Over Memorial Day, millions of Americans will go to a Major League Baseball game. Others may instead watch a baseball movie, “Million Dollar Arm,” starring Jon Hamm and Alan Arkin.
“Million Dollar Arm” is a Disney move “based on a true story” which should put viewers on high alert that what they are about to see is more fiction than fact. Nevertheless, the movie is a feel-good story about two young Indians, Dinesh Patel and Rinku Singh, who had never held a baseball but after winning a reality contest were signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2009.
While the movie’s thrust focuses on the wonderful opportunity given to the two players to become India’s first ever major leaguers, the more compelling untold story is their exploitation — so shameless that it would embarrass Standard Oil’s John D. Rockefeller.
Patel and Singh’s combined signing bonuses — if you can call them “bonuses” — were $8,000, well below what true MLB prospects get. From the beginning, Pirates management said the players had little chance to make the majors. Only five percent of high school players make it to NCAA squads; in turn, only 10 percent of NCAA prospects get chosen in the 40-round MLB draft. For two players who had never heard of baseball, their chances were effectively zero.
But for the Pirates, the investment of a few thousand dollars bought them publicity millions of dollars couldn’t have. At the time, the Pirates were mired in the midst of a 20-year losing streak and little good was ever written about the team. Suddenly, after the headline-making signings, the New York Times, Sports Illustrated and CNN, among others, wrote glowing stories. President Obama invited the young Indians to the White House.
Of course, Patel and Singh didn’t make the Pirates. Patel was released. Singh reached Class A but has been plagued by arm injuries, undergone surgery and hasn’t pitched since 2012. In the meantime, Patel and Singh, along with thousands of other hopefuls, toiled in the minor leagues where exploitation is standard practice. Three former minor league players from the San Francisco Giants, Kansas City Royal and Miami Marlins recently brought suit against MLB over the poverty wages they’re paid by the multibillion-dollar organizations they work for.
According to the suit, the low-level minor league salary is $1,100 monthly for a five-month season, and increases only to $2,150 when players reach Triple A. They’re not paid for spring training or the public appearances they make on the team’s behalf. When MLB owners and the Players Association meet at the bargaining table, the minor league isn’t represented.
Because they earn so little, players have taken off-season jobs working as stocking clerks, bouncers and temporary office personnel. If their main income source paid them fairly, they wouldn’t need a supplemental job.
Today’s baseball system is a classic rich-get-richer system. MLB is minting money. Forbes reported that in 2013, MLB revenues neared $8.5 billion. The teams could easily throw some extra money to their minor leaguers. If nothing else, they could pay them year-round, a good long-term investment.
Don’t expect any changes from the penurious owners, however. Baseball is exempt from anti-trust legislation. Owners do what they want to do, and when they want to do it. Players’ only option — probably not an attractive one to them — is not to sign at all, which would take away their dream of ever playing in the big leagues.
Joe Guzzardi is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.