TAMPA, Fla. — Pitch after pitch sizzled in, popping like gunfire as they blasted into catcher Jorge Saez’s glove.
On a muggy Sunday last month, the day before position players were due to report to the Yankees’ spring-training facility, veteran left-hander Rex Brothers worked from one of six mounds under a corrugated steel roof adjacent to the right-field bullpen at Steinbrenner Field. Like many professional pitchers these days, Brothers can hurl baseballs at speeds rare in the game as recently as a decade ago. He made only 12 pitches in his lone big-league outing of 2018 and did not retire a single batter, but 11 of those pitches registered between 96 and 98 mph.
In the early phase of his spring-training bid for a bullpen spot, Brothers threw to Saez, a 28-year-old former 32nd-round draft pick who has not yet played above Class AA ball. And though it was still more than a month before teams would be ready for regular-season action, the velocity on Brothers’ fastballs appeared impossible.
Saez simply caught them and tossed them back. All down the row, the other catchers in Yankees camp did the same for other pitchers. Their abilities behind the plate are obvious, practiced, rarified, and, for the length of spring training, uncompensated.
“I’ll get paid in the season,” said Saez, who re-upped with the Yankees on a minor-league deal this winter and is about to enter his eighth year in pro ball.
Saez is one of seven catchers with the big-league Yankees this spring. The Yankees will not use seven catchers in the Major Leagues this season unless something goes terribly awry. They used three catchers in the bigs in 2018, all of whom are back for this year. Of the 30 MLB teams, only the Minnesota Twins used seven catchers at the Major League level last year — and only because one got hurt, two got traded, and one was Joe Mauer catching a single pitch in the final game of his career.
The Yankees have 22 pitchers on their 40-man roster and 11 more in camp on non-roster invites. They used 26 different pitchers in 2018, and only four clubs in the Majors used fewer. Most teams used 30 or more.
Pitchers and catchers arrive to Major League camps before position players because the pitchers need extra time to get ready for the season and because without catchers, to paraphrase Casey Stengel, there would be a lot of passed balls. Teams bring so many extra pitchers to camp because they’re likely going to need them. Teams bring so many extra catchers to camp because someone’s going to need to catch those pitchers.
Like all players in camp, the catchers will earn no more than per diem stipends during the month and a half they spend in mandatory preparation for the regular season. Baseball players do not get paid for spring training.
And it’s players in Saez’s situation — catchers participating in big-league camp by non-roster invitation — who best expose the preposterous claim Major League Baseball actively works to validate in legislation: Spring training, the league would have you believe, does not constitute work.
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“This isn’t the late 1800s”
Baseball players have never been paid for spring training. And that they should endure it unsalaried is more than just a relic of Major League Baseball’s ages-old structure. It is a reality the sport strives to maintain.
For guys assured of big-league jobs and the guarantee of at least the $555,000 Major League minimum salary during the season, it’s more of a technicality than a hardship. But not every player in Grapefruit and Cactus League clubhouses can count on April windfalls. Minor league players earn salaries that amount to less than minimum wage for up to seven years on their first pro contracts, and the rigorous spring-training schedule doesn’t exactly allow time for moonlighting.
After a lobbying effort by MLB, last year’s $1.3 trillion congressional spending bill — signed into law by President Donald Trump in March — included an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act to exempt minor-league baseball players from federal minimum-wage protection. The so-called Save America’s Pastime Act, originally introduced in 2016 by a pair of congresspersons who received campaign donations from MLB’s PAC, appeared on page 1,967 of the 2,232 omnibus 2018 spending bill.
This winter, the league endorsed a bill in the Arizona House of Representatives to extend the federal exemption into state law in Arizona, the spring-training home for half of Major League teams. Representative T.J. Shope, who sponsored the bill, told the Arizona Capitol Times in January that spring training is “essentially a tryout,” even though all players training in every camp are already under contract with their organizations.
Shope told For The Win by email that the Arizona bill did not pass and “was probably dead before it began.” It didn’t get out of committee, meaning it never reached the statehouse floor for a vote.
That dead bill, like the inclusion of the Save America’s Pastime Act in the 2018 budget, undoubtedly reflects Major League Baseball’s efforts to combat a lawsuit first filed in 2014. Spearheaded by St. Louis-based attorney and former minor-league pitcher Garrett Broshuis, the suit seeks to apply federal minimum-wage laws to the salaries of minor leaguers. Pro players in low minor-league levels make as little as $1100 a month, only get paid during the regular season, and do not receive overtime compensation.
