Law Grad Using Degree, Baseball Smarts To Strike a Deal for Minor League Players

April 27, 2023 By Mark Bernstein, Mark Bernstein,

Hard as it is to believe now, Harrison “Harry” Marino discovered his vocation a decade ago, shooting the breeze on bullpen benches, on crowded bus rides and on late-night fast food runs in towns from Aberdeen, Maryland, to Peoria, Arizona.

Back then, Marino, a 2017 graduate of the University of Virginia’s School of Law, spent two years as a minor league baseball player in the lowest rungs of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ and Baltimore Orioles’ organizations. He spent hours talking with his teammates, sharing their dreams of making the majors and commiserating about their minuscule salaries. While a few stars go on to earn millions, players in the lowest rungs of the minor league system could earn as little as $500 a week. Many lived below the poverty line.

Last year, Marino led the organizing of minor league players into a union. In late March of this year, in his new role as assistant general counsel for the Major League Baseball Players Association, he helped negotiate the first collective bargaining agreement for minor leaguers. The deal promises to raise salaries and improve working conditions for more than 5,500 players.

It is an unusual road to follow for a former moot court star and appellate clerk, but Marino’s career path has not been as direct as a trip around the bases. Back in 2012, like most graduates of Williams College, Marino had a lot of job options before him, but he wanted to chase his dream of playing professional baseball. Though he had been a good collegiate player, even throwing a no-hitter his senior year, he went undrafted before the Diamondbacks signed him. He earned a salary of just $3,300 his first season in the minors.

“I remember at the time thinking that maybe it was a joke,” Marino recalls. “I knew minor league players didn’t get paid a lot, but I did not know it was going to be like that.”

Action shot of Marino pitching

Marino was a star pitcher at Williams College before he graduated in 2012. (Williams College Sports Information photo)

Marino played well, but soft-throwing pitchers are fungible in the low minors and the Diamondbacks released him. He signed with the Orioles, eventually playing the 2013 season for their Class A affiliate, the Aberdeen Ironbirds. There, as in Arizona, Marino talked constantly to his teammates about their experiences. Everyone in the minors knew the wage system was unjust, he said, but no one wanted to speak up. Some of his Latin American teammates told him they had dropped out of school to pursue a professional contract with a major league team when they were as young as 12.

“There was this incredible disconnect, where we’re an hour away from Baltimore and the major league team that is making plenty of money, we’re playing in front of crowds of 5,000 or 6,000 people per night, and yet we’re making $8,000 and there’s five guys sleeping on air mattresses in one room,” Marino said. “I really didn’t understand it, and no one could explain it to me.”

Despite pitching well again, the Orioles released Marino just before the 2014 season. But unlike many of his teammates, he had other options. He had already applied to law school, and when he started at UVA that fall, Marino promised himself he would not forget his fellow players. “I wanted a law degree in order to have the privilege to advocate for people like them,” he said.

Group photo of the North Grounds Softball League at UVA

Marino, pictured kneeling second from right with the champion Men’s Gold team in 2015, was active in the North Grounds Softball League at UVA. (Contributed photo)

That determination to become a better advocate colored everything Marino did in Charlottesville. Besides playing a lot of softball (naturally), he participated in the William Minor Lile Moot Court competition with partner and fellow graduate R. Chet Otis, reaching the semifinals. He also published a note in the Virginia Law Review.

Life, however, seemed destined to take Marino far from baseball. After graduation, he clerked, first for Judge J. Frederick Motz, a 1967 law school graduate, on the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, and then for Judge Karen L. Henderson on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. He had just joined the Washington law firm Williams & Connolly when COVID-19 hit.

Early in 2020, Marino read an article about a nonprofit group called Advocates for Minor Leaguers, which was fighting for higher pay and better working conditions for players throughout the minor leagues. Intrigued, he decided to offer his services.

“It was kind of a no-brainer,” he said.

Portrait of Marino with his Lile Moot Court partner, R. Chet Otis

Marino, sporting baseball gear in promotional photos with his Lile Moot Court partner, R. Chet Otis, reached the semifinals of the competition. (Contributed photo)

The group had little funding, so Marino began as a volunteer. But by the spring of 2021, after receiving a $250,000 grant from the Major League Baseball Players Association to accelerate their organizing efforts, AML asked him to become their first executive director.

Marino began laying the groundwork for the minor leaguers to unionize, an effort that met with rapid success. Union authorization cards were mailed to the players at the end of August 2022, and within 17 days they had collected enough signatures to form a union. Major League Baseball quickly agreed to recognize the minor leaguers as part of the MLBPA.

Over the next six months, Marino traveled frequently – from his home in Charlottesville, to the MLBPA and Major League Baseball offices in New York, to spring training sites in Florida and Arizona, and even to the Dominican Republic, where many teams have training academies for their youngest prospects – trying to hammer out an agreement. The parties finally struck a deal in late March.

The new labor agreement, which covers all minor leaguers from Class AAA to the rookie leagues, more than doubles salaries and, as Marino puts it, “guarantees players year-round pay in exchange for year-round work.” Among other things, it also guarantees players better housing and meal policies, improved medical benefits, transportation to games, and the right to profit off their name, image and likeness. Major league owners also agreed not to shrink the number of minor league affiliates during the agreement.

Ride Like A Cavalier, UVA License Plates Are Available from the Virginia DMV
Ride Like A Cavalier, UVA License Plates Are Available from the Virginia DMV

Marino has won praise for his work. “His consistency to the cause is as high as anyone that I’ve been around,” Tony Clark, the MLBPA’s executive director, told The Wall Street Journal last fall. “It comes through loud and clear in how he fights for players and how he’s been willing to engage on any and all of the issues that are front and center. … [I]f this was going to become a possibility, Harry is someone you want to be a part of the equation.”

For his part, Marino said he was pleased with what the union had accomplished, and gives some of the credit to his law school education.

“At UVA Law,” he wrote in an email, “I learned that fierce advocates not only can, but should, treat their counterparts with empathy and respect. I certainly drew on that training when sitting across the table from Major League Baseball’s negotiators. I am proud of the deal that we negotiated and enormously grateful to the Law School for the training it provided me.”

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