There are people in the world who don't seem particularly to care whether minor leaguers make a living wage. They are unmoved by the idea that Major League Baseball, so cloying in its assertions of hard work and grit and the right way, isn’t particularly interested in paying for those things.
It’s an odd thing to not care about. After all, you're a union person, and I'm a union gal; we are all union folks. And even if “we” aren't universally, “we” generally recognize that businesses, even ones that steep themselves in the mystical properties of Americana, are self-interested and profit driven. That orientation isn’t always malicious or harmful, although it can be. Sometimes it’s calculating and Machiavellian, but sometimes it’s fine, or at least something we can live with. Sometimes it is neglectful or indifferent when we wish it were feeling or upstanding. The organizing principle is not typically one of altruism or even going that far out of one’s way. Business will forever seek to pay less for the process of producing whatever it is they produce, and aim to return profit to those who paid to make it. Along the way, we get widgets and cars and baseball players, and even if we aren’t union folks, we get unions mustering to ensure workers can buy milk and cars, and not be generally miserable or unsafe. It’s part of our economic and political vocabulary.
If it were widget makers being grossly underpaid, I suspect the collective ire would be more universally stirred. A few more of us would cry out, “How dare you exploit the humble widget maker, Widget King?” But somewhere in the shuffling between short-season ball and Triple-A, that crank that operates our empathy and activates our sense of justice has malfunctioned. Otherwise sympathetic observers with dreaming 19-year-olds of their own have taken to Twitter and talk radio to express their indifference to minor-leaguers’ plight. They are eager to ascribe economic value to half-empty stadiums in mid-sized cities and cold-cut spreads in the clubhouse, and christen these boys compensated. It seems an odd breakdown of empathy, given how relatable the experience of feeling underpaid and underappreciated is. And I think it stems from two things: what we understand to be work, and who we really see when minor leaguers take the field.
The baseball season is long and grueling. Guys spend time on the road, away from family. And we don’t really think of it as work. Part of it is that baseball players are doing a thing many people do poorly and dream to do better. Your high school team was nothing like the majors, but maybe you know a guy who went pro. You play on a beer-league softball team. The petty parts of us, that dreamed of big innings of our own we never got to throw, think of them more as puffed up hobbyists. Grown men playing a kid’s game, engaged in some con. We push our way through the cognitive dissonance of “playing the right way” and expecting them to miss the births of children, and just resent the heck out of them. They’re comically distant while being seemingly quite close. They get to be famous and wealthy, and have all the girls.
We feel for the underpaid widget maker, because she’s working. No matter how much she may enjoy the next widget made, she’s doing a job. She’s doing it for a wage and her employer’s benefit, not because she likes it more than camping. She’s working. Major leaguers are merely playing at it.
Which helps us understand when fans getting testy with free agents who sign with other teams for more money. It’s churlish, certainly. A touch small. And when you consider that money not spent on players sits with ownership rather than dispersing into the ether of schoolteacher salaries, you realize you’ve done a funny bit of tallying that balances out in the favor of billionaires rather than millionaires. It isn’t rational, but I get it. They are getting all this money for merely playing at work. There is something that feels ill-gotten about it, which allows us to feel wounded when our city or our fandom aren’t worth more.
And that’s what we see when we see minor leaguers. Not as they are—underpaid, and young, and bound for long bus rides—but as representations of their best, hoped-for future selves. That pimply face will be transfigured by time and batting practice and half-empty bleachers into Robinson Cano. That slight frame will grow into itself, add a tick or two to its fastball, and be Zack Greinke. We see their faces, when we see them at all, as promise personified, hazy in their features because they’ve taken on the features of so many others. Major League Baseball tells its minor leaguers they have something to dream on, and we widget-makers believe it, too. We’ll never make millions with our widgets, but these kids will. They’ll get millions while we toil away. And just like that, we forget to turn the crank and activate our empathy. We forget to agitate. We forget most of them won’t be rich, and see the faces of the few who will be.
Rob Manfred is right, of course, that as a workplace baseball is unusual. But stripped of all the magical Americana and freed of the players’ dreams and ours, it's still a place of work. A place of business. Somewhere a bunch of young boys do the work of becoming professionals. A place they become grown. The old drama between ownership and labor still plays out, we’re just taught to cheer for a few of the combatants. We can and should have conversations about what sorts of work we value and by how much. But that sort of virtue accounting shouldn’t be grounded in a petty person’s resentment of what became our work and their work, for work they do. It shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that our empathy costs us very little and can do an awful lot. Mostly, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the pimply-faced kid sitting there, across the dugout and on the bus, isn’t Robinson Cano yet, and whatever work he does, he probably never will be.