August 20, 2015
Cribs, Dorms, Ballplayers in Swarms
There's a question that has always perplexed me as an analyst of baseball. Iterations of it have certainly perplexed others, and enough has been written on the topic to fill half a Barnes & Noble. You can add this article to the list, though my hope isn't necessarily to analyze the same issue that others have; I'm not going to look at what's fair, what's right, what players deserve. Rather, I'm going to envision a future that's better than what we have now.
The topic is life in the minor leagues. The question that has always perplexed me is why teams don't invest more in their minor-league facilities and players. There are countless components to this, many of which have been covered in great depth by writers with far greater talent and wit than I possess. Take, for example, this terrific analogy from our own Russell Carleton. It offers a perplexing question about the success rates for lower-pedigree minor-league players:
Think of a minor-league player as a seed. The major-league organization is the gardener. If a gardener waters the front row lovingly every day, but neglects to water the back row of the garden or weed it or put those tomato trellises up, then the seeds probably won't grow very well. Maybe some will (it might rain), but the odds aren't good. What if the gardener spent a little more time on that back row? Not all of those seeds would grow, but what if a few more did?
Russell Carleton, Why Are We Playing Hunger Games with Minor Leaguers?
The point Russell raises, that perhaps development is a function of focus—on behalf of the organization, not the player—rather than talent, is a good one. One of my favorite books when I was growing up, which still sits on my bookshelf at home next to the BP Annuals, is Dr. Seuss' The Lorax. There's a terrific quote in that book that applies to a whole range of topics, including minor-league baseball:
Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Some people do care a whole awful lot. And you should too. Russell has written about minor-league wages and the nutritional program for minor leaguers. He clearly cares. Aaron Senne, Michael Liberto, and Oliver Odle all care as well, having sued MLB and their parent clubs for proper wages. Gabe Kapler cared so much about minor leaguers that he had started to build a second career writing about minor leaguers before embarking on a third career with the Dodgers, actually implementing the issues he wrote about. (Mike Petriello profiled how Kapler's focus on healthy food has come to fruition.)
Why stop there, though?
I've always wondered why MLB teams haven't followed in the footsteps of major universities and corporations when addressing employee/student/player happiness. Let's take a corporate example first. A pioneer in employee welfare is Google, where the approach to "People Operations" has long been lauded by the media and public. Google is known for its exhaustive list of corporate perks. Three free meals a day, on-site laundry, child-care, free transportation, and many, many more are par for the course in the life of a "Googler." There is, of course, skepticism around these perks and Google's rationale for providing them. The reality is that the company has found positive correlations between healthy and happy employees and production. That's not just in the raw output these individuals can produce, but also in the quality of that work.
This concept has spread like wildfire, not just through Silicon Valley, but across the country. Employee perks are now immensely popular, with even the least likely of occupations offering Google-like amenities. CNN ran a profile on Google's perks, noting, "'The realization that there is a relationship between employee welfare and productivity is actually not new,' says Daniel A. Wren, author of Evolution of Management Thought."
The funny thing is that these perks aren't as expensive as one might think. Google's head of People Operations, Laszlo Bock, wrote a book on his time leading Google's version of HR titled Work Rules! Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead. In the book Laszlo remarks, "Most people assume Google spends a fortune doing special things for our employees. Aside from our cafes and shuttles, we don't. Most of the programs we use to delight and care for Googlers are free, or very close to it … And most would be easy for almost anyone to duplicate." Bock also provided a chart of Google's perks and the associated costs, which is included below courtesy of Business Insider:
Higher education deals with issues a bit closer to those that major-league teams might face in implementing these programs. Thousands of colleges and universities house and educate millions of young Americans every day for much of the year, something that has turned out to be a profitable business venture.
Some of these students, student-athletes in particular, enjoy an even higher standard of living with free meals, stipends for books and other expenses, and free housing, all of which is courtesy of the university for their free labor in various athletic pursuits, a primary driver of revenue for these schools. Still, there would likely be a demand for college sports regardless of the amenities offered by the programs.
