Saturday, July 06, 2013

Playing in the minors

Last night Cosimo and I went to a minor-league baseball game played by our local AAA team. I'd been to a couple of AA games back in college and grad school, but while those outings were great fun, everything about this enterprise seemed more professional: a gorgeous ballpark, smack downtown; a free performance afterwards by the symphony orchestra; a spectacular fireworks display. (I can't claim to remember the level of play at the AA games well enough to make a comparison on athletic grounds.)

I wondered aloud how much the baseball players made and whether it was enough to live on. "Oh sure," said Cosimo. "Not enough to live large--but it's definitely a full-time job. The average triple-A player probably makes as much money as we do."

Which got me thinking--since this week is apparently Compare-Academia-to-Other-Stuff-It's-Sorta-But-Not-Really-Like Week at Ferule & Fescue--how helpful professional sports are as an analogy for the ruthless winnowing of academia. The best ballplayer your high school has ever seen may not get a college athletic scholarship. Many of the best college players don't get the chance to go pro. And of the few who do, most wind up playing in the minors or in overseas leagues; even among sports fans, they don't have a national reputation.

However, the players in the minors are still phenomenally successful. They get paid to do what they love. They have a dedicated local fan base and the best of them are known to players in the majors. Other athletes know who they are and how to value them.

And that's broadly similar to how academia works. I don't know about the rest of you, but when I was on the job market I got a lot of snobbish comments from expensively-educated acquaintances who assumed that the selectivity of a college's undergraduate admissions had some kind of transparent relationship to its desirability as an employer--or the difficulty of getting an academic appointment there.

A friend's boyfriend, upon hearing that I was shortlisted for a job near his hometown in New Jersey, was plainly incredulous: "But. . . would you even take that job?"

"Are you kidding?" I said. "It's a tenure-line job, with a 3-3 load, within commuting distance of New York or Philadelphia. Their junior Shakespearean is already kind of a big deal. It's a really good job."

"If you say so. But the kids I knew who went there were a bunch of dumbasses."

This happens all the time, sometimes benignly (an aunt or uncle just assumes that, with one degree from Cornell and another from Princeton, you're destined for a job at another Ivy--or at least at a state school they've heard of) and sometimes not so benignly (I briefly dated a local guy who repeatedly implied that having a B.A. from the best of the area colleges made him my intellectual superior--because I taught at a school he sneered at).

The error lies in thinking that being in the minors isn't already a sign of success and of having already survived some significant culls. The related error lies in thinking that the only successes are people affiliated with institutions that nonspecialists think they know something about.

I don't want to push this analogy too far or try to nail down the exact equivalencies between the different levels of the minor leagues and the different levels of academic employment; you see what I'm getting at. Those outside of academia only keep up with the local teams or the major leagues--the schools in their region, or the schools with national reputations or the schools that their kids and their friends' kids are applying to. That's perfectly reasonable. But within the profession, the standards of judgement are a bit different.

People move up from the minors--or they don't, but they're still highly trained with an exceptional set of skills (and they're still extraordinarily lucky). In other words, they're all very much in the game.


Comradde PhysioProffe said...

The overwhelming majority of minor league baseball players--even in AAA--earn substantially smaller salaries than you likely do.

Regardless, I agree 100% that academia is a winner-take-all system just like professional sports. I have made this analogy numerous times in the past on blogges, and every time I have done so, academics go fucken ballistic and claim that the difficulty of obtaining a tenure-track faculty position is UNFAIR compared to the difficulty of becoming a major-league baseball player because REASONS.

Anonymous said...

... I wonder if that makes me a Cubs player...

Flavia said...


I looked it up, and it seems that the minimum first-year salary in AAA is $26,000, but the range for all AAA players is from $26K to about $100. No idea what the median salary is--but let's say I make somewhere roughly in the middle of that range!

It's true that there are problems with the analogy, but I think it's more useful than not. I'd guess that your objectors feel that professional sports is more purely about "talent" or "merit" than academia? Maybe that's true once you're actually affiliated with a team (I'm imagining that most players move up and down through the minors & majors in pretty direct relation to their skills--barring injuries), but there's also luck, external circumstances (not getting injured, having the personal/familial resources to pursue the dream), and so on.

But where I think it's a really useful analogy is in how entirely possible it is to be extremely successful--relative to the rest of the field--and still not be famous, or playing for a famous team. (And here, as elsewhere, there's a real limit to the ability of nonspecialists or laypeople to assess success.)


