05 Sep Redefining “Respect the Game”: A Treatise on Labor and Bat Flips
This is the second part of a two-part conversation with Sean Doolittle and his wife, Eireann Dolan. The first part can be found here.
Expanded Roster: I’ve heard you talk before about the exploitative nature of the minor league system, the economics of it specifically. How do we start having a conversation about this when there are so many incentives not to speak out? Do more major leaguers need to speak on this since these young guys don’t really have any protection to talk about it?
Sean Doolittle: I’m not sure how to make it work, I do think they need protection from somewhere, because they are being taken advantage of. I’m surprised this is not being talked about more. I wish more major leaguers cared about it because it affects us in the long run.
ER: Do people treat it like a rite of passage that the minors are so rough?
Sean: Yes, absolutely. Part of the thinking is, well I had to do it. “Back then I had to do it and you know we only got $20 a day…”, etc. It’s really easy for me to say because I got this six figure signing bonus.
ER: Obviously that varies as well. I mean a lot of people looking at the signing bonuses that some people get and say, “Wow, how can I ever feel about for this guy, he got a $2.5 million signing bonus.”
Sean: We’re not talking about those guys, we’re talking about the guys that have signed for $1,000 and the plane ticket.
Sean: Maybe they signed for a couple thousand bucks. Maybe they got their college paid for when they go back. For every guy you see that signed for a six, seven-figure bonus, there’s 100 guys that didn’t and who don’t have that safety now.
I paid off my student loans, I tried to put it as much of that money away as possibly I could. Knowing that safety was there made it a lot more tolerable.
ER: Even with larger signing bonuses, that’s no guarantee that you’re going to remain stable financially or that you’ll be treated well.
Sean: Right. You have to able to budget too and have some foresight. Know that this won’t last forever. You’re gonna be an ex-player a lot longer than you’re going to be a current player. Maybe you wanna go back to school or maybe you wanna start a family, you’re not gonna be able to do that on money you’re making in the minor leagues. The money you make from month-to-month or week-to-week in the minor leagues during the season, you’re basically breaking even by the time you pay rent. We had five guys in a two-bedroom apartment.
ER: Like college.
Sean: It was a lot like a college.
Eireann Dolan: There are air mattresses.
Sean: There are a lot of air mattresses going on.
Eireann: A lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
ER: That’s crazy to me because your physical fitness is so important.
Sean: That’s getting better. They’re eating better food. When I was in the minor leagues, I forget if it was Target or Walmart, one of the big stores had a 90-day, no questions asked, return policy.
ER: So what did you return?
Sean: [laughs] I didn’t, but guys would take advantage of that. That was definitely utilized. You get creative and guys find ways to make it work. That starts to get really difficult as you get older and you have to do it for two, three, four years. Maybe you have a wife, you have a family, you have people that are counting on you, that you’re trying to provide for. You start getting spread more thin and for a long time, like you said, it was viewed as a rite of passage. These were things that we all had to go through, right?
That doesn’t make it fair or right. It was a lot easier to go through that given the financial situation that I was in. The vast majority of guys in the minor leagues don’t have that. Guys are scraping by for years and in the offseason they go home and work three or four jobs. You have to get really creative there too because who’s gonna hire you for four months, knowing that you’re gonna leave again? Guys end up getting manual labor jobs, like working at a Christmas tree farm.
ER: Seasonal jobs. Or they play winter ball.
Sean: Well, that’s another thing. Guys are bartending at night and during the day, they’re doing something else. Again, a lot of these guys have families and there’s not a lot of time to spend with your wife and kids. Maybe guys will go play winter ball. Winter ball pays. Winter ball, Latin American ball, pays significantly better than they pay during a minor league season.
You sign a contract and they’ll be like, “We’ll give you $10,000 to play for six weeks.” Guys say, “How do I pass that up if that’s more money than I make during two or three months in the minor league season?” So, now they’re trying to balance spending time with their wife and kid who they don’t get to see during the season with going to another country to play more baseball where they’re not likely going to be able to come visit. Or maybe the organization is like, “Well, if you could go get some experience playing winter ball, we really think that would help you.”
Now that guy is in a really tough spot, right? There’s all these things going on that people might not think about. All the stuff that you have to go through under the guise of just getting an opportunity to play in the Major Leagues. It’s not like when you get to the Major Leagues like all these problems go away. You still have to stick, you have to make it, you have to stay here.
Sean: It’s not enough to get there. You have to stay and even if you stay, you’re playing for league minimum for three years before you start getting to your arbitration process.