Surely Oregon's absurd football facilities aid in recruitment, but the reality is that many schools across the country rival Oregon's lavish confines. Other traditional football powerhouses boast similar setups, with schools like Alabama or Tennessee offering similar experiences. And lest you think this level of luxury is only accessible to big-program football players, don't forget that small schools with solid basketball programs are keeping pace.
Where money is made, it's going to be spent. At least, that's how it is in college sports. There doesn't seem to be a ton of money trickling down from MLB to the minor leagues. The point of this column isn't to bemoan this fact. Instead, I aim to fix it, with some recommendations for future development.
I reached out to Colin Young, a veteran of the minor-league lifestyle, to help provide some perspective. Here are a few brief stories from Colin on life in the minors:
It was 1999 In Portland, Oregon, and I was playing short-season A-ball with the Portland Rockies. I lived with five other guys in a one-bedroom, one-bath, high-rise apartment in downtown Portland. We all slept in the living room on futon mattresses or sleeping bags while the "veteran" got the bedroom with his girlfriend. We were all making under $1k per month salary and living in a $700-per-month apartment. There was no privacy, no time to rest if guys went out and came back late, and sleeping on the floor took its toll on my overall well-being. Mentally it was draining, but I thought it was the norm.
Colin's account of life in the minors is depressing, but not surprising given what we already know about life in the minors. We've heard plenty of horror stories like Colin's, but these continued reminders only serve to reinforce the importance of addressing these issues.
My plan is to provide a dorm-like experience for players in the minor leagues in which the team provides nearly everything the players and their families would need for a happy and healthy existence.
The first step is for the team to provide housing. One hurdle is that minor-league teams regularly change team affiliations, but these facilities could be bought and sold or leased to another club if a team opts to move to a new affiliate. Teams could sell the asset if the new team in that city opts to build their own facility. A team like the Orioles, which has taken great care to bring all their minor-league affiliates as near as possible to the parent club, would especially benefit from the certainty associated with purchasing these facilities.
The dorm itself would need to be an approximately 50-unit apartment building that could house all the players, coaches, and necessary staff. It would incorporate communal space, as well as a large-scale commercial kitchen that would provide three meals a day that fit into the club's recommend nutritional plan. The facility could also have on-site medical services to supplement what is done at the ballpark.
This will require significant investment, but put it in the context of a major-league team. Next year the Colorado Rockies will have a new Double-A affiliate, the Hartford Yard Goats. Suppose the Rockies wanted to test this dormitory concept in a city that will play host to some of their best prospects next year.
They could start by purchasing an older building, like the 145 Sisson Ave. apartment building currently for sale in Hartford for $2.7 million, and retrofit it to fit their needs. If they pay full price for the facility, and subsequently spend another $1.5 million retrofitting it, their total tab would come to $4.2 million. Now all the players and their families (wives and children) are housed safely in an environment the team can control. Add in food, three meals a day for everyone that lives in the facility, and we're probably looking at another $500,000 for the year. Throw in a shuttle service to transport players the 2.1 miles from the apartment building to their new ballpark on top of furnishings for all the spaces and you've got a near–$5 million investment in year one.
Maybe the team wants to build something a bit nicer, acquiring the land and starting from scratch. That'll surely be more expensive, but it could be worth the investment to fully customize the facilities. The costs of the building would be amortized over a few decades, so the day-one cost is in that sense less than the $5 million we roughly put together above.
This, of course, isn't limited to Hartford. A cursory Internet search reveals plenty of buildings in other minor-league cities as well. Take the building pictured below with 18 units in Norfolk, Virginia. It can be had for $1.4 million, though it would only house about half the players the Orioles might have at their Triple-A affiliate. Other buildings (there are currently several 15-to-25-unit buildings available in Norfolk) could be acquired to house the rest of the players.
