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Fearful minor-leaguers crave union, voice amid baseball shutdown

The Houston Astros have pledged to pay minor- league players through August amid the league's suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic. File Photo by Gary I Rothstein/UPI
The Houston Astros have pledged to pay minor- league players through August amid the league's suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic. File Photo by Gary I Rothstein/UPI | License Photo

June 8 (UPI) -- Hundreds of Minor League Baseball players have been released during the pandemic's suspension of play -- or had their poverty-level pay cut -- with many afraid to speak out because they have no union representation.

"They know they can be released anytime for any reason," Minnesota Twins prospect Mitch Horacek said in a recent interview. "That brings up so many problems. It's really hard to speak truth to power because you could be done and that's the end of your career, so you have to weigh the consequences."

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Those who lost their jobs also lost health insurance during the coronavirus crisis. With families to support, some can no longer justify pursuing a lifelong dream to play baseball and have moved into other careers.MLB teams agreed to pay MiLB players $400 weekly stipends in April and May. About 25 percent of MLB teams have committed to paying minor-leaguers through at least August. Players from other teams haven't been so lucky.

"We're humans," said Dylan Rheault, who was released by the Cincinnati Reds on June 1. "People always say 'I'd play for free.' Come play for free and support your family. Come play for free and try and eat. Come play for free and try and train. Then tell me how you would play for free.

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"I hope it's fair and that the next generation of baseball players gets the opportunity to play for a livable wage ... They either need to pay us or get rid of a lot of it."

The Oakland Athletics initially stopped paying players on their minor-league rosters before they changed course Friday after widespread criticism from players and fans. They also haven't made major roster cuts, while other MLB teams have released an unprecedented number of minor-leaguers.

"I was told there was nothing I could have done," Rheault said. "I don't have enough Double-A or Triple-A time. [The Reds] told me to go to Double-A and prove myself, but without a season, I don't have that chance.

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"They gave me my release because they don't know what the landscape will be next year."

MLB stars like Mike Clevinger, David Price, Sean Doolittle, Daniel Murphy and Shin-Soo Choo have tried to help. Price, Murphy and Choo pledged to pay the players out of their own pockets. Doolittle and his Washington Nationals teammates offered to pay their minor-leaguers $100 per week after their franchise planned to trim already slashed weekly stipends by that amount. Clevinger has been active on social media in support of the players.

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Agent Scott Boras has committed to paying his released minor-league clients their expected salaries himself.

"One [MLB] player can pay $1,000 to each MiLB player in his organization. Meanwhile, an entire organization pays their players nothing. True colors," Athletics prospect Peter Bayer tweeted.

The MLB Players Union and team owners are working toward a decision for a season return, while MiLB players are on the outside of those talks. MLB players have guaranteed contracts and union protection, which balance their power with billionaire team owners.

MiLB future in doubt

The average salary for a player in Triple-A -- the highest level of MiLB -- was $10,000 in 2019, with players at lower levels earning much less. MLB's minimum salary is about $565,000. MiLB players find it hard to have long-term side jobs because of the time they devote to preparation. They typically turn to jobs like ride-shares, food delivery and youth baseball instructors.

Horacek -- a Dartmouth College graduate -- teamed up with St. Louis Cardinals prospect Anthony Shew for a web development agency. Rheault also works as a throwing instructor and trainer. Those side jobs could become permanent amid the hiatus from the diamond.

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"Tons of players have said they are giving up a career," Horacek said. "You have to put food on the table somehow and can't wait until next February for spring training or April for when your first paycheck comes.

"I'm 28 years old. In the minors, being 28 with no major-league time ... I'm old. It sucks because not having a season this year, it further deteriorates my stock because next year I'll be in same boat, but I'll be one year older without any stats this year."

Players know a 2020 MiLB season is unlikely. The future of the league, as they know it, is also in doubt. The MLB has proposed eliminating as many as 40 minor-league teams for the 2021 season. That move would likely improve quality of play but also end the careers of more than 1,000 players. It would also displace concession workers, ushers and other employees of small-town baseball stadiums.

Minor-league advocates

Former minor-leaguer Garrett Broshuis was a founding member of Advocates for Minor Leaguers. The nonprofit group aims to fill the void left by a lack of union representation for the players. Hundreds of players have joined the group in the last few months.

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"It has been really hard for these guys because when spring training ended they were basically thrown off on their own and told to continue training and continue to work as if there will be a minor-league season," Broshuis said.

"Players feel like they have been let down and are angry about how ownership treated them. MLB teams like to talk about players as being part of family. We saw a lot of instances where players weren't treated like family at all."

The opportunities will also be more rare for star prospects from high school, college or internationally. MLB team owners have cut the 2020 MLB Draft from 40 rounds to five. Teams can sign undrafted players for up to $20,000.

Horacek was a ninth-round pick in 2013 but would be undrafted under the terms of the new draft. A ninth-round pick in the 2019 MLB Draft had a slot value of about $150,000 or $130,000 more than an undrafted free agent would be expected to earn in 2020.

"The guys subject to the rules had no say in the matter," Horacek said. "There needs to be some representation for the minor-leaguers and amateur guys.

"I don't have a voice at the bargaining table but have a voice on Twitter and through media. I don't think support from MLB players is enough ... I think one of the best routes would be the union taking us on. Giving us a seat at the table for at least partial representation."

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