written by Ray Glier
published on April 3, 2017
Feature photo courtesy of the South Bend Cubs
For now, Nathan Bates, Joey Roach and Matt Rose are focusing on the bliss of playing a game and getting paid for it. The former Georgia State baseball players are in minor league baseball and making a pittance of a salary, but they would rather be nowhere else, except of course, the major leagues.
They make less than minimum wage — Bates figures about $3.50 an hour — and they endure 10-hour work days, long bus rides and cramped living arrangements. These things are not a hardship, at least for the time being. They are hope-filled ballplayers, so they would kiss a hot iron to stay in baseball as long as they can.
There is a cloud moving in, though. Bates, Roach and Rose (above, batting for the South Bend Cubs) could be players in a historic upsetting of the apple cart. Garrett Broshuis, a former minor leaguer, is a lawyer and he is suing Major League Baseball because of the pitiful wages given minor leaguers.
The suit declares that baseball is in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Class A players make about $1,100 a month, Broshuis said. Class AA players make about $1,500. Players in the NBA’s developmental league can make $12,000 to $24,000 a year.
Broshuis wants to create a union for minor leaguers. Major League Baseball teams are worth an average of $1.2 billion, according to Forbes, and minor leaguers are part of the value. Needless to say, the league is fighting the suit.
Bates, a 6-foot-8 pitcher, is a happy warrior for the Los Angeles Angels, but his story is exactly why the lawsuit was filed.
A 15th-round draft pick in 2015, Bates played Class A ball in Orem, Utah last summer and hopes to be assigned to higher Class A ball in San Bernardino following 2017 spring training. He makes about $1,100 a month for about seven months a year.
In January, the Angels asked Bates to come to Arizona for spring training a month early to continue a “weighted ball” throwing program he started in fall 2016. The Angels were not going to pay for his travel, his lodging, his meals or his time for showing up a month early. Bates went anyway. It’s what minor leaguers — with no union — must do.
For a month, Bates shared an apartment in Scottsdale, Ariz., with five other players. They each pay $250 a month. Bates got the short straw. He is sleeping on the couch, and curled up because he is 6-8.
Bates shrugs at the inconvenience. If the floor was the only option that is where he would be.
“I didn’t tell my mother about the couch situation,” said Bates, 22, from Fayetteville, Ga. “I don’t need to give her anything else to worry about.”
Bates is aware of the lawsuit and the push to unionize minor leaguers. He said he and some teammates were playing cards in the locker room in Utah last summer when they decided to do the math. They logged their hours, figured out after-tax take-home pay, and settled on the number: they were making $3.50 an hour. A pizza delivery guy makes more than $3.50 an hour.
The caretakers of professional baseball argue that the minor league players are seasonal employees and they are expected to go home and work six months a year. But it’s not that easy.
“How many people are hiring six-month employees?” Bates said. “They are looking for full-time help.”
Besides, he said, the offseason for a professional athlete consists of working out five days a week three hours or more a day.
Bates received a $100,000 signing bonus from the Angels. After taxes, it was $60,000. He invested almost all of it, which is a good thing, because if he had known how little his paycheck would be he might be spending the bonus.
Roach, a 23-year-old catcher, was picked in the 31st round of the 2016 draft by the Tampa Bay Rays. He worked at a John Deere facility in North Carolina in the offseason building tractors so he would have some money to start his first full season in the minors.
“I’ve yet to see a downside,” Roach said. “I’m living the dream, playing minor league baseball. This is a stepping stone. I’m seeing a lot of baseball, playing a lot of baseball, taking every step with open arms.”
You can’t knock Roach off his spot talking about the pittance for all his sweat. He loves baseball, warts and all.
“It is very rewarding. Every athlete believes in themselves, that they are going to be the one to make it,” Roach said. “It’s rewarding, yet humbling. You get to know the game on a different level, then you move to the next level and learn something else. That’s the coolest thing to me.”
On the labor issue, Roach is nonetheless grateful someone is pressing a case.
“It’s important to have a union and people looking out for you,” he said. “I’m glad people are advocating for us.”
Rose, an 11th-round pick of the Chicago Cubs in 2015, is targeting high Class A ball in the Carolina League in Myrtle Beach this summer. He already had a thrilling moment. In a spring training game in 2016 he got a hit off San Francisco Giants ace Madison Bumgardner.
“Well, they gave me a hit,” Rose said. “It was a chopper down the third base line. He fumbled it, I think. But the Giants had their regular guys out there, (Matt) Duffy was at third, (Buster) Posey was catching.”
The shine of professional baseball is still bright for Rose. After all, he is playing for the world champion Cubs. Big league manager Joe Maddon sets a positive tone, along with general manager Theo Epstein. The Cubs are one of the few organizations that have a full-time nutritionist for each minor league team, Rose said. He is fed hefty meals before each game.
“I’m playing for the love of the game,” Rose said. “That’s your driver. I want to see if I can make it to the show.”
That cloud — long days, short pay — never seems to be big enough, or dark enough, to block the path.