This addresses many of the issues that ballplayers face. They are all housed in one place, which would help with team bonding and additional coaching opportunities. There could also be training facilities in the building, so players wouldn't have to go off-site (and pay for a gym membership) to practice on a day off. Players could also stay in these facilities during the offseason, something that would solve some of the problems detailed by Dirk Hayhurst. It would also provide a better platform for soft-skill development, including language classes for both English and non-English speakers (English speakers would learn Spanish, non-English speakers would learn English), leadership development, and much more.
With an on-site kitchen and meals, the team would also solve a nutritional hurdle; minor leaguers are well known for their fast food or PB&J meal choices. Players could even be given a monthly stipend for a convenience shop located on premises that would provide snacks that otherwise gobble up the minimal income. This would help, though obviously not solve, the income issues players face.
Now, back to that $5 million price tag. That's obviously per affiliate, so if a team opted to do this in each affiliate city all at once the price would go up significantly. With an average of four full-season affiliates per team, a total of $20 million or so would be required to do this right. That's, of course, ignoring price discrepancies across the country, though luckily minor-league teams are typically located in smaller (read: less expensive) cities than their major-league parents. While this is undoubtedly a lot of money, it wouldn't hit the club all at once, and it's still less than what the Dodgers are paying Matt Kemp and Ryan Webb not to play for them.
I went back to Colin to see how he thought this might impact the lives of minor-league players:
The provided living space, with meals, communal spaces, etc., would take an enormous weight off a lot of the players' shoulders, provided it was high-enough quality to warrant players choosing it as an option over living "off campus." In my experience it would be very comforting to know that I had a consistent place of residence, free of rent worries, furniture rental, electric, etc.
Colin also weighed in on the performance benefits:
Relieving the stress outside of baseball would allow for more focus and preparedness among the players. By having everyone together, daily workouts would be more consistent, team bonding would be better, and morale would be boosted. You're talking about mainly having to accommodate young, single ballplayers. The majority don't have a wife and kids, but a communal living space with dedicated family apartments would ease their financial burden.
There are plenty of reasons not to adopt the dorm plan. It's expensive, and a difficult undertaking. It requires a lot of moving parts. There's a cheap version of this plan, though: better support for the existing structure. Take, for example, the host families that house minor-league players in some cities. Colin told me, "They are a phenomenal way to combat the housing, nutrition, overall mental well-being, and financial hardships that players run into." They can also provide familial bonds, something that Colin says is often overlooked, but incredibly valuable. Teams could support these host families in a more significant way to expand the program and further enhance the lives of the minor-leaguers they house. These families often provide extra meals and creature comforts out of their own pockets. Colin relayed a story about his time with a host family:
My last year of ball, in Pensacola, I lived with an elderly couple that treated me like a son. They provided me with three meals a day, laundry, snack bags, and anything else I needed in order to be prepared to play. It was amazing. I wish I had done that every year instead of my ninth and final season.
While investing in housing would be ideal, expanding on the host-family program might be a good place to start. In the end, if this system—be it one where players have a dorm-like building to call home or the host family system is expanded—helps just one player succeed where he otherwise would have failed, then the investment of time and money is worth it. If you don't believe me, listen to Teddy Roosevelt:
Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.
If quotes from Progressive-Era presidents aren't your thing, maybe one final thought from Colin Young will convince you: "It just makes sense all around to support the welfare of the players and make the quality of life better."
Dozens of analysts and writers have imagined a better world for minor-league baseball players. Some changes are simple, and others are massive undertakings. Regardless of the scope of these projects, the driving force behind it is something that can't be ignored. These minor-league players deserve a better quality of life. The reality is that it wouldn't cost an exorbitant amount to provide that to them, and it only takes one player panning out who wouldn't in today's system for the investment to pay off. The ball is in the court of all 30 MLB teams. While no team is eager to spend money with reckless abandon (except maybe the Dodgers) that isn't what's required here. These investments could pay huge dividends, and eventually one team will be the frontrunner in extracting value where other teams let it slip away.