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St. Paul Saints, Minor-League salaries, and the Senate

Or how the sausage gets made, baseball-style.

Budget Impasse Shuts Minnesota Government Down
I used to live a long par-5 from this building. But I don’t play golf.
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Over at the Pioneer Press, S. M. Chavey delivered a fascinating story on Thursday, “Saint Paul Saints seek minimum wage exemption.” Before you freak out (aren’t the Saints good guys?), be aware this wouldn’t apply to concession workers or any other “regular” employees — just the baseball players.

The city of Saint Paul is considering raising their minimum wage to $15/hr, and some Saints players would be under that amount given their puny independent-league contracts. The American Association, the league Saint Paul plays in, sets a hard salary cap of $115K for 24-man rosters, and veterans get paid more than newer players. The range is set at $800-$4000 per month.

Chavey links to this excellent USA Today article from last year, about a Mets farmhand who joined several other MiLBers in suing MLB over sub-minimum-wage pay. The player, Kyle Johnson, lost, and now doesn’t appear to be anywhere in baseball that I could find. Another suit with more players is currently in legal limbo, but they’ll probably lose, too. As a judge ruling against Johnson put it:

“it is undeniably true that minor league baseball — particularly the employment of minor league baseball players and the requirement that they sign a uniform contract containing a reserve clause — falls squarely within baseball’s exemption from federal antitrust laws.”

Ah, yes, the antitrust exemptions. These date back 100 years and have been challenged several times, most famously by Curt Flood in 1969 (he lost, despite supporting testimony from idiosyncratic team owner Bill Veeck — father of Saints owner Mike Veeck). When baseball players finally won free agency, it was because of their union, not the law.

MiLB players have no union. Their salaries are negotiated with and paid by the parent clubs, but players are not represented by the MLBPA until they play in the big leagues. (As the USA Today article notes, NHL minor-leaguers do have a union, and receive a minimum yearly salary of $45K; MLB teams could pay all their farmhands $30K for about $7.5 mil per organization.)

Even if players ever win a lawsuit against MLB, these are the “gig economy” days — the league would probably find a way to classify them as “self-employed independent contractors” or some such. So don’t expect minor-league guys to get fairly paid anytime soon. Anyhoo...

The Saints, being unaffiliated with MLB, have no antitrust exemption. Still, I imagine they’ll find some way to work this out. After all, they received a small chunk of change from the city and state; nobody wants to see GloboChem Field (or whatever it’s called) stand empty this summer.

The Room Where It Happens

Panic, though, must have motivated the Saints to seek legislative support from the state (which, after all, hasn’t busted the team before for violating Minnesota minimum-wage requirements). So they got a state Senator from St. Paul to sponsor a bill.

If you remember Schoolhouse Rock, the way this works is the bill is proposed before a Senate Committee. The committee can then approve this bill for vote by the full legislature, or reject it.

Chavey linked to video of this conference committee, and I watched it, because I geek out on political process the way Joe Mauer does over millennial pop stars. The thing was like a courtroom drama, if courtroom dramas were mind-numbingly slow — it had lots of Plot Twists. You can watch the video here, if you wish ... but because I did, you don’t have to.

15:55 — Let the festivities begin! Saints GM Derek Sharrer faces the Committee Of Nine with his sponsor, Senator St. Paul. They explain how the Saints are under a salary cap, how MLB minor-league players aren’t covered by labor laws, etc. Apparently, neither are Minnesota workers at carnivals, ski sites, and some other jobs. I feel very happy about failing to learn to ski.

The Committee take turns asking basic informational questions, none seem too opposed to the bill.

24:41 — Senator North Minneapolis is getting a little annoyed at labeling the ballplayers “seasonal employment” and “trainees.” Basically, he wants Sharrer to admit the Saints want preferential treatment. Sharrer, wisely, defers to Senator St. Paul. He and North Minneapolis snip at each other for awhile. Senator St. Paul claims players make more than $15 an hour. (If so, why present the bill?)

