DESCRIBING LIFE IN the minor leagues can sound like a twisted Mad Lib. The names and locations and adjectives may change, but for generations, the details of the climb to Major League Baseball have remained mortifying. The poverty. The working conditions. The food. The third-class nature of the entire operation. Now, after decades of mistreatment, of being told they were mere apprentices, the people who had given their young lives to the game were in a position to tell those running it who they were and why they mattered.
In January, at the MLB Players Association’s offices high atop the New York City skyline, Matthew Peguero told MLB officials his version of the story. He was from the Dominican Republic and signed with the Tampa Bay Rays. He came to the United States as a teenager not knowing English. He sent the pittance he received — a couple hundred dollars a week during the season without any pay in the offseason or spring training — home to support his family. He struggled to survive.
It was the same story relayed by Andres Angulo, who came from Colombia at 16 years old and spent four years in rookie ball. He saw countless friends who had forgone an education to chase a life in baseball released at 18 with no money, no skills, no job prospects — a dream turned nightmare. These stories and more were shared during in-person bargaining sessions on a landmark first collective-bargaining agreement for minor league players, who described their struggle to understand how an $11 billion-a-year industry could so disregard the mental and physical well-being of its next generation of players.
“If you didn’t sign for $50,000 or more, life in the minor leagues was unsustainable,” said Trevor Hildenberger, a relief pitcher who spent four years in the major leagues and, as he tries to claw his way back, took a leadership role in the unionization of minor league players. “It was just a ticking clock. Either you couldn’t afford to pursue this anymore or you made it to the big leagues.”
This was no narrative. The reality was too real for MLB to ignore anymore. Players were coming forward, social media had delivered their stories to the masses, and though every collective bargaining agreement is little more than an exercise in wealth distribution, MLB couldn’t discount what players were saying: Baseball’s development system was a moral abomination, and this was the opportunity to fix it
For five months, the league and the union, formed under the umbrella of the MLB Players Association, worked toward a deal. After more than three dozen bargaining sessions, they landed on an agreement that more than doubled pay for all players. The union fought for more guaranteed rights, from improved housing and transportation to enhanced medical privileges and health benefits. The league, after settling a class-action minimum-wage and overtime claim from players for $185 million in August, received the ability to manage roster sizes and protection from future wage suits, with any cases to go instead through the arbitration process. Owners approved the deal unanimously Monday; days earlier, 99% of the thousands of players voting had backed it.
In conversations with ESPN, more than a dozen people, from players to employees of the league and union, outlined how a once-unthinkable deal came together with shocking rapidity. Players, tired of the status quo, sought to forge a new one. The league, reeling from bad publicity, committed upward of $100 million yearly to fix its mistakes. By no means is the deal, which will last five years, perfect. But because of it, those involved said, no longer is minor league life a black mark for baseball.
“It was just so clear,” Hildenberger said, “what was right and what was wrong.”
DURING MLB’s 99-DAY lockout of major league players after the 2021 season, Kumar Nambiar spent his days in Jupiter, Florida, training at Cressey Sports Performance. Nambiar marveled at the players surrounding him there. He had pitched at Yale for four years, gone to the Oakland A’s in the 34th round of the 2019 draft and climbed to High-A on the strength of a changeup that dove from his left hand. And here he was, side-by-side with big leaguers trying to stay sharp as the contentious negotiations unfolded.
One day, Nambiar noticed a familiar face: Max Scherzer, the three-time Cy Young Award winner and future Hall of Famer who over the winter had signed for a record $43.3 million a year with the New York Mets. Scherzer also was one of eight executive-board members of the MLBPA, and every day, he would update players at Cressey of the latest goings-on in negotiations with a message on a whiteboard. Nambiar introduced himself to Scherzer and thanked him for his work trying to secure a new deal. Scherzer took the opportunity to educate Nambiar on the process.
“Hearing him talk about this and how important it was inspired me,” Nambiar said. “Before that, I didn’t really understand what the players’ association did. I didn’t know the negotiations, the past bargaining.”
Nambiar wasn’t alone. Despite the 100-plus years of the minor leagues’ existence, the MLBPA had shown no interest in forming a minor league unit. The prospect of organizing more than 5,000 minor league players was too daunting even for a union as renowned as the MLBPA.
Social media changed that, as did the work of a group called Advocates for Minor Leaguers, led by a former minor league pitcher-turned-lawyer Harry Marino. The stories of a half-dozen players cramming into a two-bedroom apartment resonated with the public. Tyler Cyr, a reliever at Triple-A for the San Francisco Giants, posted on Twitter his final pay stub of the 2019 season. The amount received was $165 — and $8,216.58 for the whole year.
A real turning point came in 2020, when, before caving to public pressure, teams were not paying minor league players during the pandemic shutdown.
