A deadline looms on an international draft, but players from Latin America, who would be affected more than anyone, are largely absent from union leadership.
When Major League Baseball and the players’ union worked their way through the contentious negotiations for a new labor agreement this past off-season, one topic had to be deferred in order to avoid delaying the regular season. M.L.B. had long wanted to create an international draft, while the union had resisted those efforts. The sides agreed to decide the issue by July 25, which allowed for the regular season to proceed in April.
The players were represented in those negotiations by union officials, lawyers and player representatives. Stars like Mets pitcher Max Scherzer, the retired pitcher Andrew Miller and Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, all of whom are elected player representatives, attended numerous bargaining sessions and conference calls. During that process, players from Latin America, the group that would feel the effects of an international draft more than anyone, were represented in far fewer numbers.
The union’s executive board, which voted 26-12 on March 10 in favor of the new labor deal, is made up of 38 members, with each team electing a player representative, and those 30 players working with an eight-player executive subcommittee that is elected by their peers. During the negotiations, only two members of the executive board were Latinos born outside the mainland United States. That number did not change after teams held this year’s player representative elections.
Francisco Lindor, 28, a Mets shortstop from Puerto Rico, is a member of the executive subcommittee while Miguel Rojas, 33, a shortstop from Venezuela, is the Miami Marlins’ team representative. In a league where 29 percent of players are Latino — the sport’s largest minority group — players said their presence in the leadership ranks of their union needs to improve.
“There should be more Latinos in the representation of the union,” Rojas said earlier this year in Spanish, “because we’re a large percentage and we represent a lot of players who don’t always have an idea what’s going on.”
The lack of players from Latin America in its leadership, though, didn’t prevent the union from resisting the international draft, particularly in the late stages of the negotiations. During talks, the union wanted to end the qualifying offer system in which draft picks are tied to top free agents, as they believe that system has hurt the market value for those players.
So when the negotiations hit a roadblock, the sides agreed to set the issue aside until deeper into the season, with an agreement that they would either adopt an international draft or keep the qualifying offer system.
Nelson Cruz of the Washington Nationals, who is seen as a leader by younger Latino players and who has been part of the union’s calls on the matter, said players weren’t ready to decide on a draft at that point.
“There were a lot of meetings and they heard us,” Cruz, 42, who is from the Dominican Republic, said of the union. “A lot of Latino players were involved.”
M.L.B. has said it has wants to overhaul the international free-agent system, in which children as young as 16 can sign with teams, because of concerns over corruption, performance-enhancing drug use and verbal agreements with children much younger than allowed, particularly in the Dominican Republic. The Caribbean island has produced more baseball players than any country outside of the U.S.
But the union, whose previous proposals for modifying the existing international entry system were rejected by M.L.B., has pointed to teams’ front offices and scouts as the culprits. After the new labor deal was struck in March, Tony Clark, the union’s executive director and a former player, called the challenges of the current system “largely associated with those that are cutting the checks.”
M.L.B. Commissioner Rob Manfred countered last month, telling reporters, “Our efforts to rein in corruption in the Dominican have been ongoing and legion. It’s easy to say that it’s people that cut the check, that they’re engaged in corruption. But, you know, somebody’s taking the check, right?”
M.L.B. has proposed a draft of 20 rounds for international amateurs beginning in 2024 that would include $181 million in spending for the top 600 picks, hard rules on the assigned bonuses for each pick and a limit of $20,000 for signing undrafted free agents. The union countered last week with a 20-round draft that included $260 million in spending for the top 600 picks, looser rules on the assigned bonuses, a limit of $40,000 for signing undrafted free agents, and a series of measures it felt could improve players’ development and education.
(After an amateur player signs with a team, the union does not represent them until they are on a 40-man major-league roster.)
When M.L.B. pressed for an international draft, Mauricio Dubón, an infielder from Honduras, said the San Francisco Giants’ player representative, outfielder Austin Slater, asked him and his other Latino teammates for their thoughts. But Dubón, 27, who is bilingual and moved to Sacramento for high school, said other Latinos don’t get more involved in the union because of the language barrier.
Although the union provides players with regular updates in Spanish, and translates proposals, Dubón, who is now with the Houston Astros, said “it’s not the same as understanding it directly from the source.”
Sean Doolittle, 35, a Nationals reliever from the United States who has served as a team representative, said it can be daunting for a player — even with 10 years in the majors league like himself — to speak up about complicated matters in a room or video call full of their peers. “And then imagine doing that in your second language,” he said.
He added later, “We can do a better job of raising their voices and making sure they feel more included.”
When the international draft was being discussed over the off-season, Doolittle said he watched player representatives reach out to their Latino teammates. The more he heard from them, the more he realized he didn’t know enough about the complex topic.
Lindor, who was selected in the first round of the 2011 draft — as Americans, Puerto Rican players are subject to the current amateur draft, as are any players from Canada — said he was unsure why there weren’t more Latinos in leadership. “I don’t know if they’re timid or scared to use their voice,” he said.
He added that he always had an interest in that side of the sport and he pointed to Miller, his teammate in Cleveland, for teaching him about union matters.
Rojas said Cameron Maybin, an American outfielder who is now broadcasting, urged him to become the team’s player representative in 2016 and he has remained in the role since. The job, he said, can be daunting.
Rojas, who signed with the Cincinnati Reds as an amateur in 2005, said it can be a lot of work to share updates with all of his teammates, in multiple languages, solicit their feedback, check in with them regularly and more.
“To be a rep, you have to understand a little about laws and a little about how things work here in the U.S.,” he said. “We come from a different culture. We have laws in our countries but they’re completely different than how we live here. When we’re talking about a competitive balance tax or talking about salary minimums, those are things as a baseball player you’re not informed on 100 percent.
“When I took on this responsibility, I took on the responsibility to really learn more about what was happening.”
Despite few of them having leadership positions, Latino players have a voice in the union, Rojas said, pointing to top officials who have taken the time to listen to their concerns and who employ bilingual staff members and provide interpreters or translations.
“We need that strong voice in the union,” he said. “It’s not an easy responsibility that just any Latino can assume because when we’re talking about representing 40 guys, not everyone has ability or time to send all the messages and stuff.”
Some veteran Latino players such as St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, a Puerto Rican, and Yankees reliever Aroldis Chapman, a Cuban, said they were not interested in taking part in the negotiations. Others, who are not team representatives but remain active, include Baltimore Orioles catcher Robinson Chirinos, a Venezuelan, and Cruz.
“You have the responsibility to inform yourself, and as a leader or as a player with more experience, the younger guys always try to ask you or orient themselves, and you have to be informed if you’re going to give them information,” said Cruz, who didn’t attend the negotiating sessions in person but participated virtually.
Cruz and Rojas said they often urge younger Latino players to get more involved in the union.
“It took time to understand what the union was about, what are the benefits, how they help you, what’s the struggle,” Cruz said. “Those are things you have to learn before being part of the union actively. Not saying you can’t do it. You can still be involved. But to me, it was a learning process.”