Portland Sea Dogs pitcher Trevor Kelley earns $1,800 a month, the standard salary for a player in his second season at the Double-A level of minor league baseball.

Based on a 40-hour week, that works out to $10.38 an hour – slighty above Maine’s hourly minimum wage of $10.

“It’s tough,” said Kelley, 24, who married in January. “It makes you wonder if it’s worth it.”

Of course, minor leaguers tend to be on the clock far more than 40 hours. Games are scheduled six or seven days a week, and “off days” often require lengthy travel from one city to the next via bus. Players receive a flat salary, regarless of the time they put in. Nor are they paid during spring training.

“You just have to grind through it,” Kelley said. “You’ll kill yourself thinking, ‘This is how much I’m making?’

“It’s more the opportunity. That’s the way I think about it.”

The opportunity is the chance to become a major leaguer – the dream of nearly anyone who has played baseball. The payoff is handsome: The minimum annual salary for major league players is $545,000; the average, $4.52 million.

Trevor Kelley

But critics say Major League Baseball is exploiting that dream by lowballing minor leaguers. With few exceptions, the only path to the majors is through the minor leagues. Kelley, if he plays the entire five-month season in Double-A, will earn about $9,000.

“You have no choice, and they know it,” said Ryan Khoury, a former infielder for the Sea Dogs.

Khoury, 34, is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against MLB, claiming that the pay scale for minor leaguers is in violation of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. The lawsuit contends that minor league salaries often are below minimum wage, and that the players routinely work more than 40 hours a week without receiving overtime pay. Filed in 2014, the case is now in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

While the plaintiffs hope their lawsuit will result in higher pay, a new law favors major league team owners – the ones who pay the salaries of minor league players.

MLB reacted to the lawsuit with a multi-million-dollar lobbying effort to obtain an exemption to the Fair Labor Standards Act. The exemption, titled the “Save America’s Pastime Act,” was slipped into a 2,232-page federal spending bill passed in late March. On page 1,967, the exemption states that “any employee employed to play baseball” will receive a weekly salary not less than minimum wage “irrespective of the number of hours the employee devotes to baseball related activities.”

The bottom line: While all minor leaguers now will receive at least federal minimum wage ($7.25 an hour) based on a 40-hour work week, MLB is exempt from paying overtime.

“It’s emblematic (of) how Washington is working nowadays,” said Garrett Broshuis, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys and a former minor league pitcher. “Normally there is a process with a bill. A time for debate and hearings. That didn’t happen with this bill. It was done in secret. It was tacked onto a spending bill.”

Major League Baseball spent $2.6 million in lobbying efforts the past two years, according to the watchdog website www.opensecrets.org.

“It just shows you the disparity in power between the minor leaguers and the powerful owners who lobbied for this bill,” said James Masteralexis, an assistant professor of business law at Western New England University, who, along with his wife, University of Massachusetts professor Lisa Pike Masteralexis, have acted as agents for minor league players for 25 years.

“It’s unfair and really unjust.”

HOUSING CHALLENGES, CLUBHOUSE DUES

Khoury, the former Sea Dogs infielder, was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in 2006. He spent most of that summer with the Lowell (Massachusetts) Spinners, a “short-season” Class A team, at a salary of $1,100 a month. When the team played on the road, players received $20 daily for meals (since increased to $25).

“Guys would cut cost to save the meal money. They’d get a loaf of bread and make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” Khoury said.

The next year, Khoury began his first full season with the advanced Class A Lancaster (California) JetHawks. As a second-year Class A player, Khoury made $1,200 a month.

“We had one day to find a place to live,” he said. “We started out with four guys in a two-bedroom apartment, and ended up with six guys. Guys slept on the couch, or the floor.

“I’m paying $400-$500 a month to live in a lousy apartment with five other guys.”

When Khoury reached the Double-A Sea Dogs, he was paid $1,700 a month. From Double-A, players can go to Triple-A – the highest level of the minor leagues – where the salary starts at $2,150 a month – or about $11,000 for the season.

“People say, ‘Oh, you play for the Red Sox, you must be a millionaire,” Khoury said. “They don’t realize how scarce the pay is.”

Many minor leaguers must pay for their own housing, though some minor league clubs find discounted apartments or dorm rooms for their players. The Sea Dogs try to find host families for their players at little or no cost. Kelley and his wife, Jamie, reside in North Carolina, but during the baseball season they are staying with a host family in Falmouth.

During spring training, minor league players receive expenses for housing and some meals – but no pay. Like major leaguers, they are paid only during the regular season. Factoring in pregame workouts and travel, the average minor leaguer is on the job 50 to 65 hours a week.

Baseball officials, including MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner, point out that minor league players have meals provided for them in the clubhouse. “You get a sandwich that (the club) pays for,” O’Conner said.

However, minor league players have to pay clubhouse dues for the privilege. In Double-A, it is $12 a day, plus tip. That comes out of the players’ salaries or from their $25 per diem on the road.

“That just shows how out of touch (Manfred and O’Conner) are,” Broshuis said.

Like many minor leaguers, Kelley works in the offseason – actually, several jobs – to pay the bills.

“I worked construction and landscaping,” he said. “I woke up at 6 a.m. every morning. Worked till 3. Then I get my throwing in. Then I go to another job, which was either helping out with a baseball facility or refereeing beach volleyball. I’d get home around 10 at night, spend an hour with my wife, go to bed, and start it all over the next day. It was miserable.”

Kelley laughed, saying, “This is really my offseason.”

His wife has been looking for work in Portland.

“It’s a struggle,” she said of the minor league pay, “but this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

UNION IS A TOUGH SELL IN MINORS

Of the major professional sports, baseball has the most complex minor league system. While Minor League Baseball has a governing body, it falls under the auspices of MLB.

