baseball players the highest-salaried athletes in the world. And it’s proved that a strong union in professional sports doesn’t destroy the economics of the game (franchise values and television income are higher than ever before) or necessitate constant work-stoppages (the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLS have combined for nine work stoppages in MLB’s current 19-year run of labor peace).
Even the MLBPA’s politics are fairly strong. While it hasn’t exactly taken the lead on fighting for pro-union legislation, it did come out strongly against Arizona’s SB 1070 and joined the fight against the Michigan legislature’s attempt to impose right-to-work laws. On some level, the Players Association understands that there is an organized labor movement, and that it has a responsibility to fight for broader pro-labor principles.
Where it fails as a union is its utter disinterest to expand its protections beyond its current membership, or to wield its influence to protect other workers in the baseball industry. While most unions will fight to unionize new workplaces and fund workers’ centers to protect and organize non-members, the MLBPA is largely silent in attacking the inequities facing the underpowered majority of the baseball economy. When you look at the extent of these injustices, the Players Association looks less like a triumph against the game’s moneyed elites and more like half of a great baseball cartel, working with the league and the owners to enrich itself on the backs of the underprivileged.
Cesar Carrillo’s case may be the most prominent at the moment, as the MLBPA may soon regret its lack of involvement in his defense. Carrillo is a pitcher in the Detroit Tigers system, and though he never tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug, he received a 100-game suspension from Major League Baseball for appearing on documents acquired from the Biogenesis clinic and lying about his relationship with the former head of Biogenesis (an anti-aging clinic shut down after the Miami New Times found that it supplied performance-enhancing drugs to athletes). Because the collective bargaining agreement only covers major league players, Carrillo had nowhere to turn to appeal his suspension, and while the MLBPA couldn’t have filed an appeal on his behalf, they could have made more noise about MLB’s abandonment of due process. This is in keeping with the Association’s historical treatment of minor league players — as threats to its current membership:
As it usually does, the MLBPA secured a minimum wage increase [in the latest collective bargaining agreement]; by 2014, the lowliest major leaguer will earn at least half a million dollars. But the labor deal also sets new limits on the bonuses paid in the amateur draft, which the players’ union gets to negotiate even though they don’t represent draftees. Indeed, today’s major leaguers rarely hesitate to sell out their eventual replacements: In the agreement that took hold in 2007, the players signed off on a change that kept minor leaguers out of free agency for an extra year. Gene Orza, who recently retired as the MLBPA’s No. 2 lawyer, says there’s nothing wrong with that. “We don’t represent them,” Orza told me, referring to minor leaguers, “and have no obligation.”
Orza is right: The only obligation the MLBPA has is to its actual members. As J. Gordon Hylton, an expert on the legal history of baseball, explained to me, there is a “growing awareness on the part of established baseball players that we don’t want to make the entry-level arrangement too good, because that’s money that might be going to mid-level or low-level [major-league] players.” With no one to represent the rookies, the money will always flow in one direction.
Perhaps emboldened by the ease with which they suspended Carrillo, MLB now wants to suspend major league players on the same charges and with the same evidence. All of a sudden, the MLBPA “has every interest in both defending the rights of players and in defending the integrity of our joint program.” This includes protecting players like Alex Rodriguez, who has already admitted to use of PEDs and avoided suspension. He has more talent than Cesar Carrillo, however, so he’ll get the appeal that Carrillo was denied.
Concession Workers on Strike
Carrillo, at least, has had the opportunity to play in the major leagues, and he drew a $400,000 salary in 2009. While that certainly doesn’t guarantee that he’ll be financially secure for life, or even that his suspension won’t put him in a difficult financial position, it is approximately 40 times what the average concessions employee at AT&T Park, the home of the San Francisco Giants, can expect to earn in a year. Slate magazine reports that “many of the concession workers live in low-income housing, they can travel up to two hours each direction in order to work an event, and they have multiple jobs to supplement their income.” However, their last raise came over four years (and two Giants World Series victories) ago, and new restrictions being introduced in their contract negotiations threaten to make health care more difficult to attain. When the concession workers held a vote to authorize a strike, it passed with 97% of the vote.
The concessions workers are not employees of the Giants but of external vendor Centerplate; however, that doesn’t make the Giants’ refusal to comment on negotiations any less shameful. As a major client, putting any sort of pressure on Centerplate to treat their workers with respect would alter the fiscal calculus for the company. The MLBPA has also been silent on the issue, though the high profile of its members would surely grab public attention and help to sway public opinion. While the Players Association isn’t scared to show solidarity with other unions — and should be commended for doing so — it ignores rights violations that occur in the same workplace as its members. Concessions workers are as fundamental to the magic and attraction of the ballpark experience as the players (“Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack!”), and the MLBPA should be among their most vocal supporters.
