ST. LOUIS — Like many young baseball players, Aaron Senne dreamed of fame and fortune when he signed his first contract as a Miami Marlins' draft choice after a record-breaking college career at Missouri.
Reality as a low-level minor leaguer was far different: vending machine dinners, bug-infested apartments and a paltry salary with an equivalent hourly wage less than what fast-food workers make.
Senne and former minor-league players in each of the 30 big-league organizations are suing Major League Baseball, alleging violations of federal wage and overtime laws in a case some legal observers suggest has significant merit. They are seeking class-action status on behalf of the estimated 6,000 ballplayers who toil each summer in outposts stretching from Bluefield, Va., to Bakersfield, Calif., as well as an unspecified amount of back pay.
"You come from high school or college where you're not making anything, and you just think, 'I'm getting paid to play baseball. I'll chase my dream,'" said Senne, who retired last year after having Tommy John surgery on his elbow in 2011, one year after the Marlins paid him a $25,000 signing bonus as a 10th round pick. "You get that first paycheck, and you do a double take. It's an eye opener."
In Senne's case, that first check from New York's Jamestown Jammers, a short-season Class A affiliate, was for $1,100 a month — maximum scale for all first-year players, who typically sign seven-year contracts — and $25 a day in meal money. At his peak, he earned $7,000 in 2012, but like all minor-leaguers, wasn't paid at all during spring training or for his offseason conditioning work.
Federal antitrust exemptions have largely protected pro baseball from comparable legal challenges. But in this case, the 32 plaintiffs recruited by attorney Garrett Broshuis — another former minor-leaguer from Missouri who went to law school after six seasons in the San Francisco Giants' organization — allege violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act, a 1938 law that stipulates a minimum wage for workers and requires overtime for most employees who work more than 40 hours weekly.
The suit was filed earlier this year in federal court in San Francisco, though MLB wants to move the suit to Florida, where most of its teams spend spring training and courts are considered more employer-friendly.
"Yes, these guys are chasing a dream," said Broshuis, acknowledging that short-term sacrifices can become distant memories should a big-league contract with a $500,000 minimum salary and average annual wages of $3 million be attained. "But it's also a job. And it's a job they put a lot of hours in."
Attorneys representing MLB in the California case did not respond to interview requests, and a spokesman in the league's New York office declined comment. In a 78-page response to the suit, the league and Commissioner Bud Selig outlined 30 objections, including an exemption under the federal wage law for "seasonal, amusement or recreational" workers and a contractual requirement that workplace disputes must first go to arbitration before courts intervene.
University of New Hampshire law professor Michael McCann, director of the school's Sports and Entertainment Law Institute, said most minor-league salaries fall far below the federal poverty level of $11,670 for a single person and $23,850 for a family of four. Nor do minor leaguers have the power of a union to advocate on their behalf.
"Maybe for a 19- or 20-year-old, that's all right," McCann said of the typical minor-league contract. "For a guy who's 28 years old with a family, I don't see how there's enough money to pay the bills."
He said the lawsuit makes a "credible argument," but MLB has yet to offer a detailed response.
Broshuis said the disconnect between the idealized version of paying one's dues in the minors and his actual experience was his primary motivation for pursuing a legal career.
Drafted by the Giants in 2004 and out of baseball five years later after a few stints in Class AAA, the Saint Louis University law school valedictorian said the baseball move seemed like step down from his college achievements.
"Very early in my career, I realized that something just didn't seem quite right," he said.
Senne was one of three original plaintiffs in a case that is back in court later this week. He said the suit is a long-overdue challenge to a management mindset that embraced financial sacrifice as a necessary rite of passage.
For players who voiced their concerns, the response from coaches and managers was uniform, he said.
"They would say, 'If you don't like it, play better,'" Senne said. "'Or go get a 9-to-5 job.'"