St. Paul Saints vs. the minimum wage: A quandary for parasitic capitalism

The Saints home office was almost entirely comped by taxpayers. Now the team is seeking the right to play players below the minimum wage.

The Saints home office was almost entirely comped by taxpayers. Now the team is seeking the right to play players below the minimum wage. Wikimedia

St. Paul’s loveable baseball team employs a rather parasitic business model.

The first part comes from the welfare unique to pro sports. Though you, Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer, picked up nearly the entire tab for the Saints’ home office – that would be CHS Field – you’ll have to buy a ticket to get inside the building you supposedly own.

The second comes from a purposeful suppression of wages. By league dictate, American Association baseball clubs are capped at a total team salary of $115,000. Which means some players can earn a respectable $4,000 a month, while others make as little as $800.

Calculate the latter at six hours a day, six days a week, and the Saints are paying some players as little as $5.50 an hour. And that doesn’t even account for travel or the extra training required of any athlete.

This poses something of a dilemma. Minnesota’s minimum wage is $9.65. St. Paul is about to institute its own minimum of $15. Either way, the Saints remain the most exploitative business in town.

So the team is doing what prominent ventures are prone to do: going to the Minnesota Legislature for protection. The Saints want an exemption from the state’s minimum wage laws. Anything less would jeopardize their very existence, says General Manager Derek Sharrer.

“We may be in a position where we would not be able to abide by our league bylaws, which would force us not to be able to operate,” he told the Legislature last week.

The Saints are framing it as a melding of state and federal law. The feds have long categorized minor leaguers in the same class as interns or apprentices. The idea is that, as newbies on the job, they’re not yet skilled enough to earn a full salary, which will arrive when they reach the majors.

“Minor league players are trainees by nature,” Sharrer told legislators. “We have a unique, nontraditional employee-employer relationship.”

Yet that logic doesn’t really fit the Saints, an independent, unaffiliated franchise – as far away from the majors as you can get. The team gathers its roster from players unable to land a spot on any of the 150-plus minor league teams operated by Major League Baseball. They’re the unvalued and overlooked, the has-beens and never-weres. To argue that they're interning for the majors is akin to saying the loading dock worker is in training to become the CEO.

Still, unlike most parasites – say, the owner of the Pioneer Press -- the Saints give a great deal back to the city. They routinely sell out by offering the most fan-friendly sporting experience in town. While prices are on the high side for minor league fare, at least your wallet doesn’t want to file rape charges every time you enter the stadium, as it does with the bigger franchises in town.

Last year’s average attendance of 8,200 was double their league average. Fans, at least, are finding clear value in the Saints' continued operation.

The Saints could push the American Association to raise the salary cap, but that's likely to just kill teams on the less fortunate end of the spectrum. While St. Paul is a miniature gold mine, this is not a league that plays in lands of riches. Teams in Grand Prairie, Texas and Sioux City, Iowa draw less than 1,300 a night. Baseball doesn't work when there's no one left to play.   

Besides, the players in question aren't revolting against sub-poverty wages. Think of them as the economic brethren of sculptors or novelists. There’s never a shortage of young men willing to spend a summer earning $800 a month for one last shot at a life doing something they love. If it doesn’t work out, a job they hate will always be waiting.

Which, to a certain extent, makes the Saints’ sins a crime with no victim.

That seems to be the logic of state Sen. Dick Cohen (DFL-St. Paul). He’s introduced a bill that would exempt the team from minimum wage laws. (It only applies to players, not the beer guy.) In a Legislature dominated by Republicans, who rarely resist an employer handout, it would seem a lock to pass.

But things are rarely so simple in the Minnesota Legislature, where Cohen’s bill has already found trouble. Some want to amend the measure to provide an exemption to farmers as well.

Somehow, the vision of Cargill paying a migrant $4 an hour no longer seems like a victimless crime.