Heh. I'm triple-A. And I'm totally fine with that. (Though as yet the symphony and the firework techs haven't made any guest visits to my classroom.)

Susan said...

Love this analogy. I would have said, with CPP (and now you have numbers) that most minor league players make relatively little money. And, unlike players in the majors, they are not spoiled.

I think that major league players are probably a bit more coddled relative to minor league players than they are in the academic world. But the other similarity is that when you get down to it, our lives are not *that* different if we're in the minors or the majors. We teach classes, grade papers, and do research. The balance of those varies, but still!

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

The main complaint is that academia "lies" to young entrants about the likelihood of success, "exploits" their labor while they are in the minor leagues, and then leaves them without a career if they don't make the majors. How this is any different from professional sports, music, art, writing, or other highly pyramidal winner-take-all pursuits is mysterious to me.

And as far as the AAA salaries, the median salary is a lot closer to the bottom end of the range than the top.

Anonymous said...

I like the analogy between sports and academia even with the differences. You can take the analogy even further than the minor leagues to those on the extreme margins of the major leagues. I read an article in the New York Times Magazine about a player basically trying to make it into the major league. ( )

These seems to be a pretty ugly underbelly to professional sports that the public rarely sees. Like you said, many of us follow the national teams, but these journeyman who go from team to team, hoping to get a long term contract are practically hidden.

Flavia said...


Agree 100%: except when it comes to name-recognition, in academia there isn't necessarily that much difference between those playing in the minors and in the majors. (At least this is true in the humanities, where a scholar may only need inter-library loan, a few databases, and enough money to travel to conferences or research locations. It's obviously different for research scientists.)

But it also matters, I guess, what one considers "minor league," and life in single-A (if we're aligning that with, let's say, being an adjunct with a Ph.D.) definitely looks different from life in the majors, even if the training and skill set are the same. This is where the salary differential between the majors & minors in pro ball is at least very loosely comparable to academia (though the difference isn't as stark, and I agree that very few academics are coddled or made much of).

Flavia said...


Ah! Hadn't seen your comment. But yes: I agree that this is another point of connection. In the invisibility of their (extremely talented) hopefuls as much as in anything else.

EngLitProf said...

Years ago I read a profile of a AAA or AA player whom the Phillies organization had classified as a “non-prospect.” I was fascinated. Obviously some players are far less likely to reach the majors than others are, but I was startled to learn that the organization explicitly categorized some players as filler—good enough to play third base every day for Reading, but not promising enough to justify the organization committing any resources to preparing him for the majors.

Flavia, I think that teaching at a school like yours or mine resembles playing for the Cubs, although you are unquestionably right that some people think we play for the Trenton Thunder or the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders. Major leaguers are not eligible for tenure, I admit, but the minimum salary is $490,000, which means that someone who spends only a few years on a major league roster has enough to help him move on. (People sometimes claim this or that small-market major league baseball team functions as a farm team for richer clubs, but this is hyperbole: right now the Pirates have the best record in baseball.) The closest academic equivalent to playing in AA is less a particular kind of school or department than a particular kind of position: those jobs that a career academic would never take while feeling comfortable with the possibility of never rising higher. I’m thinking of renewable full-time positions, and obviously part-time teaching.

Here is my point: what is really sad is that our profession too readily classifies many people in those AA-like jobs as non-prospects.

Doctor Cleveland said...

I like this analogy a lot. Near the end of grad school, I was sitting in my apartment watching baseball with one of my favorite colleagues, and he mentioned having played a pick-up game with a AAA player from his home town who'd had the briefest of stays in the major. My friend described that experience as like being a child playing against a grown man; the minor-league player seemed nearly superhuman when playing against ordinary people.

Of course, my friend said, I would never have heard of that guy. But I took out my Baseball Encyclopedia and there he was: a handful of games in the big leagues, and fewer at-bats than games (meaning he had been used mostly as a defensive replacement in the last inning or two). It's sobering how talented you have to be even to get that far; and it's sobering how talented many of our colleagues looking for work are.

Anonymous said...

And let's not forget community college professors ... I guess they are Canadian league? Permanent "non-prospects"?

Phoebe said...

This is really interesting (I say, despite knowing nothing about sports). I wonder, then, if part of the trouble is that to even get to the AAA-league of academia, one just about needs an Ivy-or-similar education, and thus surrounds one's self with people (academia-bound and otherwise) who can hardly picture a world outside of those schools.