ER: The way it’s set up, you’re essentially being underpaid for the prime of your career and the first time you’re really allowed to set a salary for yourself or be evaluated on your worth, in free agency, people will ding you with, “Oh, well, he’s getting older, so you can’t give him a huge contract for a long period of time.”
Sean: Yeah, they’ll say they don’t want to pay you into your mid-to-late 30s.
Eireann: That’s the unspoken agreement that you enter into. That’s the agreement that you make. You will be paid for your worth after you’ve established your worth.
ER: This winter was a big blow to that idea.
Eireann: I think a lot of people do expect that free agency salary is the compensation for past performance.
Sean: That’s the idea.
Eireann: But obviously that didn’t turn out to be the case.
Sean: The risk is now we have lobbyists in Washington D.C. lobbying for minor leaguers to be paid less money. Like wage suppression. So we haven’t seen what they make rise with with cost of living expenses or anything like that.
If a guy spends four, five, six years in the minors, then finally makes it to the majors, plays well in the beginning part of his career, maybe the team comes to him and offers him this team-friendly deal. That’s what we’re calling it now. A “team-friendly” deal. I signed one of those and to be honest, because of the path that I took to get to the major leagues, I would do it again. Everybody is different.
Eireann: We were grateful for it.
ER: The security is nice too.
Sean: Yeah. A guy gets offered a long-term deal and it comes with a price tag in the 10 or maybe 20 millions of dollars. How do you not expect that guy to sign that deal? Of course he’s gonna sign it. If enough guys do that, teams realize they—
Eireann: They don’t have to pay for free agents.
Sean: Right. They don’t have to pay top dollar for a veteran free agent.
ER: Do you think those team-friendly extensions are the future? Are owners going to look to take advantage of that pressure to sign early for security or because the money seems so appealing?
Sean: Maybe. Maybe, because what you’re asking people to do in that situation is say no to that deal. You have to think, I’m gonna bet on myself. I’m gonna keep betting on myself. I’m gonna play for a couple of years at league minimum and then hopefully in the arbitration process I can start to make a lot more money.
So you are asking that guy to really do that without a safety net. He’s played his minor league career just scraping by, maybe he worked multiple jobs in the office. He’s played winter ball. Now, you’re asking him to just wait a little bit more. Wait another couple of years and then you’ll really start to reap the benefits. That’s such a tough ask. That’s tough to ask them.
That resets the flow a little bit in the market for free agents and guys in the major leagues, they can say, “We can get talent, we can get this guy to sign for significantly less money than we can get this veteran guy to sign for.” I think over a long enough timeline, this needs to be something that we’re paying attention to. Guys like me should try to move the needle because it’s affecting guys in the majors right now, on top of the fact that it’s just not right that these guys are working these hours and getting paid what they’re getting paid.
It’s going to continue until things are changed. I’m not saying that minor leaguers have to be making major league minimum but they do need to be making a livable wage. I imagine that being a hot topic.
ER: It’s hard to defend lobbying against minor league players when the players do not have the opportunity to speak for themselves and advocate for themselves in any meaningful way.
Eireann: Right, and it’s a choice. It’s not even like they’re simply continuing a system that’s already in place. They are going out of their way to make it worse. They’re doing that consciously, which is what’s gross about it.
It actually hurts the game because what you’re doing is you’re self-imposing a limit on the talent pool because what you’re saying is it’s not talent alone that can dictate whether you make it to the big leagues. It’s also who can best afford to stay in the minor leagues enough to be in a position to be seen and have that opportunity.
Whether they have independent wealth or maybe their spouse works or maybe they have a signing bonus, it’s who can afford it. You’re not limiting it to talent alone, which is what it should be. You’re limiting it to talent plus this variable that not everybody has. There are a lot of people who just can’t do that. It could be the most talented guy in the world. It could be a franchise player but you’d never know.
Sean: If as a minor leaguer, you’re able to get through your first six seasons, even if you go unprotected, meaning you don’t get added to your team’s 40 man roster, you can make a decent amount of money signing a minor league free agent deal. That has improved.
We have to acknowledge that as well. Granted, they go month to month and they can go away at any time if the team needs your spot. The more experience you have, if you have a bit of Major League time, that will work in your favor. The minor league free agent contracts pay significantly better than a minor league deal in the first six years. Those guys are getting paid fairly.
Eireann: A living wage.
ER: Six years in the minors, let’s say out of high school. You’re 24, or out of college, you’re 26, 27, 28.
Eireann: It’s a long time to wait to make a living wage.
ER: You can’t put your life on hold. It does affect the sport. It does make baseball look bad. You don’t feel comfortable with who is running the show.
