The A’s will stop paying minor league players; will they become free agents? Nope.

The Oakland A’s have decided not to pay their minor league players for the rest of the season. That’s their choice, first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle on Tuesday.

The A’s, along with every other MLB team, initially committed to paying their minor-leaguers $400 per week through the end of May as the sport deals with the impact of the shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic. 

According to Baseball America, as of Friday morning, 15 teams have committed to paying their minor-leaguers the standard stipend of $400 per week — on average, that was a raise for Single-A and Double-A players, and a reduction for Triple-A players — at least through the end of June. Some teams, like the Mariners, Padres and Marlins, have already committed to paying their minor-leaguers through the scheduled end of the season. 

It’s not yet known what the other 14 teams will do, but to this point, the A’s are the only team that has decided not to pay its minor league players. How much is that saving the A’s? 

The A’s, as noted by Passan, are owned by John Fisher, who has a reported net worth of $2.1 billion, according to Forbes. He’s the youngest son of Gap founders Doris and Donald Fisher. 

So when we say it’s a choice, it’s just that. John Fisher’s hand is not being forced. He’s not facing insolvency if he pays his club’s minor-leaguers what they’re owed, or what other teams are paying their minor-league players. He’s just choosing not to pay his minor-leaguers — and others in the organization — anything to save a few bucks while baseball is stopped. Seems like a poor human choice, but it’s not my money and he didn’t ask me how to spend it. 

The A’s aren’t the only team cutting minor league costs, it also should be noted. This week was a disaster for minor league players, as hundreds of players across the sport were released on Wednesday and Thursday. 

But here’s a question that immediately came to mind with Oakland’s news: If the A’s are no longer paying their minor-leaguers, shouldn’t those minor-leaguers now be free agents? Logically, that makes sense, and it would be the case for pretty much any other person impacted by the coronavirus. And that’s the case for far too many Americans, as the U.S. unemployment rate hit 14.7 percent in April and is almost certainly higher now. 

I already knew the answer to that question, and I’m sure you do, too. Here’s an email from A’s general manager David Forst to the club’s minor-leaguers. 

Basically: “We’re not going to pay you, but you’re still prohibited by the terms of your contract from seeking employment elsewhere.”

I asked Garrett Broshuis, a former minor league pitcher who is now an attorney with a long history of advocating for the rights of minor-leaguers, for his thoughts on the subject. 

“No other industry in America operates like this,” Broshuis said. “It’s such an unreasonable expectation, to think that even though I’m not paying you anymore, you can’t go and take your skills that you’ve worked so hard to develop and earn a living somewhere else. It highlights the complete ridiculousness of this contract, which is a contract out of the 1920s still, with the fact that they own your rights for so long, and there’s very little the player can do about it.”

The A’s are using Paragraph 23 of the Uniform Player Contract, a section that addresses suspension of a contract. Here’s the standard contract; scroll down to XXIII.

So do the A’s minor-leaguers have any real legal recourse?

“It would take a Curt Flood-like player to actually challenge it,” Broshuis said. “It would be a variabled action, most likely would take an actual legal action in court, because it’s difficult to see how the commissioner’s office would come out with an alternative interpretation. It would take a very brave player to challenge something like this.”

First of all, only a handful of players would even make sense. It would have to be someone who doesn’t figure to be in the mix at the big-league level this year, even with the expanded rosters. But, it also would have to be a minor-leaguer good enough that the A’s wouldn’t want to just cut him to end the hassle (allowing him to be a free agent). And it would have to be someone not concerned how his legal actions would impact how other baseball teams see him. 

But here’s the biggest thing: It’s probably not worth the effort because the timeline just doesn’t make sense. It seems likely that minor league baseball will resume in 2021, which means we’re really only talking about three months of pay the A’s minor-leaguers are missing (the minor league regular seasons finish at the end of August). 

The legal process would certainly take much, much longer. Flood’s case started in 1969 — he refused report after an October trade sent him from the Cardinals to Phillies — and wasn’t resolved until the United States Supreme Court ruled in MLB’s favor in June 1972. 

So, basically, the A’s ballplayers have no real recourse.  Even though the club isn’t going to pay them, they can’t become free agents and there’s really nothing they can do about it. The MLBPA isn’t primarily concerned with players until they reach the majors, and the MLBPA has other pressing matters to deal with at the moment. 

Minor league players don’t have their own union, though Broshuis is part of Advocates for Minor Leaguers, a new organization founded to help represent minor league players. Broshuis has long been leading the charge to raise salaries for minor league players, and this is an extension of those efforts. 

“It just goes to show the root of the issue, which is the lack of representation. Minor-leaguers have never had a union, they’ve never had somebody looking out for their interest” Broshuis said. “This contract has changed very little in the last 100 years. That is the void we’re stepping into. This situation highlights why an organization like ours is so desperately needed, and why we need to grow this organization, and why we need to be out there advocating on behalf of these players. They need it more than ever.”

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