Luke Barker’s focus has been on making it to the big leagues, but that doesn’t mean he’s had tunnel vision. While climbing the ladder from college baseball to the independent leagues to the low levels of the minors to the doorstep of his dreams, he spotted some serious inequities. And he decided to say something.

“I was seeing guys struggle,” said Barker (Exercise Physiology, ’14; MA, Kinesiology, ’16). “I was looking at two guys—one who can buy a house and the other who can’t buy lunch. That kind of thing is just really hard to ignore. Trying to do something about it was something that I felt like I needed to do along the way.”

Among Major League Baseball’s many alleged injustices, minor league players have been exploited by poverty wages, restrictive contracts, and federal labor laws while the system makes billions of dollars on their behalf, Barker explained. Many work second or third jobs and live in subpar conditions. Sport-related injuries become not only career-ending but debt-inducing.

After Barker took to social media with pointed commentary about the mistreatment, the group Advocates for Minor Leaguers reached out to him and offered a bigger platform from which to air his concerns. Barker was soon featured on a number of national news outlets lobbying for better working conditions. While it may not have been looked kindly upon by his employers, Barker’s advocacy set wheels for change in motion.

This September, the MLB announced that it would recognize Minor League players as a bargaining unit of the Major League Baseball Players Association union, allowing them to advocate for better player protections.

“It’s fair that basic labor laws should apply,” Barker said. “I’m proud of the fact that my involvement helped a little bit. It means something to me personally as well.”

Barker knows the challenges well. The 30-year-old former All-American has spent six years in the minor leagues and played multiple seasons of independent league baseball before that. In the process, he’s seen his teammates and opponents struggle to find tenable living conditions due to minuscule salaries and a lack of housing help from Major League Baseball organizations, each valued at a billion dollars or more, according to Forbes.

“The obvious thing is that at certain levels, guys are making 10K or less for a season. That that’s the life of a professional athlete was always hard for me to comprehend,” Barker said. “It doesn’t have to be like that. It’s fair that basic labor laws should apply.”

But on a Monday afternoon in late May this year, Barker stood in a hallway at historic Wrigley Field and made the phone calls he’d been yearning to make for years. He was finally a big leaguer, called up by the Milwaukee Brewers between games of a day-night doubleheader.

“It was a pretty life-changing moment,” Barker said. “I came out of the office and went right to the hallway and had a little bit of a moment. I called my dad, and we had a moment. It was pretty emotional.”

It was the first of many phone calls: they included his mother, his sister, and his new wife, Jess.

Four days later, including a return trip to Triple-A and another call-up to the Major Leagues, Barker found himself jogging to the mound at Petco Park to face the San Diego Padres for his major league pitching debut.

Luke Barker wearing his Milwaukee Brewers uniform standing in Wrigley Field
Barker wrapped up a successful four-year career at Chico State in 2015, etching his name in the Wildcat record books while racking up numerous accolades for achievements both on and off the field. Dividing time between starting and relieving, Barker won 16 games and posted 18 saves to help the ’Cats capture two NCAA Championship Tournament West Regional titles. In 2014, Barker’s 18 saves led all Division II relievers nationwide, resulting in First Team All-America honors. He was also named to two First Team All-CCAA and All-West Region teams. (Courtesy photo)

He struck out former teammate Trent Grisham with a 91-mph four-seam fastball to start a 1-2-3 inning, and then came back out for the eighth inning to retire Jake Cronenworth, Manny Machado, and Eric Hosmer in order.

After hundreds of thousands of pitches in preparation for this moment, Barker needed only 15 to get through two innings that night.

“It was an overwhelming moment once they told me I was done. I thought about the road getting there and everybody that has been with me all along the way,” said Barker. “It was finally worth it. That was the overwhelming emotion of that moment.”

Unfortunately, the season didn’t end as well. He injured his arm, leading to Tommy John surgery on August 3. To literally add insult to injury, the Brewers released him the night before he went under the knife—further illustrating the need for stronger player protections.

He’s not hanging his head, though. In fact, the minor league free agent got his brace off in mid-September and hopes to resume throwing by the middle of November.

“The goal is to get back to the big leagues,” Barker said. “I feel like I can still do it. I believe in myself as a competitor and a pitcher. I’m extremely proud of the fact that I achieved my goal, but it just makes you want to do it again.”

His arm, and his voice, will be a welcome addition to baseball once again.