Eireann: Right, in the commissioner and the ownership.
ER: And the homophobia, bigotry, anti-labor stuff, things like that generally aren’t appealing. I was watching one of the Nationals games against the Braves, and Joe Simpson made an insinuation that Juan Soto was lying about his age…
Sean: Oh my gosh, yes.
ER: I was horrified.
Eireann: This was the guy who said something about [Chase] Utley too right?
ER: Yeah, he went off about the Dodgers wearing t-shirts in batting practice.
Eireann: Like they should have been in suits and ties. That’s another big thing. If you wanna grow the game, you want this younger audience, there’s a number of things you can do. Number one, get rid of the announcers who hate baseball. There are some great broadcasters out there but there are so many where their analysis is, “This isn’t how I used to play and I hate this.” Or, “This guy is playing with swag or flair. He’s too flashy or he’s too something else.” And a lot of it it’s couched in racial stuff.
ER: There was that thing with Clint Hurdle. He said, “That’s not respect for the game, that’s not the way we do things here” about Willson Contreras, gesturing to an ump about a call that was high. Here. As opposed to where? It isn’t just Clint, everyone does it. It’s the, “Oh, he’s flashy” or with Dexter Fowler, to be calling him lazy.
Sean: I think that we need to shift what it means to respect the game. Now it gets said with such a negative connotation. It’s used against guys like, “He doesn’t respect the game.” I think the best way to show that you respect the game and that you appreciate the opportunity you have to play this game is by having fun with it. It shows how much you relish this opportunity and that you want to get the most out of it.
You’re playing with passion and energy and if there’s flair that comes along with it, I think that’s cool, I think that’s good for the game, I think if you get mad at the umpire, it’s okay. As long as you do it in a respectful way.
Eireann: Game on the line, if a call gets missed, you’re going to have feelings about it.
Sean: I think it humanizes things. It shows that guys aren’t just baseball robots. We’re out here enjoying the opportunity that we have to play baseball at the highest level in the world. It can also help guys play loose enough to get the most out of their talent. They don’t have to worry about, “What’s this gonna look like if I do this?”.
ER: “Can I make this play this way without them calling me flashy?”
Sean: Yeah. You make a great play and then you celebrate and people get on you for disrespecting the game.
Eireann: I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say, “That guy really respects the game.” You never hear it as a positive.
Sean: You do hear guys say, “That guy plays the game the right way.” That, obviously, is in and of itself problematic.
ER: There’s a quote that I’ve shared a lot from Bud Norris, who is on the Cardinals right now. There’s a long quote he gave to USA Today about the growing influence of Latin America on baseball.
Eireann: I remember that.
“If you’re going to come into our country and make our American dollars, you need to respect a game that has been here for over a hundred years…I understand you want to say it’s a cultural thing or an upbringing thing. But by the time you get to the big leagues, you better have a pretty good understanding of what this league is.”
One of the things that set it off was a discussion about bat flips. I assume you’re pro bat flip?
Sean: Oh my gosh, yeah.
Eireann: I’ve seen you get emotional on the mound before.
Sean: I pitch with a lot of emotion. I try really hard to harness that emotion because I’ve learned that the calmer I stay, the better of a chance I have. I tend to pitch in higher leverage situations, sometimes I can’t help it. I’m super excited that we won the game. I’m super excited that I got a big out in a big situation. Nobody’s ever said anything to me about it. Nobody’s even insinuated, “That guy needs to cool it with his yelling.” Nobody says that.
Eireann: Other than me. It’s another one for the swear jar.
Sean: Some of the best players right now, maybe most of the best players, are from Latin America.
Kelly: Look at the All-Star game. Look at the roster.
Sean: There were a lot of Latin American guys on that team. At one point, the whole infield was from Latin America.
Eireann: There were people on Twitter celebrating that.
Sean: I think it’s good!
ER: That’s another good thing, people get excited about it. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love Francisco Lindor, that moment in Puerto Rico…
Sean: When he hit that home run in Puerto Rico, he celebrated. People got mad enough about it that he felt like he needed to qualify what he did rounding the bases. He raised this hand and, I think, he did a fist pump between rounding first and second. People were like “You don’t do that.” He was like, “Listen, you obviously forgot what my country’s been through.” Like, maybe you forgot how much this game means to Puerto Rico. He hit a huge home run in a huge moment. There’s not usually even major league baseball there. Come on.
Eireann: It’s a highly emotional moment.