“MLB has signed these players up to seven-season employment contracts,” Broshuis said by phone this week. “They’re enjoying the benefits of controlling these players for seven years. On the contract, it calls them employees. They have a responsibility to treat them as normal employees should be treated. They can’t enjoy the benefits of it and not be required to meet the responsibilities that come with it.
“When the employer requires you to work, you should be paid for it. This isn’t the late 1800s. We’re in the 21st century, and MLB needs to update its labor policy just like every other company in the country has done. A lot of times these players are working 31 or 32 straight days during spring training, and a lot of times it’s 10 hours a day.”
MLB did not respond to a request for comment for this article. After first announcing its support for the Save America’s Pastime Act in June of 2016, Major League Baseball released a statement that argued, “Being a Minor League Baseball player is not a career but a short-term seasonal apprenticeship.” The “season” in question lasts six months, the first of which — spring training — is unpaid.
Since 2017, Broshuis has been awaiting a ruling on class status from the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit before his case can proceed.
“You’re like, ‘(expletive!)’”
By the standards of minor league catchers in spring training, guys like Saez are the lucky ones.
MLB organizations split players into Major League and minor league camps. According to the sport’s collective bargaining agreement, only non-roster players with enough service time to be eligible for salary arbitration — “Super Two” players and above — receive the weekly expense allowances extended to rostered big-leaguers in spring training, but all players in Major League uniform for Cactus or Grapefruit League games get $95.50 in meal money for that day.
At minor-league camp — which opens in earnest this week for many clubs — players are expected to thrive on no salary, a team-provided breakfast and lunch, and a food allowance of $25 a day.
Recently retired minor leaguers no longer vying for advancement in professional baseball can speak bluntly on the topic without fear it will get them flagged as ingrates or malcontents.
“It’s almost funny, but it’s not funny when you’re there,” said Eric Sim, who attended four spring trainings as a catcher and one as a pitcher during his six-season pro career. “You’re like, ‘(expletive!)’ It’s brutal.
“You get the (minor league) meal money, and you pretty much have to survive off that. That’s all you get. You pretty much go to happy hour and get the best deal possible. For me, I’d just work and save up all the money in the offseason, and use that to help me out in spring.”
Minor league players covet the luxuries that come with even one day on the big-league side.
Sim spent only parts of two days in Major League camp in his six seasons in affiliated pro ball — once to shag flies in batting practice and once to serve as a catcher while big-leaguers did baserunning drills. But he fondly recalled seeing the extensive salad bar enjoyed by his Major League colleagues, and the respite it offered from his typical spring-training diet.
During his playing days in the Giants organization, catcher Matt Paré often satirized the plight of the low-level ballplayer on his YouTube channel, Homeless Minor Leaguer. For him, spring training actually represented a rare chance to save money: He lived for free in Arizona with a family he knew from his time at Boston College, so he was able to pocket the stipend the club provided for players living away from the team hotel.
Sim found a more creative way to make an income during camp.
“I’ve had buddies steal balls and bats from the club and sell them, but I didn’t do (expletive) like that,” he said. “I’d just wait until some of the big-leaguers came down for rehab and (expletive). Every time I’d catch big-leaguers, they obviously use big-league balls — they don’t use minor league balls. When they’re done, they don’t give a (expletive) if I keep the ball or not. So, hey, I’ll keep most of those balls. Then I sold them on eBay for like $60 and blew it all on three days of good eating. It was pretty (expletive) awesome.”
And catching in minor-league camp, Saez explained, is even more challenging than doing so with the big-league Yankees this spring.
“This is relatively easy compared to minor league camp,” said Saez, who is in his third Major League spring training. “Minor league camp, you get a lot more pitchers — a lot more guys. Here, it’s much better pitching. More catchers, less pitchers. It’s a better workload per person.”
“There’s a million (expletive) pitchers you’ve got to catch,” said Sim of his experiences in minor league camp. “It’s not easy.”
“It can put you in a burden”
Baseball’s stark income disparity is not only on display when millionaire Major League pitchers slum it on the minor league side for extra work, but also inside minor league clubhouses. Early-round draft picks and top-flight international signees command seven-figure signing bonuses while their colleagues selected in later rounds of the draft struggle to make ends meet.
Sim, a 27th-round draft pick in 2010, first signed with the Giants for $15,000. He recalled being excited upon receiving much of it in the form of a $4,000 check at his first spring training, only to learn that the player with the locker next to his got a check for $400,000.
