In early July, when an advocacy group called out Mets owner Steve Cohen for the harsh economic conditions endured by minor-leaguers, he chimed in via his preferred method of public communication: Twitter.
"We are looking into this and will have a comprehensive response by late next week," Cohen wrote. "This was news to me and want to be thoughtful and not reactive in my actions."
More than two months later, Mets minor-leaguers are still waiting.
The Mets are among at least a half-dozen clubs that took small in-season steps toward progress on matters of pay, housing and food, according to Advocates for Minor Leaguers, but they still fall well short of the support players seek — particularly with wages, which hover around the poverty line at $10,000-$15,000 per year for most minor-leaguers.
"Playing minor-league baseball these days is a money-losing proposition," said Harry Marino, a former minor-leaguer and the executive director of Advocates for Minor Leaguers. "When you factor in offseason training, all the unpaid work, the cost of housing during the season — guys are not making money. They’re going into their pockets. And that’s pretty crazy when they’re employed by billion-dollar entities and providing integral service to those entities."
Marino’s organization has positioned itself at the center of the debate about and push for improved conditions, particularly financially, for minor-leaguers — an issue across baseball, not just with the Mets. Co-founded by former Mets utilityman Ty Kelly, Advocates for Minor Leaguers exists to "provide a collective voice" for those players, Marino said, because they do not have a union and possess virtually no negotiating leverage.
The group collected opinions of dozens of Mets minor-leaguers — as it has done with other organizations — on what changes are important. Among the answers within the Mets’ system: year-round salaries, as opposed to just during the season (May through September this year); paid-for housing; three meals per day (instead of the standard one-and-a-half or two); covered offseason training; and adjusted salaries/per diems based on the cost of living in different cities.
"It would allow us to focus primarily on development and not on surviving," said one Mets upper-minors farmhand, who asked not to be identified so he could speak more honestly. "What’s the cheap option for food? It’s fast food. You’re not going to be able to go eat meals that professional athletes should be having because it’s more expensive to eat well."
A chief problem with the low pay is players can’t save money for the unpaid months, i.e. October through March/April. It is normal for minor-leaguers to work offseason jobs, which sometimes pay more than their professional baseball careers, but that takes time that should be spent training — which itself costs money.
The offfield fight for higher pay ended up on the field in Brooklyn on Saturday. Players on the Mets’ High-A Cyclones and their opponents, the Phillies’ Jersey Shore club, wore wristbands with "#FairBall" printed on them. In a news release, Advocates for Minor Leaguers called it "an unprecedented act of solidarity."
After decades of minimal change, they are looking for more.
"The old-school mentality of grind it out, put your head down — it’s losing its luster," Marino said. "The realities are setting in that this is not right and it should change."
The Mets declined to comment aside from detailing some of their policy changes made during the summer, including covering housing in the lower minors and offering a housing stipend ($300 per month) in the upper minors. They also started spending more money on team-provided food and gave back pay for extended spring training, which historically is a mandatory but unpaid period of work (like regular spring training).
The Red Sox, Nationals, Cardinals, Giants and Angels made similar midseason improvements, Marino said. The Astros — who set the gold standard by providing furnished apartments — and Phillies also help on housing.
MLB, which took control of the minors and eliminated one-quarter of minor-league teams last year, has indicated it intends on making more thorough, standardized changes in the future.
"It’s a step in the right direction," Marino said of the Mets’ housing. "But it’s not going to solve the problems that are going on here."
If paying employees a livable wage for the sake of doing so is not appealing to major-league decision-makers, Marino and others have an alternative attempt at persuasion: It is a good investment that will pay for itself. Better conditions will equal better players, they say, benefiting the major-league club.
A recent analysis by Baseball Prospectus writer Russell A. Carleton, who worked in the Mets’ analytics department in 2019, estimated that it would cost a team approximately an extra $4.5 million per year to pay each minor-leaguer $50,000 annually (or spend that amount on them).
"The idea that spending a few million dollars to treat these guys the right way is somehow something that is difficult or undoable is just not true," Marino said. "It’s what these players deserve."