Each major league team pays the salaries of nearly 200 minor leaguers striving to climb the ladder from rookie leagues to the majors. In all, there are in excess of 5,000 minor leaguers playing for 256 teams.

Professional hockey has two levels of minor leagues affiliated with NHL teams – the top-tier AHL and the lower-level ECHL, a league that will include the new Maine Mariners starting this fall. The NBA has one minor league – the G League, which includes the Maine Red Claws. The NFL does not have a minor league, relying on college football as its feeder system.

G League players will earn a minimum $7,000 a month next season, which translates to $35,000 annually. Players also get free housing.

Players in the AHL – the “Triple-A” level of hockey – make a minimum salary of $47,500, plus $65 daily per diem on the road. Rookie ECHL players receive about $2,000 a month, free housing and $39 per diem. AHL and ECHL players, unlike their minor league baseball counterparts, have a union, formed in 1967.

Minor league baseball players would have more clout if they unionized. But, according to sports law experts, a union is a tough sell for players whose careers are transitory. Players who do not reach the majors stay in the minor leagues an average of 2.5 years. As a group, they are an eclectic bunch – ranging from international players who may have had no exposure to unions to players who received a large signing bonus and don’t believe they need a union.

The biggest disparity in minor league income comes from signing bonuses. Manfred has defended low minor league salaries because of the huge bonuses some players receive.

It’s true that players drafted in the early rounds get rich quick. In the 2017 draft, the top 56 picks received $1 million or more.

But there are 40 rounds in a draft, approximately 1,200 players selected each year. Of the 32 draft picks the Red Sox signed last year, seven received a $5,000 signing bonus and three others got bonuses ranging from $10,000 to $25,000. The players receiving smaller bonuses are usually those without college eligibility left – and therefore little leverage to walk away from an offer.

Khoury played four years at the University of Utah when Boston drafted him in the 12th round.

“They gave me five grand,” he said. “My agent had a kid (drafted a previous year) in the exact same spot and got him $9,000. So, we asked for an extra $4,000 and they said no. I said, ‘All right, I’ll take it.'”

Kelley pitched four years for the University of North Carolina. He was a 36th-round draft pick and received a $1,000 signing bonus.

If low draft picks like Kelley make the majors, it’s an unexpected dividend for the MLB team. The focus is on prospects drafted in the early rounds.

“The guys in the first five rounds are getting sizable bonuses,” said Nathaniel Grow, associate professor of business law and ethics and a sports law scholar at Indiana University. “Other guys are used as roster filler and (MLB) is not willing to invest in them.”

MLB’S REACTION TO LAWSUIT

When Broshuis filed the lawsuit seeking a better pay scale for minor leaguers, baseball officials predicted doom. In 2016 the office of Minor League Baseball issued a press release stating: “This suit threatens baseball’s decades-old player development system with an unprecedented cost increase … Many cities would be in jeopardy of losing their Minor League Baseball teams.”

Grow called baseball’s response “a scare tactic.” A hike in minor-league salaries would be “a single-digit million-dollar drop in the bucket for (MLB) teams.”

Increasing minor league pay to an average annual salary of $25,000 would cost each MLB team about $5 million more per year. These are MLB teams that, according to Forbes Magazine, brought in an average of $315 million in revenue last year.

But the MLB contends that it already loses money with the minor league system.

“Major league clubs bear the extensive cost of subsidizing the minor league clubs by paying the salaries and expenses for all players, coaches and training staff for 190 minor league teams throughout the country,” Michael Teevan, MLB vice president of communications, told the Maine Sunday Telegram. “Minor league players who do not advance to the major leagues do not generate revenue for Major League Baseball to offset those salary obligations.”

Minor League Baseball officials, when asked to comment for this story, directed all questions to MLB.

In responding to the lawsuit, MLB had three options, according to Grow – increase pay for minor leaguers, defend the lawsuit “on its merits” or seek a new law to exempt minor leaguers from the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Enter the Save America’s Pastime Act. When the bill was introduced in Congress two years ago, reaction was negative, especially in the media. A USA Today headline proclaimed: “The ‘Save America’s Pastime Act’ in Congress will do nothing of the sort.” The Sporting News was less subtle: “Despicable ‘Save America’s Pastime Act’ aims to screw minor leaguers.”

The bill stalled, only to resurface two years later, tucked into the $1.3 trillion spending bill that Congress passed to avoid a government shutdown.

“They could only push it through on a covert basis,” Broshuis said.

‘PLAYING TO CHASE YOUR DREAM’

Broshuis said the Fair Labor Standards Act exemption “does not kill our case.” The exemption went into effect March 23 and does not cover previous seasons, so players could receive retroactive pay. Plus, there is the issue of contesting for local minimum wages in states where it is higher than the federal rate of $7.25 per hour.

But, as for the present and future of minor leagues wages, the FLSA exemption “significantly reduces the odds that MLB will be forced to substantially change its minor league pay practices,” Grow wrote in a paper published in May. The next court date in the lawsuit against MLB is scheduled for Tuesday.

“I can appreciate any person, ballplayer or anyone else, wanting to make at least the minimum wage. That’s fair,” said Drew Niles, 41, an insurance broker in South Portland who played with the Sea Dogs from 1999 to 2002 but never reached the majors.

“But we’re also getting the opportunity that millions of baseball players would like to do. … You’re not playing minor league baseball to be rich. You’re playing to chase your dream.”

Does MLB take advantage of that kind of attitude?

“It’s a mentality that goes back generations, that you should be so lucky to have the talent to play the game,” said Lisa Pike Masteralexis, “rather than to think of it as an employment proposition.”

Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-7411 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: ClearTheBases

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