By Ronald Blum
Two days after the New York Mets took him in the 19th round of the baseball draft this June, Gary Cornish boarded a 6:40 a.m. flight from Phoenix to John F. Kennedy Airport, took his physical and checked into his new home, the Red Lion Inn & Suites in downtown Brooklyn.
Cornish agreed to a $10,000 signing bonus and was assigned to the Cyclones of the Class A New York-Penn League. Like most new minor leaguers, his initial salary is $1,100 a month. After a $100 deduction for hotel housing, $40 in clubhouse dues to pay the equipment kids and taxes, the 21-year-old pitcher's biweekly take-home pay is about $380, less than the cost of some Mets premium tickets at Citi Field.
Some minor leaguers are suing Major League Baseball in an effort to get more. Cornish texts his parents in Scottsdale, Arizona, when he needs money to pay the bills, and they transfer funds to his account.
"It's pretty much the same that they helped me out while I was at college, same type of allowance-type thing," he said.
Known for long bus rides between often picturesque ballparks, the minor leagues are hamlets of hope populated by a few bonus babies and thousands of conventional kids trying to grind their way up the pecking order to the sport's highest level.
MCU Park, in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, is just a 22-mile drive from Citi Field. But minor leaguers at the bottom of baseball's player development pyramid, who don't have a union, live in a different financial universe than the 1 percenters on the National League champions, covered by the Major League Baseball Players Association.
Garrett Broshuis, a minor league pitcher from 2004-09 who later became a lawyer, wants to lessen the gap. Representing several players, he filed a lawsuit against MLB, then-commissioner Bud Selig and the 30 teams in federal court in San Francisco two years ago, claiming violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act and state minimum wage and overtime requirements for a workweek they estimated at 50-to-60 hours.
"We want to change MLB's pay practices to make sure minor leaguers are receiving at least the minimum wage," Broshuis said. "They're stuffing six guys into a two-bedroom apartment, sleeping on air mattresses. These guys are the future of major league organizations and people are coming to watch them play and there's no reason to force them to live in that fashion."
MLB and the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, which governs the minors, argue laws on minimum wages and overtime never were intended to cover sports, likening players to artists and musicians.
A $9 billion industry, MLB rummages the globe for amateur talent. While signing bonuses for players in this year's draft ranged as high as $6.2 million, 276 of 919 drafted players, or more than a quarter, agreed to $10,000 or less.
Nick Sergakis, a 23-year-old outfielder from Columbus, Ohio, agreed to a $5,000 bonus after the Mets selected him from Ohio State on the 23rd round with the 700th pick. His season cut short in August by a broken shoulder blade, he returned home to Columbus, and will live with two other minor leaguers he knows from college. His focus will be workouts to get ready for 2017.
"I'm doing what I enjoy doing — first year doing it. It's not terrible," he said. "I'm going to have to look for a job."
Cornish and Sergakis are not part of the suit, and they focus on working their way up. Minimum monthly salaries for the five-month season rise to $1,500 at Double-A and $2,150 at Triple-A, and players receive a $25 per diem on the road and dinner at the ballpark following games. Eating well often is an afterthought.
Cyclones are housed two to a room in a seven-story hotel in an industrial, just-starting-to-gentrify area of Boerum Hill. Cornish, 6-foot-3 with dark hair, a pitcher's build and a ballplayer's confident gait, has heard gunshots while walking down the street.
Accustomed to nutritious meals as an athlete at the University of San Diego, Cornish tries to avoid postgame pizza in the clubhouse and stops on the road at McDonald's and Burger King.
"Some of the guys complain about that. Some are like, well, I'll make the best out of it. And some just don't eat it because they will figure something else out somehow," he said.
So the 225-pound player gets up around noon when the team is home and makes the block-and-a-half walk most days to Mingo's Sandwich Factory, a bodega where $13.50 gets him a breakfast burrito and iced coffee plus a turkey sandwich he takes to the ballpark.
Big baseball money could be years away. Or never.
On the golden day a player is called up to the big leagues, his minimum salary shoots up to $507,500 annually and the daily meal and tip allowance on the road rises to $100.50.
First baseman/outfielder Aaron Senne, a 10th-round pick of the Florida Marlins in 2009 who retired in 2013, sued on Feb. 7, 2014, along with two other retired players who had been lower-round selections: Kansas City infielder Michael Liberto and San Francisco pitcher Oliver Odle. The sides are disputing whether it should be a class-action suit, and a trial date is uncertain.
Meanwhile, players who received large signing bonuses watch teammates scrape by.
"It's terrible. I feel bad," said Philadelphia outfielder Dylan Cozens, who played against Cornish in scout ball and got a $659,800 bonus after he was drafted in the second round in 2012. "I see guys in their hotels, they buy a pot and a stove and they cook every meal in their hotel room instead of eating out because they can't afford to eat out."
MLB appears reluctant to negotiate with plaintiffs because other players would not be bound by a settlement and could file additional suits.
"This is not a dollars-and-cents issue," baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said. "It is the irrationality of the application of traditional workplace overtime rules to minor league baseball players. It just makes no sense. I want to take extra BP — am I working, or am I not working? Travel time — is every moment that you're on a bus, is that your commute that you don't get paid for or is that working time? Where's the clock? Who's going to punch a clock to keep track of those hours? When you're eating in a clubhouse with a spread that the employer provided, is that working time or is that your lunch break?"
Rep. Brett Guthrie, a Kentucky Republican, introduced the Save America's Pastime Act in June that would amend the FLSA to state no employer could be subject to liability under that law for work performed by minor league baseball players.
While the lawyers and lobbyists fight, players try to subsist and rise. Cornish could not do it without his father, who works in medical sales, and his mother, employed by Williams-Sonoma.
"I can't complain," Cornish said. "But at the same time I have a girl back in Scottsdale who's a nurse and makes 10 times as much as me."