And there's an aspect of this that isn't even snobbery - if peers value Ivies because they view Ivies as a route to being a professor anywhere, then this is bound to have some kind of impact on how all involved view the schools that, realistically, most who get jobs will end up teaching at (i.e., there's only one HYP - well, three of them).

Your post also reminds me of a related issue, from the students' end (undergrad and grad), that comes up when the profs at good schools have gotten their degrees from the very top ones. Students can feel (sometimes justified, sometimes it's just neurotic projection) as though their professors see them as lightweights, or are pining for the days they spent at a 'real' university. This is readily avoided, I've found, by professors not bringing up HYP in wistful tones in every single seminar. Few do, but those who do don't go unnoticed.

Flavia said...


"Non-prospects." Horrible term, but sadly true to how the profession behaves.


Well, that's the problem with trying to nail down the exact equivalencies between different kinds of academic jobs and the different levels of minor-league play: it doesn't quite work. If all we're talking about is research, a job at a teaching-heavy institution may mean being in the minors--but a professor with a secure, full-time teaching job with benefits is much better off than the equivalent person in the minor leagues in baseball. The former has a stable income and a career with a future, while the latter does not.

(And I know I started this in the comments after saying I wouldn't do it in my post, so I'm really to blame here! I think the broader analogy is very helpful--but it falls apart a bit when it comes to details.)

Andrew Stevens said...

Flavia: I believe you are in error. The minimum salary for AAA is $2150 a month and I believe this is where you got your $26,000 a year from. But AAA ballplayers only get paid when they're working, not during the off season, so they get six of those payments a year. The minimum salary therefore is only $13,000 a year (plus a $25 per diem for meals on the road). However, this exaggerates AAA poverty. Most players make more than the minimum. If a AAA player has been up to the major leagues, he's probably earning about $75,000 or more. If he's been in the minors past his 7 year contract and the team is keeping him around, he'd be in the higher brackets as well. The rest of them? Well they're probably not doing a whole lot better than the minimum, but if the player was a high draft pick, he might be able to live very comfortably off of his signing bonus throughout his minor league career. Even many mid-round picks get signing bonuses which considerably alleviate some of that poverty if properly husbanded.

But AAA players don't generally get in salary the kind of money even AAA college professors get.

Doctor Cleveland said...

The actual details are irrelevant

But, those interested in the details can find the baseball players' union bargaining contract here:

The relevant information is on pages 11 and 12.

That contract suggests that Andrew's corrections are not correct. Certainly it is not the case that AAA players do not have an annual salary. Of course they are paid during the off-season, since the organization needs and expects them to be training during the off-season. You don't draft a pitcher, pay him only while short-season A ball lasts, and then lose your investment because he got hurt working as a mover during the off-season.

Andrew Stevens said...

Doctor Cleveland: Read this article.

Andrew Stevens said...

I believe the mistake you made is thinking that all minor league ballplayers are covered under having "signed a Major League contract." Most minor league players sign a Minor League contract, not a Major League contract. (At least, I think that's why it doesn't apply. I'm not a lawyer, though, just a baseball fan.)

Also see: this article and video. Players don't even get paid during spring training.

Also see this blog post on a blog which is all about minor league baseball.

Comradde PhysioProffe is largely correct. Most minor leaguers don't make much at all other than the top prospects or the guys who have been around a while or those who have been to the majors.

Andrew Stevens said...

I was able to confirm my guess. Minor leaguers are not members of the MLBPA and the Major League CBA doesn't apply to them. I also did a quick count of my local AAA team. For some reason, they had 30 men listed on their roster instead of the regulation 25. Anyway, 17 of those 30 had played in the bigs at some time or another and so are bound by the Major League CBA. Two of them had more than seven years of minor league service so must be on their second minor league contract (which is a little more freely negotiated - teams will pay these players decently). The other 11 had not met either of these thresholds. So the median salary of that team is probably pretty close to a living wage since more than half of them have played in the major leagues.

Anonymous said...

This is "Anon" again. I recently had a beer with a brand new Assitant Prof at a medium-sized state school. Seems like he has a dream job: 2/3 load, just got a summer research grant (with which he and the wife and baby traveled all over the place), lives in a fabulous area, only goes to campus 2-3 days/week. His first question to me was "What's your LOAD?" -- like it was SO AMAZING that I had a 5/5 load at my CC. There is just such a huge cultural difference between him and me. It was just an interesting culture clash between minor leagues and an up and coming superstar.

MineralPhys said...

I also wrote about baseball vs. academia in my blog a while back. Here's the link: