Sea Dogs players react to efforts to unionize minor leaguers

·5 min read

Sep. 9—In conversations with younger teammates, Portland Sea Dogs outfielder Izzy Wilson recounts his life in the lower levels of the minor leagues, where five or six players shared cramped living quarters.

"I've told them how fortunate they actually are, with the stuff that we have been offered the past couple years," said Wilson, who has been playing professional baseball since 2015. "When I first started off, it was pretty much a struggle."

Wilson, 24, said he's glad that the Boston Red Sox, the major league affiliate of the Sea Dogs, now provide housing and pay his clubhouse dues. But he embraces the opportunity to be represented by a union.

"Things have gotten better through the years and we have seen a lot of changes, but I feel like there's still more work to do," Wilson said. "Being in the minors for (eight) years now, I feel like we needed someone to back us up and be there for us ... and we can have a say about how things are done."

Members of the Sea Dogs were among roughly 5,400 minor league players who received an invitation last week from the Major League Baseball Players Association to vote on authorization to become part of their union.

Three days after the MLB Players Association announced that "a significant majority" of minor leaguers voted in favor of the proposal, Major League Baseball announced Friday that it is prepared to accept unionization of minor league players.

Several Sea Dogs players, like Wilson, want to be represented in collective bargaining. Others see no reason for a union.

"I've got no complaints," said Sea Dogs starting pitcher Shane Drohan, 23, who is in his second season of pro baseball. "I know there has been a lot of changes that were implemented last year from how it used to be."

The effort to unionize came in the wake of a settlement of a federal class-action lawsuit seeking higher pay and better working and living conditions for minor league baseball players, whose salaries are paid by major league teams. The minimum salary for players at the Double-A level, where the Sea Dogs compete, is $600 a week. By contrast, the minimum salary for major league players is $700,000 a year, or more than $13,000 a week.

Garrett Broshuis, a former minor league pitcher who is now a lawyer, helped to file the class-action lawsuit on behalf of minor leaguers in 2014. The suit contended that Major League Baseball was breaking state and federal labor laws by paying low wages, ignoring overtime pay and "actively and openly" colluding on working conditions. In May, MLB agreed to settle for $185 million in back pay to approximately 23,000 current and former minor league players. Final approval is expected this winter.

"To think about where things were over eight years ago when the lawsuit was brought, and where they're headed, it's great to see," Broshuis said by phone from his office in St. Louis, where he is a partner with the law firm Korein Tillery. "Progress never comes easy. It was much needed in this industry that was very much stuck in its ways."

Since the lawsuit was filed in 2014, there has been increased media attention on the plight of minor leaguers struggling to make ends meet and threats by Congress to eliminate MLB's antitrust exemption.

Under pressure, Major League Baseball raised minimum salaries for minor leaguers in 2021 by as much as 72 percent, depending on the level of the league. For Double-A players like those in Portland, the minimum weekly salary jumped from $350 to $600. This year, major league teams started providing housing for minor leaguers — a cost burden that had previously been on the players.

Several Sea Dogs players said this week that they welcomed the vote to unionize, and the prospect of having a say in working conditions that have improved in recent years but continue to feature long hours, low pay and no choice of changing employers for seven years after being drafted by a major league team.

"There was good progress being made before this," said Brett Kennedy, a 28-year-old relief pitcher in his eighth season of pro baseball. "Things are going in the right direction. I just don't know if they're going exponentially or slightly in the right direction."

Catcher Elih Marrero is the son of a 10-year big leaguer, Eli Marrero, who was born in Cuba and went on to play for the Cardinals, Braves, Royals, Orioles, Rockies and Mets.

The younger Marrero, 25, began his pro career in 2018 as an eighth-round pick of the Red Sox. He expressed wholehearted endorsement of the unionization effort.

"I think it's going to benefit a lot of minor leaguers, especially the ones who pour their heart and soul into this game," he said. "It's going to help people put themselves in a better place, where they can focus more."

Marrero said the desire of many international players to send money back home to help struggling families can add to the anxiety already built into a system where most fall short of reaching the majors.

"Whatever we can help to give back to these guys who want to take care of their families is big," Marrero said. "Coming from the Latin culture myself, I'm just lucky my dad was able to do what he did. He played, and I'm very blessed."

Infielder Christian Koss, 24, began his pro career in 2019 after the Rockies made him their 12th-round draft pick. The Red Sox traded for him in 2020.

He said he gave his approval for the union, but is uncertain what lies ahead.

"I think everyone's holding their course," he said, "and seeing what the next steps are."