“The importance of that can’t be understated,” Hildenberger said. “A lot of guys were in need of help, and owners didn’t want to pay anyone their salaries. That opened a lot of guys’ eyes.”
Inspired by their stories, Marino’s organization had begun the herculean task of organizing players. Advocates identified potential leaders and encouraged them to serve as conduits to the entire player population. After MLB took over control of the minor leagues before the 2020 season and reduced the number of affiliated teams from 162 to 120, players grew even more emboldened.
They pushed for organizations to provide housing, and MLB acceded before the 2022 season. That, players said, was a good first step, but dozens of other issues — none more than their salaries — needed remedying. The settlement in Senne v. MLB, the lawsuit that alleged players had been underpaid by hundreds of millions of dollars, inspired even more players.
Roused by Scherzer and the work of Marino and his cohort, Nambiar last year went and bought “Lords of the Realm,” the John Helyar book on the history of labor relations in baseball, which told the story of the player revolution that changed the landscape of professional sports. Throughout the season, he talked about the future of minor league labor with Jared McDonald, his teammate in the A’s. On a late-night bus ride in early September, McDonald, who had aligned with Advocates as it embarked on a union drive, retreated to the back to deliver news that stunned his teammates, Nambiar included.
“Guys, it’s happening,” McDonald said. “We’re unionizing.”
That month, the MLBPA absorbed Advocates and sent union-authorization cards to players, who overwhelmingly voted in favor of forming a minor league unit. Any fear that MLB would challenge the formation of the union wound up to be unfounded; within days, the league voluntarily recognized the minor league unit. And about a month later, on Oct. 27, the MLBPA made its opening presentation to MLB.
The goal from the beginning was clear: The players wanted a deal by Opening Day 2023. Because they had no intentions to strike, their leverage was minimal. And yet that didn’t worry them. For all the animus between MLB and the MLBPA, all the bad blood left over from the major league lockout, minor league players still believed that they were on the right side of history — and that with the right framing, MLB would see it, too.
CRAFTING THE STORIES they told the league would require a deft touch. It couldn’t be all horror — things such as the tale of the teammates who took their paltry per diems on an off-day, went to a local pet store, bought a rabbit, killed it, cooked it and ate it for dinner that night. Finding a balance between complaining about what they didn’t have and bargaining for what they wanted was exceedingly thin. So in late November, the union invited dozens of players to the Phoenix area for a strategizing session.
Players of all walks gathered. There were former big leaguers such as Hildenberger and Ivy League graduates such as Nambiar and representatives such as Angel Basabe, a Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder born in Venezuela and raised in Panama, helping speak for the half of minor leaguers from Latin America. They traded experiences, which served a dual purpose: to give the MLBPA a foundation upon which to ask for change, and to learn more about one another so they could achieve the solidarity necessary for a union to succeed.
“What’s important for me is important for all of us: Get something that is fair, that we deserve,” Basabe said. “I’m a Latin player, so I can be the example for a lot of situations that were not right.”
The two days in Phoenix emboldened the players and narrowed their priorities. Higher salaries were the clear No. 1 objective. Even after the league bumped salaries slightly in 2021, Triple-A players with no major league service maxed out at $17,500 per year, Double-A players at $13,800, A-ball players at $11,000 and rookie-league players at $4,800. The lack of offseason pay forced players into an impossible choice: spend the winter getting a job to make ends meet, or train so they could improve their game before the next spring. The players coalesced around their shared past, taking the emotions built up in Phoenix onto player-only Zoom calls and into the bargaining room.
“I felt so much more comfortable speaking to these guys who I knew understood what we were fighting for,” Hildenberger said. “That was a very powerful feeling. In college, you play with your best friends and you’re trying to get to Omaha. When you’re all pulling toward the same goal and achieving that, it’s the best feeling in the world. To do it on a wider scale with 60 guys in the room and 150 on Zoom, and representing more than 5,000 people who we knew deserved better, instilled me with a lot of hope.”
The union outlined dozens of asks to the league throughout December, as it delivered all of the initial proposals, and the league offered its first response in writing Jan. 12. Five days later, MLB delivered another proposal, this one addressing salaries for the first time. Bruce Meyer, the union’s lead negotiator, had warned players in Phoenix not to be alarmed by it — that the most important elements of the negotiation would come in the final two weeks of talks. In Meyer, the union had “someone who would stand up for us,” Nambiar said, even as MLB’s negotiating team — led by deputy commissioner Dan Halem and Colorado Rockies owner Dick Monfort — pushed back. Union executive director Tony Clark had spent considerable time in the meetings, too, with Marino playing a vital role and general counsel Matt Nussbaum helping map out strategy, while Patrick Houlihan, Peter Woodfork and Kasey Sanossian did the same for MLB.
