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Minor leaguers could be paid minimum wage — and no more

As a freshman at the University of Missouri, Max Scherzer was not the most effective pitcher on his team. A senior named Garrett Broshuis went 11-0.

Scherzer became a first-round draft pick, threw two no-hitters, won three Cy Young awards and signed a contract that guarantees him $210 million.

The Broshuis story is much more common. He became a fifth-round pick, spent six years in the minor leagues and zero days in the major league. Millions were but a dream.

Broshuis went back to school. He got a law degree. In 2014, his firm filed a lawsuit that demanded minor leaguers be paid the minimum wage. The suit is ongoing.

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On Friday, Broshuis got the most hollow of victories. President Trump signed a funding bill that avoids another government shutdown. Buried within, on page 1,967, it notes that minor leaguers must be paid “a weekly salary equal to the minimum wage.”

First-year minor leaguers make $1,100 per month. That would rise to $1,160 under the new law, given the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

That is not what Broshuis had in mind when he filed suit. What he really wanted for minor leaguers were the protections that go along with the minimum wage. Work overtime, or six or seven days in a week, and the employer has to pay extra for it.

Baseball’s response: That would make quite a mess for major league teams, which pay minor league players.

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“Our principal problem in the minor league wage lawsuit is that the administration associated with paying the minimum wage in our context is just ridiculous,” Commissioner Rob Manfred told The Times last year.

“Where am I going to put the time clock? Who is punching in and punching out? When I decide I want to go work out and lift weights, is that overtime? What if I decide I want to take extra batting practice? A minimum wage worker at McDonald’s can’t decide, ‘Hey, you know, I feel like working a few more hours today, so I’m just going to stay on the clock.’ Our guys do those sorts of things all the time.”

Broshuis scoffs at the idea that timekeeping is keeping minor leaguers from making a fairer wage.

“Not everybody works in a factory anymore,” he said. “Industries of all different types have figured out a way to comply with wage and hour laws. MLB can find a way to do it. They are sophisticated businessmen.”

Manfred also hinted that some minor league teams might go out of business. If minor league players got a higher salary, then major league teams might respond by employing fewer of them.

“Minor league baseball would not exist were it not for the fact that we subsidize those player costs, to the tune of several hundred million dollars a year,” he said. “We’re already creating jobs that don’t make sense, given the revenue streams that are actually generated by minor league baseball.”

Minor league baseball would not thrive without taxpayer-funded stadiums that provide homes for the teams that promised to play there. In 2002, when MLB proposed killing the Minnesota Twins, the Twins’ landlord went to court and successfully enforced the lease requirement that the team actually play.

Nonetheless, baseball’s lobbyists found two congressmen who heeded MLB’s warnings, and the “Save America’s Pastime Act” was introduced two years ago. The purpose: Rather than hope the courts agree that baseball players are exempt from overtime rules because they are more seasonal apprentices than actual workers, rewrite the law to explicitly say so.

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One of the act’s co-sponsors backed away within 24 hours, amid a public outcry. That legislation died. But the lobbyists persisted, and this language is part of the bill Trump signed Friday: Minor leaguers do not need to be paid during spring training or the offseason and do not need to be paid for more than 40 hours per week “irrespective of the number of hours the employee devotes to baseball related activities.”

The text of the bill — all 2,232 pages of it — was released Wednesday night. The House of Representatives passed it Thursday morning. The Senate passed it Thursday night.

There was no hearing at which Congress could have heard testimony from the commissioner, and from a minor leaguer explaining why his workdays are too long to get a second job.

“They decided to try to take a more covert route,” Broshuis said. “They spent millions of dollars lobbying, and making contributions, and they were able to go through the back door and attach a minimum-wage exemption to a spending bill to keep the government open.

“This has nothing to do with the spending bill. It’s done in secret, in a rush, at the last minute, negotiated behind closed doors. It’s really quite appalling, the lack of process.”

The Major League Baseball Players Assn. has expressed little interest in welcoming minor leaguers as members — the interests of the membership might be too diverse, and the leverage of major leaguers could be diminished — or in helping the minor leaguers organize their own union.

However, the major league union quickly lined up with them Thursday.

“We stand shoulder to shoulder with the minor league players and the labor community in opposing this legislation,” executive director Tony Clark said in a statement to The Times.

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Manfred and other league officials have likened minor leaguers to artists, who already are exempt from overtime rules. Artists also might toil for long and irregular hours in the hope of making it big, but unproven artists seldom perform under contracts that restrict them from working for another employer for as long as seven years. In addition, the exemption applies only if artists make at least $455 per week — that is, $11.38 per hour.

Taylor Blake Ward, who covers the Angels minor league system for Scout Media, counted the number of hours a player works on game days, from lifting weights to reviewing scouting reports, from batting practice to the actual game. He calculated a player at the lowest levels of the minor leagues might earn as little as $4.63 per hour — with no pay during the winter months or spring training.

Manfred acknowledged last year that higher salaries could make the issue of how to account for all those extra rounds of batting practice moot.

“If what you’re saying is that money and administrative burden are separate issues, I recognize that is the case, and there might be a way you could settle it,” he said. “Right now, the litigation does not give us the opportunity to separate those two issues.”

“The litigation” was the suit Broshuis filed, which might be moot now that the bill has been signed.

It is too early to tell how the suit will be impacted, or how a new law might be implemented, including whether the federal or state minimum wage would prevail, raising the possibility a player could be forced into a pay cut by getting promoted from the Class A California League to the double-A Texas League.

Litigation might have opened the door to owners paying their minor leaguers a higher and uniform wage. The new law would give the owners the legal blessing to shut that door.

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin


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