He said he spent the bulk of his bonus in a season that saw him assigned to extended spring training (during which players remain unsalaried), then 2 1/2 months’ worth of short-season minor league ball, then sent for another unpaid month in “instructs” — instructional-league play — leaving him with a shorter offseason in which to save money.
Reminded of MLB’s claim that spring training and minor league play is an apprenticeship and not a career, he minced no words.
“That’s (expletive),” said Sim, who last played in the affiliated minors in 2015 and now manages a bar in British Columbia. “It’s insane. Every day in the (expletive) minor leagues is a job. I don’t think it should be considered not a job. Pro ball is a career.”
Lane Adams, a 29-year-old outfielder drafted in the 13th round out of high school in 2009, said he has been lucky enough in his life and career that he never needed to scrape to get by financially in the minors. But he has seen the toll that low pay can take on fellow ballplayers.
“It can put you in a burden,” Adams said at Phillies camp in Clearwater, Florida. “You want to be playing baseball, you’ve got to have your focus on what you’re trying to accomplish and your preparation, and you’re paid less than minimum wage — it’s hard to focus, especially if you have loved ones you’re trying to fight for. And in this game, nothing’s guaranteed. You can work your butt off for years and never have a meaningful payday. It’s very unfortunate, and it could be resolved. It should be resolved.
“I think it would benefit organizations and baseball as a whole if you just gave them a livable wage, where it takes a little pressure off people and gives them more opportunity to focus on what their main goal is in baseball, instead of being so worried every day about their livelihood, and how they’re going to pay for the next meal.”
Paré reveled in the challenges and opportunities that came with a frugal, itinerant minor-league lifestyle during his tenure in pro baseball. But he now works in the entertainment industry and said that his experiences in a new and similarly competitive field have opened his eyes to a reality that distinguishes minor-league baseball players from the aspiring actors and musicians to whom they’re sometimes compared: There are many more paths to success in Hollywood.
“It’s the only vertical: You play tee-ball, you play little league, then you play Babe Ruth, then you play high school, then you play college, then you play pro ball, then you play in the big leagues,” said Paré, who was released last March after playing five seasons in the minors. “When something is so vertical that way and you know the steps you need to take, you’re not going to push back, like, ‘Well, what if I did something different?’ Because that’s how it’s always been, and that’s how you have to do it if you want to achieve your goals.”
Minor league players are not represented by the Major League Baseball Players Association. Minor league hockey players do have a union, and they earn minimum salaries more than four times larger than those of Class AAA baseball players, with a far bigger travel per diem.
But unionizing a group as large and disparate — financially, geographically, politically, and ethnically — as minor league baseball players can seem like a potentially insurmountable hurdle inside a cautious sport that cherishes its traditions and values a team-first mentality.
“We’re shoulder to shoulder, making each other better,” said Phillies non-roster invite Rob Brantly, when asked if he felt he and his fellow catchers went under-appreciated in spring training. “The goal is to get a big-league spot, but we’re all going to buy in to the ethic: We’re all trying to compete for a championship. If someone goes down, the next guy’s got to be ready.”
“They’re here in camp and they get an opportunity,” said Philadelphia closer David Robertson, when presented with the notion that non-roster catchers go unpaid in spring.
“This is the time you do the most work”
Spring training, undoubtedly, does represent an opportunity for aspiring Major Leaguers to show off their abilities to the organizations that control their fates. But opportunities and fair pay do not have to be mutually exclusive, and teams rely on catchers for services that will pay dividends on the pitcher’s mound during the regular season no matter who’s behind the plate.
“It’s weird,” Adams said. “This is the time you do the most work. This is the time you’re up before sunrise, and this is the time you don’t get paid — especially as a catcher. As a catcher in spring training, you’re the busiest guy. Outside of the coaching staff, you’re the busiest guy in camp.”
A catcher’s spring responsibilities obviously extend beyond his role in improving his team’s pitchers, as he is also expected to work on improving all phases of his own game.
“It’s pretty brutal for a catcher,” said Sim. “You do early work — different blocking drills and (expletive) like that — then, after, you’ve got to catch a bunch of ‘pens during batting practice. For B.P., you’re usually the last group. As a pitcher, you pretty much just show up, throw a bunch, do your conditioning, eat lunch, shag flies and go home.”
“A different breed”
While Brothers threw in Tampa, about a dozen Yankees coaches and staffers lined the perimeter of the fluorescent-lit facility, wearing uniforms or team-branded polos or sport coats and chatting among themselves as they looked on. A few huddled around a computer monitor on a table behind the row of mounds.
Major League Baseball is in the thick of a revolution in pitcher development as teams and players increasingly employ new technologies to improve their offerings and unlock extra ticks on the radar guns. Virtually every club in the league uses spring training as an opportunity to collect valuable data on pitchers, and practically every scrutinized pitch lands in the glove of an inordinately adept backstop who is essentially doing volunteer work in the service of a $10.3 billion industry.
As Brothers transitioned into honing his breaking stuff, a different catcher passed behind Saez and offered a brief scouting report on the pitcher with whom he’d been working: “Great curveball,” he said, “but he bounces it sometimes.” Brothers’ secondary offering, it appeared, could be described similarly: It broke swiftly and sharply, and on occasion, it skipped off the ground just behind home plate before bouncing safely into Saez’s target.
“Obviously you talk to other catchers to kind of get a feel for what guys have,” Saez said. “They help you out because you don’t want to be surprised by anything crazy. There’s not really that many things that should be surprising us, but you still want to have an idea of what this guy’s ball does.”
“It takes a different breed to be a catcher,” said Robertson. “They’re taking lumps from us constantly. They’re tough guys.”
Coaches and pitchers rely on their backstops’ expertise and feedback throughout the preseason and regular season, as catchers, logically, develop as strong a sense as anyone in an organization of how pitches appear from 60’6″ away.
“It’s definitely the best fastball I’ve ever caught,” Saez said when asked about closer Aroldis Chapman’s record-breaking heat. “It’s explosive. That thing feels like he’s throwing it from 20 feet away. His fastball feels like you’re catching a 10-ounce ball instead of a five-ounce ball. When he decides to rip one, glove-side, and it gets some cut — yeah, that’s very difficult. But we train ourselves to catch. We do a lot of stuff so we’re not overwhelmed by a quality fastball.”
Saez made it clear that he is grateful to be at spring training with the Yankees. While he said he does sometimes think about the stability enjoyed by friends in more traditional careers, he loves playing baseball and sees spring training as a chance to improve his game and advance closer to the Majors.
“I’m super appreciative,” he said. “I know the role that I signed up for when I came to the Yankees. I know what I’m here for. I’m here to get better and prepare myself, so if I do get that opportunity, I can make the most of it.”
“Every stone plays a part”
At the end of spring training in 2016, Paré tweeted screenshots of his Fitbit app’s monthly summary. The fitness tracker showed that he had walked the equivalent of 172.79 miles, that he burned an average of 4,349 calories a day, and that he did not have a single day off during his time at Giants camp in Scottsdale, Arizona. He was not paid for any of it.
“It’s a nuanced thing, and it’s part of a larger conversation about baseball in general, but the thing is: Spring training is not optional,” said Paré. “It’s not an optional thing. You have to show up.
“Working in a real job now — you have rights as an employee. I didn’t know that as much when I was a player. The nature of athletics is, things are taken care of for you. You’re in suspended adolescence for a while. You’re not going to learn a lot of real-life things, and your rights and everything that goes along with that, because that’s how it’s always been: You’re just lucky to play baseball.”
Sometime later this spring, several high-profile and well-paid Major League starters will skip Grapefruit and Cactus League starts in favor of pitching in minor-league spring training games on the less glitzy side of his team’s facility. Elsewhere, a prominent Major League position player rehabbing a spring injury will use minor league games to take extra at-bats in hastened preparation for the season.
It happens every year in practically every camp. Some pitchers don’t like facing opponents who they’ll soon see in the regular season in meaningless exhibitions, and others need work in minor-league spring games to properly line up their start schedules for opening day. Hitters need reps, and playing in minor-league games or in simulated games against minor leaguers allows them to see far more pitches than they could in more formal play on the Major League side.
By serving those Major League Baseball players, those games serve Major League Baseball and its teams. They necessitate extremely talented professional ballplayers, because it would be pointless to have a Major Leaguer work to hone his craft against anyone else. And every single one of the games includes a handful of players who will spend years of their lives in dedication to the sport and come away with little more than debt and good stories. The same when big leaguers head to the minors for rehab games during the regular season.
This much seems inarguable: Major League Baseball is better for the contributions of people it pays less than minimum wage. Players — especially pitchers — benefit in spring training from the sweat, energy and skill of minor league catchers with no promise of a big-league roster spot.
Sim never played in the Majors. Paré never played in the Majors. Saez may never play in the Majors.
“Every stone plays a part in putting together a foundation for a house,” said Broshuis, who spent parts of six seasons in the minors before law school. “It’s no different with your minor league ballplayers.”