A big breakthrough came in January, when the sides agreed that players would be salaried and compensation would be delivered for almost the entirety of the year. In addition to a bump in pay during the season, players would receive weekly checks during early- and late-offseason periods as well as spring training. The early success story heartened players and illustrated that the league was approaching the negotiations in good faith.
Throughout January, the sides hashed out other issues. Would players, the league wondered, consider dropping team-provided housing for higher salaries? No, players said. There was comfort in stability, and dealing with the vagaries of finding a short-term apartment rental diverged with the focus vital to a big league ascent. Would the league, players asked, consider termination pay for those released by teams? No, MLB said. That was a nonstarter.
Negotiations moved at a steady pace throughout January and February, with players going to New York City to participate — Hildenberger and Basabe flew in for sessions, and Nambiar, who lives in Westchester County, New York, attended regularly. On Feb. 16, the sides finalized the first of what would be nearly 30 tentative agreements on individual issues, with the signatures of Marino and Sannosian formalizing a two-page document. In it, teams agreed to provide players with “two full, nutritious meals of high quality” — one pregame, one postgame — every day during the season. The union and league would form a joint committee to address any nutrition complaints from players, whose per diem would rise from $25 to $30.
Collective bargaining agreements — particularly ones being drawn up from scratch — don’t happen overnight, and as the players left in late February for spring training, their participation would be limited to Zoom calls. March had arrived, and Opening Day was set for the 30th. The two-week window Meyer had talked about was fast approaching. The league said it was fine starting the season without a deal, but everyone involved understood: That outcome would be the latest disaster in a minor league history laden with them.
BY MID-MARCH, the sides were dug in with scant progress over the previous two weeks. Players wanted to push salaries past the point of comfort for MLB. The league wanted the unilateral ability to set the Domestic Reserve List, which governs the number of players a team can roster at its four minor league affiliates and Arizona or Florida complexes. The key issues for both parties were clear, and if past negotiations in the major leagues were any indication, they’d save them for the end.
Eventually, bit by bit, the makings of a deal came together. On March 14, they reached a tentative agreement on housing rules to be implemented at latest by 2024, giving Triple-A and Double-A players their own rooms and offering special dispensations for players with children, who are guaranteed at least two-bedroom apartments. Players at all levels would continue to receive free housing. A week later, after heated discussions over transportation to and from the stadium for players without cars, MLB agreed to provide rides for players in A-ball and rookie ball to and from all games.
One day later came an agreement on a grievance system that would cover discipline, a domestic violence policy and a joint drug-and-treatment program. The day after that, a pact on a no-strike, no-lockout provision. Then more: players receiving name, image and likeness privileges for the union to use in group licensing; the right to a second opinion on medical decisions, as well as free medical, dental and vision care; $2.5 million a year from the league to be distributed to players’ 401(k)s; and the reduction of the reserve — the amount of years a team owns a player’s rights in the minor leagues — from seven years to six for all future union members.
With each tentative agreement, the confidence in both sides grew. As loath as players were to give full control to MLB on the Domestic Reserve List, they found a compromise in its reduction from 180 players to 165. The agreement didn’t sit well with some players, who worry about the loss of more jobs after the contraction of 40-plus teams three years ago. The league countered with data that showed over the previous two years, teams on average had 166 players on their rosters — and in the end, the players decided that what they would get in return was worth the winnowing.
In its best and final offer March 29, the league agreed to bump Triple-A minimum salaries from $17,500 to $35,800, Double-A from $13,800 to $30,250, High-A from $11,000 to $27,300, Low-A from $11,000 to $26,200 and rookie league from $4,800 to $19,800. (Players in the Dominican Summer League, who are not part of the union, will not receive similar raises.) Further, the league agreed to supply back pay for spring training this year and will pay players for all but a six-week period between late November and Jan. 1. Offseason pay is a minimum of $250 a week and $375 extra a week for those who attend team-led winter training, such as instructional league, or rehabilitation at team complexes. Slight raises accompanied the last three years of the offer.
It was enough for the players. The leaders, on a Zoom call, were thrilled. And relieved. The past half-year had tested their patience and willingness to trust that the league would right its wrongs. And though there remains plenty to improve — ensuring more jobs aren’t lost, higher salaries, better benefits — the deal addressed enough key issues that player leadership approved it happily.
“With the offseason payment, now we can focus on baseball,” Basabe said. “I know [the rank and file] are grateful. We’re making changes. This is history.”
Word spread quickly among players, and within 24 hours of sending out the deal to a vote, the returns were nearly unanimous. The agreement was for everyone, from Basabe and Hildenberger and Nambiar to Matthew Peguero and Andres Angulo and the thousands of others who were lucky enough to play a game for a living but warranted dignity as they did so.
The story of life in the minor leagues, painful in many ways, had carried them to a better place.
“It’s life-changing for a lot of people now,” Nambiar said, “and for generations going forward.”