The workers are organized under Unite Here! Local 2, and you can learn about their struggle and take action at www.thegiantzero.org.
A Preventable Death
Nothing compares to the terrible conditions in which South and Central American Major League prospects toil. While the NCAA and Minor League Baseball systems may be exploitative in their own right, they at least provide a crucial level of protection for young players. Outside of American laws and the public eye, however, nothing prevents teams from cutting every corner in their attempt to find and develop talent as cheaply as possible. A shocking report from the March/April 2013 issue of Mother Jones illustrates just how bad things can get at team-sponsored training academies:
Conditions at some academies were substandard and even dangerous. When the Nationals’ [international scouting director Johnny] DiPuglia was starting out with the St. Louis Cardinals in the mid-1990s, his players slept eight to a room and navigated a field full of rocks and the occasional goat. In his book, Stealing Lives, [lawyer Arturo] Marcano told the story of a player named Alexi Quiroz and his path through the Chicago Cubs’ Dominican academy, a place the ballplayers referred to as “Vietnam.” There, 19 teenage boys shared one bathroom without running water, a drunk coach allegedly threatened them with a gun, and, after Quiroz separated his shoulder playing shortstop one day, he was treated by a street doctor who stomped on the joint to pop it back into place, ending his career.
If you’re one of the small fraction of academy attendees — 2.6% in Dominican academies — that actually graduates to play in the Major Leagues, you can rest assured that the MLBPA will fight for your income, benefits, and standard of living. For everyone else, these sweatshop-like conditions are the closest they’ll come to their dreams of baseball glory.
Yewri Guillén, a shortstop in the Washington Nationals’ Dominican academy, almost became one of the lucky ones. A hot prospect even at 16, he had been about to move to the United States and enter the Nationals’ minor league system when he received a year-long suspension from Major League Baseball for allegedly lying about his birthday. While his lawyers fought the charge, Guillén lived and trained without pay at the academy. His contract was finally authorized at the beginning of 2011, but Guillén was already experiencing the first symptoms of a violent illness. From Mother Jones:
Guillén’s aunt and uncle rushed him to the Clínica Abreu, the capital’s best private hospital. But because his contract hadn’t been finalized he didn’t have health insurance, and he was refused treatment when his family couldn’t come up with the $1,300 admission fee. His aunt and uncle moved him to a more affordable Cuban-Dominican clinic nearby, where he was admitted on April 8. The doctors diagnosed bacterial meningitis. Guillén later had surgery to drain brain fluid, but the disease had progressed too far. On April 15, the day he was to leave for the United States, Yewri Guillén died.
… There wasn’t a certified athletic trainer, let alone a doctor, to evaluate Guillén at the Nationals’ academy, a spartan training camp with cinder-block dorms. No one from the team accompanied him to Santo Domingo or intervened when he couldn’t get into the Clínica Abreu. (The club didn’t cover the costs of his treatment until after he was admitted to the Cuban-Dominican clinic.) And following Guillén’s death, the club required his parents to sign a release before handing over his signing bonus and life insurance money—a document also stating that they would never sue the team or its employees.
The greatest interest that the Washington Nationals or Major League Baseball ever took in Yewri Guillén was to make sure that their own interests were covered — a story heard all too frequently in corporate America. The solution to corporate neglect is organized labor, but the only union in the industry shows no interest in expanding their purview to protect the most powerless. Guillén was a boy who died a preventable death, and his blood, as well as the sweat and tears of thousands of exploited workers in across the baseball economy, stains the hands of Major League Baseball and the MLBPA.
A Moral Responsibility
The MLBPA did not spring fully-formed out of the mind of Marvin Miller or Donald Fehr. The hard work of hundreds of union leaders and players is necessary to sustain and empower it, but it is far from sufficient. The MLBPA exists because centuries of striking workers faced violence and poverty to nurture the labor movement in the United States, sacrificing themselves in ways most Major League players cannot possibly imagine. Their right to sign bountiful contracts was paid for by New York garment workers and Colorado miners, who died needlessly through neglect or malice and showed this nation the importance of worker solidarity.
The Players Association must be the voice of organized labor in the baseball world. It must support unions like Unite Here! Local 2 in their fight for fair treatment. It must use its leverage to combat exploitation, from Major League stadiums to Caribbean sandlots. By exercising their freedom to bargain collectively, the members of the MLBPA inherit a staggering moral responsibility; confining their efforts to only the most privileged members of the baseball hierarchy is a wanton betrayal.