35:09 — Senator South Metro shares that “I play a lot of basketball, and in basketball you basically get injured every time you play.” He then asks Sharrer how often baseball players get injured. Sharrer, dealing with a guy who clearly doesn’t know What Baseball Is, explains that injured players still get paid what their contract stipulates. South Metro accepts this, and says he’s willing to play for the Saints if they want him. Chuckles all around.

The committee chair interjects, “must be some rough basketball games.” South Metro admits he gets hurt a lot because he basically sucks at basketball. Nice bounceback, sir.

38:49 — Senator Madison Lake says, “I also played a lot of sports in my skinnier days, but we weren’t hurt that often; maybe a little tougher league.” DICK MOVE.

40:11 — Senator Shoreview brings the first real heat. He straight-up tells Sharrer that this business is between the team and the city, and he doesn’t think Minnesota should have a damn thing to do with it. He wishes the team success in their dealings with the city, and offers to put in a good word if that would help.

PLOT TWIST TIME! Shoreview then asks the committee’s legal whiz if this bill could apply to people working at other jobs. She says that, with amendments, it certainly could. Shoreview repeats his admiration for the Saints, but worries that less “magnanimous” organizations might take advantage of the bill.

46:01 — North Minneapolis gets the legal whiz to explain that other jobs with pay exemptions (those carnivals & ski sites) may not have to pay overtime ... but they do have to pay minimum wage. Senator St. Paul repeats his assertion that even the lowest-paid players would be at or near $15/hr. Sharrer explains what a Saints player’s schedule is like: eight hours a gameday, 100 games over four months.

(That’s 800 hours, not including travel time. For a player making $800 a month, that’s $4/hr. For a player making $4000, it’s $20. Big difference. Back to our show.)

St. Paul then wonders if workers at Target Field and Target Center get minimum wage. (Let ye without sin cast the first stone, you rapscallion! These two have a serious crosstown rivalry thing going.) North Minneapolis responds that, yes, those workers do. St. Paul jabbers through his defeat on this one.

And now, for the BIGGEST PLOT TWIST OF ALL...

56:16 — Senator Red Wing proposes an amendment to the bill. As soon as he does, South Metro epically rolls his eyes. He knows what’s coming. The amendment is distributed, the Committee Of Nine see it.

It’s about farm labor. Farm laborers in Minnesota earn overtime after 48 hours a week. Senator Red Wing wants them to get no overtime. Ever.

(This has nothing to do with two large agricultural companies in the Senator’s district getting fined bigtime last year for breaking overtime laws. Nothing whatsoever.)

1:00:38 — Shoreview knows the bill is now toast. He suggests it be shitcanned, or “tabled,” in officialese.

1:01:44 — South Metro: “My remarks are gonna be a little more crass, and I want to talk directly to Mr. Sharrer. Some people choose to play baseball, and some people choose to play politics; and that’s what’s happening right here. This amendment being added onto this bill would functionally defeat what you’re trying to accomplish. It’ll get nowhere, it’ll get vetoed, but this bill becomes dead in the water. And I think you should know that; that members who vote to put this amendment on are trying to defeat what you’re trying to do.”

Camera cuts to Sharrer. He has a look of pure, utter disillusionment. Schoolhouse Rock lied.

Red Wing fakes his best near-tears outrage voice; “this has nothing to do with politics.” He cares so much about “our farmers and our baseball players,” you see.

1:04:08 — Shoreview labels that “at best, disingenuous ... I’m pretty sure I called this happening before it did.” He slaps his mike away and scoots backwards angrily in his chair.

1:08:41 — The amendment is adopted.

1:09:00 — Senator St. Paul asks permission to withdraw the bill. It’s withdrawn. Bill dead.

Incidentally, the June 27th Saints promotional theme is “The Great Debate.” It’s a toilet paper drive. Over or under? Let the people decide.