Aaron Senne played first base and some outfield in the lower levels of the Marlins’ minor league system from 2010-13, never getting above Single-A. After going 2-for-25 to start the 2013 season with the Jupiter Hammerheads, Senne never played another professional game. The fact that you’ve never heard of him, unless you follow the southeastern Minnesota high school baseball scene, the University of Missouri, or extreme Marlins organizational minutiae, is kind of the point.
But the 29-year-old former farmhand’s name is on the court case that could change everything about the way baseball does business, Senne v. Office of the Commissioner of Baseball. A ruling on Tuesday by U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero in San Francisco allowed the case to proceed as a class action, with the next steps being a case schedule proposal due from both sides by April 28, and a case management conference on May 12.
Spero’s ruling certified as a class players who were in the Single-A California League, spring training, instructional league or extended spring training since Feb. 7, 2011, without having previously signed a Major League deal. Players must have played at least seven days in California, Arizona or Florida, and since spring training is included, you’re talking about thousands of players who can stand with Senne and seek fair pay for their work.
Really, any pay for their work. Embarrassing as it is in an industry as lucrative as baseball that so many players make four figures, minor leaguers only get paid at all during the regular season. Major League Baseball’s position has been that the minor leagues are, in Commissioner Rob Manfred’s words last year, “more like apprenticeship programs or artistic pursuits where there are explicit exceptions to the wage and hour requirements” of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
The restoration of class-action status to the lawsuit – rebuffed by Spero last July with room to reconsider if the scope of the class was narrowed, as has now been done – means that it’s once again a big headache for MLB to deal with. Regardless of how things go in court, there is nothing but bad PR ahead for baseball because, well, how could there not be? Even the most generous analysis of the current situation is that baseball is exploiting a legal loophole to avoid giving real money to those hoping to make it to the highest level of the sport. Every time this case comes up in the news – and it will come up – it’s not a case of billionaires sticking it to millionaires, which for some reason is seen as totally acceptable – but of billionaires sticking it to nobodies, which strikes a chord with the public.
There is one aspect of this that’s confusing, and it’s why there isn’t a different version of Moneyball playing out somewhere in America, not with the Oakland A’s, but with a more well-heeled club.
Minor leaguers are, not just ostensibly but rather concretely, the future of baseball. While top prospects – first-round picks and ballyhooed international signees – come in with big signing bonuses, everyone else is on straight-up starvation wages. There should be an advantage to be had for a team willing to shell out more dollars for talent that has not yet matured.
Consider it an investment: a minor leaguer getting paid $50,000 annually instead of $7,500 during the summer should be able to afford such things as an offseason gym membership and meals with actual nutritional value instead of fast food, while also spending the entire year devoted to baseball rather than spending the winter trying to make ends meet, a boost to mental health – after all, no lesser a player than Yogi Berra teaches that 90% of the game is half mental.
The Yankees are paying $21 million this year to Alex Rodriguez not to play for them. That’s a special case, to be sure, but if the Bronx Bombers decided to take such a sum of money on an annual basis and give it to players not playing in New York, every player in the Yankees’ farm system could collect a salary upwards of $80,000.
The minor leaguers in the Senne case aren’t looking for $80,000 a year, just for their profession to be included under FLSA requirements. But the Yankees and their big-market brethren should be thinking this way. Especially as MLB pushes ever closer to a de facto salary cap with the collective bargaining agreement’s luxury taxes, teams with financial might have to either find a way to use it, or just collect greater profits. As appealing as the latter option may be, the benefits of getting a step ahead of the competition by better fostering a team’s own young talent – cheaper when it gets to the major league level than signing star free agents – should be even greater.