Sean: I think like if we’re being really honest, these guys bring an energy to a game that is fun to watch. I think if we’re going to talk about how the game is played here, that would be a pretty boring game. Sure, the game is played in America but it’s played with influences from all around the world and that’s what makes it awesome. That’s what makes it the best game in the world.
The game is better because people from Latin America want to come play in the best baseball league in the whole world. Embrace that idea, let people play the game how they want to play the game. Don’t police that.
Eireann: It’s their game.
Sean: It’s their game as much as it’s our game. We say this is America’s pastime but the numbers have shown that there are a couple other sports that are more popular. In a lot of these countries, baseball is everything.
ER: I was in the Yucatan, which is one of the few places in Mexico where baseball is the most popular sport. It’s so much cheaper there, and it’s something everyone can do, there’s a different vibe, the environment is so exuberant.
Sean: See, and that’s awesome. So when a Latin American player shows some of that flare, wears a flag, or god forbid flips a bat…
ER: I talked to Kolten Wong about that recently, the flag sleeve that he was asked not to wear. He had a Hawaiian flag sleeve after the volcanic eruption and MLB had a problem with it.
Sean: I know [Willson] Contreras was wearing the Venezuela sleeve and he got a letter as well. They docked him for it and then a month later every player, regardless of where they were from, had to wear stars and stripes for the Fourth of July. The optics of that really bother me.
A lot of these guys come to America and baseball was their ticket to give their family a better life. They come from less privileged situations than most American players come from. Don’t talk about disrespecting to game when the game has given them these unbelievable opportunities to improve the lives of them and their families. They’re incredibly grateful for the opportunity to play this game. I promise you they’re not disrespecting the game. If you got your feelings hurt, that’s on you.
If a guy hits a home run off me, drops to his knees, pretends the bat is a bazooka and shoots it out at the sky…I don’t give a shit.
Eireann: I hope after this gets published someone does that.
ER If someone hits a homer off you in the future—
Sean: They better make it count.
Eireann: Make it count. Moonwalk around the bases.
Sean: Do cartwheels around the entire diamond.
ER: I would pay good money to see that. Can you do that?
Sean: I don’t think that’s a penalty.
Eireann: There’s only one way to find out.
ER: I would offer to pay it, but the fine is probably $10,000.
Sean: How about if I match the fine and give it to charity?
ER: There we go. Sean Doolittle will donate $10,000 to the charity of your choice, if you moonwalk the bases after you hit a homer off him. Tell everyone.
Sean: If you do any sort of celebration, really, but I have to think the celebration was actually good.
ER: Okay, so you have to impress Sean.
Sean: Feel free to use the bat as the prop. An air guitar, a pony, some sort of situation where they’re flying around the bases. I feel like people would be into that.
ER: Fans would love it.
Sean: Conversely, I think pitchers should work on their save celebrations.
ER: Do you have a specific save celebration or is it just natural?
Sean: It’s all natural.
Eireann: I don’t think you’re aware of it.
Sean: I usually kind of black out in that moment. I need to find something.
ER: You have to have it ready for your big return.
Sean: I don’t know what it is. I’m excited now. I’m going have to work on that. Part of my foot rehab is going to be working on my save celebration. I have to practice it.
Really, on a serious note, I think those things make baseball more fun, they make it more accessible to the fans. The fans feel like it’s something they can connect with.
When you’re in the backyard as a kid playing and falling in love with the game and you crush the ball? You do a celebration. You stand and watch it like Ken Griffey Jr. You put your hands in the air like Manny Ramirez. You don’t hit the ball and put your head down and run as fast you can. That’s not fun. It’s okay to embrace that part of a game.
ER: You could have that moment, until there’s a universal DH. Though something has to go pretty wrong if you’re taking an at bat.
Sean: [laughs] But I’m ready.
ER: It is a good way to grow the game. That and making it more accessible to people.
Sean: Yes, making games more accessible gets people to watch.
Eireann: Make games accessible on devices, let people watch their own team. Blackout restrictions are frustrating.
Sean: Especially the way people are cutting the cord now, they’re paying for internet but they are not paying for cable anymore.
Eireann: I think there’s a number of things that need to happen but being comfortable showing positive emotion in a big moment is a part of it. I think that’s showing a great deal of respect for the game.
Sean: It shows the appreciation that you have for the opportunity for this game. We’ve touched on some negative parts of the game today.
ER: Out of love.
Sean: 100%. I think this is the greatest game of the world. I love this game. I want to share it with as many people as I possibly can. I want as many people to experience that as possible. We’re constantly working at improving it and in order to do that, you have to identify some of the parts where it’s lacking or needs growth. I really think the game will be better for it in the long run.