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As advocate group raises concerns about housing for Orioles minor leaguers, GM Mike Elias says club would ‘never allow a situation where someone is not safe’

A player advocacy group this week called for the Orioles and other organizations to provide more support for members of their minor league systems, claiming that some members of Baltimore’s Double-A roster were considering sleeping in their cars after the club ceased paying for housing.

Executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias dismissed the claim as “not accurate” and “a reference to hearsay.”

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Advocates for Minor Leaguers, a nonprofit that has used its Twitter account to shed light on the working conditions minor league baseball players face in hopes of improving them, tweeted a thread Tuesday night that stated “multiple” Bowie Baysox players planned to sleep in their cars Wednesday, the first night this season the Orioles would not be paying for their housing after doing so through the first month of the season — a good deed Advocates for Minor Leaguers first publicized.

In a second thread several hours later, the group said Bowie players were told after the game they could obtain a room for 40% of their daily pay rather than the prior 80%. The change was the result of those who are fully vaccinated for the coronavirus having the option to split a room and thus the cost. That availability prompted those players, who as a group already received a discounted rate, to decide to bear that cost rather than plan for a night in their cars.

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“I can assure you that all of our players in Bowie have accommodations,” Elias said on a Zoom call with reporters Wednesday evening.

Informed of Elias’ comments about the accuracy of the organization’s tweets, the executive director of Advocates for Minor Leaguers stood by them, saying the group heard legitimate concerns from players.

“We have no need to make up stories about the mistreatment of Minor Leaguers; there are enough real ones to go around,” Harry Marino said in a statement. “We have spoken with numerous players within the Orioles organization. Everything we’ve said about the Orioles is based on those conversations.

“MLB teams choose to pay most Minor Leaguers less than $15,000 per year. They should take the time to learn how that choice impacts these players. They might be surprised.”

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Reached by phone earlier Wednesday, Marino declined to give the exact number of Bowie players who he heard planned to sleep in their cars. Elias said he and other team officials hadn’t heard about any player’s consideration of that until the group’s tweets.

A former Orioles minor leaguer himself, Marino said he has spoken with several players with each of Baltimore’s affiliates throughout this season. When it comes to housing, he said the complaints he hears from the Orioles’ prospects are often tied to three subjects: the cost of living on a minor leaguer’s meager salary, the lack of communication from the organization and the fear of retaliation.

“They don’t feel that they can speak up and inquire and complain about anything without jeopardizing their careers,” Marino said.

Elias said players feel the opposite way.

“Our players did know and continue to know that we’re available to them should they have any type of hardships arise,” Elias said. “It does happen from time to time, and we handle them quietly from time to time, and we’re here as a resource for them. We’re here to help them.”

Like all MLB organizations, the Orioles pay for housing while teams are on the road. And although they have since stopped doing so at home, the Orioles’ decision to handle living expenses for their players in Double-A and lower through May is more than most organizations have done.

The Houston Astros, Elias’ former employers, are the only one of the 30 major league teams providing housing for all of their minor leaguers, Marino said. He said they’ve bought blocks of apartments near each of their four affiliates, allowing players who move up and down levels to simply shuffle in and out of those rooms.

“The Orioles are not alone,” Marino said. “We’re hearing stories from across minor league baseball about housing problems that are significant. We’ve just heard more details and complaints from guys with the Orioles than from guys with other teams, and that may very well be because the Orioles demonstrated an understanding about this issue and left it open-ended for longer.

“We don’t wish to suggest that the Orioles are outliers here. This is a baseball-wide, MLB-wide problem.”

Elias noted the attention minor league pay and treatment has received in recent years. Wednesday, Orioles manager Brandon Hyde reflected on his own time as a minor leaguer two decades ago, recalling how he would “bust my butt in the offseason” bartending and mowing lawns at a golf course to be able to financially support himself through the season.

“This has been a topic the last couple of years, their ability to make ends meet honestly during the season, it’s been an ongoing topic,” Elias said. “That’s why Twitter accounts like the Minor League Advocates are popping up. That’s why we’re going through kind of the re-imagining of player development that’s been going on the last couple years. We would never allow a situation where someone is not safe.

“We’re making sure that on an individual level how our minor league players are going to be in a healthy, comfortable spot wherever they are, up and down our system. … I feel very strongly that we were in a good spot relative to the rest of the league on this topic, and we will continue to make sure that that’s the case, if not more so.”

After Advocates for Minor Leaguers’ initial thread, several fans in the region reached out to the Baysox via Twitter offering to serve as host families, where members of the community generously house the players throughout the season. The team directed some of those requests to Bowie assistant general Phil Wrye; in an email, Wrye directed an interview request to the Orioles.

Elias said host families are more typical at the lower levels than in Double-A, where players are more likely to be older and potentially married. While host families in some ways appear to be an ideal solution by freeing both teams and players of housing costs, Marino said the onus shouldn’t be on fans to financially support the players they’re cheering for.

“The bottom line is the use of host families is simply taking something that should be the MLB team’s responsibility and putting it upon fans and community members,” Marino said. “This is not college summer ball. This is affiliated, professional, minor league baseball.”

Marino said he believes that in time, all teams will come to adopt the Astros’ model of providing housing at all minor league levels throughout the season. He hopes the Orioles are among the first to join them.

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“What the players want to see is the Orioles do what the Astros are doing and just cover housing at all levels going forward,” Marino said. “I think it’s where the industry’s heading. I think the Orioles could gain a ton of goodwill with their future major leaguers by joining the Astros at the front of the movement because I do think once MLB and teams dig into this, they’ll realize that there are significant financial and also player development costs to having guys this stressed and this not well-rested before games and just worried about things other than their performance on the field, and I think streamlining it would be very, very easy on the major league team level, but it’s just very, very difficult when it’s put on the players.”

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