While it’s rightly fallen out of the zeitgeist after this week’s traumatic and violent events, it was just last week that Major League Baseball attempted an end-around on the salary question for minor league players. Baseball Prospectus’ excellent Kate Morrison did a thorough savaging of MLB’s press release supporting the “Save America’s Pastime Act” and Samuel Mann has worked up a comprehensive account of the legal ramifications of the death of said bill, so I’m going to let those two articles deservedly do the heavy lifting on the topic in general. What I want to focus on in particular is one specific logical turn in the release that caused much of the anger we saw on Twitter and elsewhere, namely the designation of minor-league baseball player as “not a career, but a seasonal apprenticeship.” Essentially, I want to delve into the rhetorical and theoretical magic that allows MLB to transform 7,500 professional baseball players into 7,500 interns.
As Morrison notes in her piece and as I’ll echo off the top, this transformation is magic not in the “witchcraft and wizardry” sense, but in the “smoke and mirrors” sense. Seasonal apprenticeships rarely last 6-14 years, Morrison reminds us, and the rhetoric all over the MLB and MiLB websites is such that we’re encouraged to see these players as professionals, not amateur talent. And yet, there’s a bit of a semiotic dilemma for us now that MLB—essentially God in this scenario, thanks to some very generous antitrust loopholes—has spoken and redefined its employees. Make whatever argument you’d like about what players should be called or paid, ultimately MLB has a far bigger say here, so the rhetorical move is simply a blunt force object: We say they’re seasonal apprentices, so that’s what they are.
But what are the theoretical underpinnings that license the force of this shift? Why are professionals so much different than seasonal apprentices or interns? Ostensibly, shouldn’t an apprentice or an intern be aiming to get the same job as a professional? Isn’t the former just a step on the path to the latter as opposed to two entirely separate categories? Well, yes and no.
In order to understand how baseball can have it both ways—how MLB can have a hold on its minor-league employees as if they were full-time workers while also designating them as a much less fully employed category—we need to delve a bit into the concept of human capital. Human capital, which has had a bit of a brand resurgence thanks to Deray McKesson’s appointment as Interim Chief Human Capital Officer of Baltimore City Schools, is the idea that self-improvement is the great equalizer under capitalism. And it’s essentially been the prime mover of modern capitalism from at least 1978 to the present. Coined by University of Chicago economist Gary Becker, human capital reimagines the “means of production” so important for Adam Smith and Karl Marx’s conception of capital accumulation as part of an internal drive to self-improvement. So, one need not seize the means of production because—to paraphrase any number of famous moments in shlocky cinema—the means of production were inside you the whole time. Which also means that the product is, well, you.
Think about it this way: Within you is a bit of a factory, and that factory builds you a job. The bits of the factory that work to build you that job are all limited by what you’re given at birth. Maybe you’re smart but not very athletic. Maybe you’re smart and athletic, but you have a tough time relating to other people. Maybe you’re a totally balanced person with no real “standout” biological skill. You get the idea. From there, you build on this foundation by going to school, learning a trade, starting a hobby, writing a book—whatever you think will improve you as a person. And as you improve yourself immanently as person, you are also improving your hireability on the market, since the market wants people who have certain skills, qualities, and abilities. Essentially, your factory puts out what it gets in, and as you issue more effort toward building your human capital, the more profit it will realize for you.
Well, it’s a nice story anyway. Unfortunately, as many people—your fair author included—will tell you, merely improving yourself doesn’t always open up employment opportunities. Sometimes your PhD or your new skill or your ability to hit or throw a ball extremely hard gets you nothing in a highly competitive marketplace. None of this stops human capital from being a powerful ideological tool to convince people that outside education and self-improvement are more efficacious than a good union or worker protections, and I don’t totally blame people who buy into it. It’s very seductive to think that life is like a Super Nintendo RPG, where you can level up through hard, repetitive work until you get the best possible job you can. It’s why Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours-to-expertise theories are so popular, and why our schools insist children “learn” critical thinking, as if it’s a rubric point to check off. We want to live in a world where our best efforts yield consistent material results.
But if anyone can belie this belief, it’s minor-league baseball players. Players, many of whom have been the best on any and every team they’ve ever played on up until being signed, all of whom are world-class athletes, are thrown into a grinder in which they either improve quickly and linearly or find their way out of baseball in a few years. And if they can improve to a sort of okay plateau? They’ll be retained on Double-A and Triple-A squads that need warm bodies to fill the roster and sell seats. And so, despite the best efforts of these individuals, many, indeed most, find themselves far enough from the top of the major-league talent pool to become lifelong “seasonal apprentices,” paid enough to stick it out and follow their dream, but not nearly enough to be commensurate with the profits and flexibility they provide to their parent club. For the minor-league baseball player, in other words, human capital is quickly revealed as a lie: you aren’t rewarded for how hard you work but rather for how well you play. If you’re talented, you’ll be paid. If not, you’ll wash out or become a permanent half-time low-scale employee performing a full time job.
If there’s a silver lining for minor leaguers, it’s that they’re by no means alone in this predicament. They are part of a growing plurality that Lauren Berlant and others have called the precariat—a class of people clinging to poor paying, demeaning, and often unfulfilling work in order to make ends meet. And at the core of any good member of the precariat is some tattered hope that their own human capital will help them climb the ladder. And sometimes that works! There are Rich Hills and Jose Bautistas. There are people who slog along for long enough and then become what they always knew they could be. But as appealing as these stories are, they are the exception, not the rule. So like the rest of the precariat, minor-league baseball players are forced to follow their dreams to a low salary and multiple jobs to maintain a living wage. Just, unlike other members of the precariat, minor-league baseball players are propping up a multi-billion dollar industry for a union that doesn’t seem to care about them and ownership who use them til they’re dry.
You can begin to see why they’re a bit upset all their hard work isn’t paying off.