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'It’s just not right:' Advocacy group says Phillies minor leaguers reprimanded for speaking out

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The Advocates for Minor Leaguers is investigating allegations by players in the Philadelphia Phillies organization they were reprimanded for wearing solidarity wristbands in their final minor-league game in support of increased pay and improved living conditions.

“We heard there was some backlash, some troubling reports, and we are definitely looking into it,’’ Harry Marino, executive director of the non-profit group told USA TODAY Sports. ‘We’re very concerned. It’s totally inappropriate to have any kind of backlash.’’

Marino declined to identify those players who voiced complaints, citing their request for privacy and potential retaliation, but will continue to investigate.

“There has been a response from the team side trying to suppress that speech,’’ Marino said, “telling them they should be careful, not to talk like that, and think twice. Teams should be very careful trying to dissuade speaking out.

“The Phillies should know they’re being watched.’’

There were 10 to 25 minor-league players from the Brooklyn Cyclones, the Class A team in the New York Mets organization, and the Class A Jersey Shore BlueClaws of the Phillies organization who wore teal wristbands last weekend that said “#FairBall’’ in their season finales.

The advocacy group reported that no Mets minor-leaguer received any rebuke, with Mets manager Luis Rojas even speaking in favor of the group at Citi Field, but that they received complaints from members of the Phillies.

The Phillies acknowledged that they spoke to their players about the wristbands, but vehemently denied that they “scolded or disciplined our players.’’

“To my knowledge, no player got in trouble for this," Dave Dombrowski, Phillies president of baseball operations, told USA TODAY Sports. “Our staff met with the players the next day since it was the last day of the season, and an end-of-the-year meeting was planned.

“The wrist band topic came up but it was for knowledge sakes. No player got in trouble or was scolded for wearing them.’’

#FAIRBALL: Mets, Phillies minor leaguers protest pay with solidarity wristbands

RESHUFFLE: Minor-league teams who faced extinction are back but not the same

The dispute is the latest in the ongoing battle between Advocates for Minor Leaguers and Major League Baseball. While the advocacy group is seeking increased wages, hoping to have a minimum salary of $15,000, MLB argues that minor leaguers already received a pay increase this year while they continue to enhance their living conditions.

“Player salaries and working conditions are unequivocally better than they were under the previous structure,’’ MLB said in a statement. “While more work remains, enormous strides have been taken by increasing salaries from 38% to 72% for 2021, improving facilities, providing more amenities and better clubhouse conditions, and reducing in-season travel with better geographical alignment.”

MLB, which spent about $450 million in signing bonuses for domestic and international signees this past year, raised minor-league salaries to a minimum of $700 per week at Class AAA, $600 per week at Class AA, and $500 at Class A. The previous minimums were $502 at Class AAA, $350 at Class AA and $290 at Class A.

The increase still leaves wages woeful, Marino says, considering the federal poverty level is $12,880 (or about $250 per week) for individuals.

“We have not had any kind of conversation with MLB,’’ Marino said, “but we have certainly talked to people with various teams and team officials who understand the need for change. They want to be part of this conversation moving on.

“This is a massive failure of player development to be treated this way, and obviously not the best for their development. Some of the team officials are telling us they’re happy we’re raising the awareness.

“It’s time for every minor league to be paid a living wage.’’

While living conditions and pay for minor leaguers may have improved, Aron Solomon, the chief legal analyst for Esquire Digital and an advisor for the Advocates for Minor Leaguers, said he believes there won’t be true fairness unless MLB’s antitrust exemption is removed.

Minor league players in the Mets and Phillies farm systems wore teal wristbands to protest unfair pay.
Minor league players in the Mets and Phillies farm systems wore teal wristbands to protest unfair pay.

“Until significantly better working conditions are legislated or dictated by the highest court in the land,’’ Solomon said, “long-term foundational change for the game remains an inspiration rather than a reality. But I still believe the antitrust exemption will go away. The courts already addressed the name and likeness for the NCAA players, so there’s a judicial appetite for it to happen.’’

In the meantime, Marino and Solomon hope that minor leaguers freely speak out, particularly after seeing Phillies outfielder Andrew McCutchen wearing the same wristband during the nationally-televised ESPN game Sunday night ("I’m sure the Phillies didn’t try to stop Andrew," Marino said) and public support from Rojas.

“I think those guys standing for something that they believe, you’ve got to respect that,” said Rojas, who managed in the minors for eight years. “If there’s going to be an upgrade there, I’ll be one of the guys to say, ‘Yeah, that would be great.' "

Said Solomon: “I thought that was great. The commissioner of MLB is having absolute nightmares what’s going with the minor leagues. It’s something that every single team would love to go away. I think it’s ridiculous it has come to this. It’s just not right."

Still, there’s a fear of repercussion, Marino and Solomon say, for those who express their outrage. If you’re a fringe minor league player, they say, you could be out of work. And if you're on the fringe of the big leagues, they say your career could be stalled if you’re perceived to be a malcontent.

It’s why the decision to wear wristbands was not publicized until the day of the game, Marino said, fearing that if word leaked, clubs would stop the Fan Appreciation Day. Besides the “FairBall’’ wristbands that were handed out to fans, pamphlets were distributed detailing the financial issues faced by its players.

“I personally would not want to be a minor-league baseball player whose a union activist,’’ Solomon said. “Look at (former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kapernick). And he had power. What happens to a minor-leaguer making $7,500 from Winston-Salem?

“This is straight-up labor war at this point, and there are penalties, whether legal or not, for those who speak out.’’

MLB insists players have never been punished for speaking out, and areimploring patience after their reorganization, reducing minor-league affiliates from 160 teams to 120.

“We are seven months into a significant change that aims to address longstanding issues that have impacted minor league players,” MLB said in its statement. “Improving the working conditions and pay for minor leaguers is among the chief goals of the modernization of our player development system."

In the meantime, Marino and the advocacy group say it will be watching what changes are made next year, while deciding just how loudly they need to be heard.

“MLB is hoping this is a flash in the pan and this won’t continue,’’ Solomon said. “Well, the word is out. It’s not about getting rich. There are players that are losing money every single year.

“All we’re doing is asking for labor fairness.’’

Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Minor League Baseball players fight for better conditions, pay