Minor leaguers seek investors, donations to make ends meet

PHOENIX – Jeremy Wolf loved being a professional baseball player. The New York Mets were his favorite team as a child, and it was a dream fulfilled when they selected him in the 31st round in 2016.

The reality was something else. From first pitch to the final out was a blast, but the time between games was filled with anxiety. His meager signing bonus wasn’t delivered until after his first season ended. In the meantime, he needed money for rent, cleats, bats, car payments, food and more—an impossible amount to cover on his $1,100 per month salary. Then he hurt his back, was cut 16 months after he signed, and left baseball with a couple thousand dollars in credit card debt.

“It’s really great to play minor league baseball,” Wolf said. “It’s an honor and a privilege. But I can’t eat privilege.”

He and others are trying to do something about that.

MLB generates billions in revenue each season, yet players throughout its minor leagues are sleeping on air mattresses, skipping meals and purchasing equipment on the cheap while making as little as $3,300 per season. The inequity of baseball’s pay system is attracting private companies eager to invest in players in exchange for a cut of potential big league paydays—one is even organizing direct investments by MLB and NFL players. Meanwhile, Wolf is helping minor league players use online crowdfunding to ask fans to provide money for meals, rent, cleats and other essentials.

Minor leaguers at the lowest levels can make as little as $1,100 per month despite spending 50-to-70 hours per week at the ballpark. A lawsuit alleging MLB violated minimum wage and overtime requirements was pre-empted last year when congress passed the “Save America’s Pastime Act,” which stripped minor leaguers of the protection of federal minimum wage laws.

MLB is also pushing Arizona lawmakers to exempt minor league players from minimum wage laws there, a move that would affect hundreds of players who are not paid during spring training.

The Toronto Blue Jays decided last month to boost minor league salaries by 50 percent, making them an outlier among the major league’s 30 clubs.

For players elsewhere, addressing short-term needs can be a dire matter. Most get signing bonuses of just a few thousand dollars, and they only pull in a salary during the season, which is either three or five months long, depending on the league.

Expenses in-season vary by organization, but players usually have to find their own equipment, at least one meal per day, and pay clubhouse dues. Housing is tricky, especially this time of year. Thursday is opening day across most of the minor leagues, and that means many players have been scrambling this week to arrange apartments across the country. It’s a tough task, made all the trickier because those players’ employers haven’t written them a check since September.

Wolf founded More Than Baseball to help address those needs. The group uses online donations—it’s raised over $2,000 so far this spring—to help fund meals, rent and other necessities. It sets players up for group discounts with landlords and baseball equipment companies, finds offseason jobs and internships for players, arranges host families, and provides career services so players have options when they’re playing days end.

“In a way we’re mitigating stress,” Wolf said. “And if we mitigate stress, we’re going to allow the kids to just enjoy playing minor league baseball.”

More Than Baseball’s staff includes a few retired players, including former Yankees outfielder Slade Heathcott. It also has labor lawyers, marketing professionals and economists as advisers.

Other professionals from outside baseball have stepped in, too, to offer resources as investors. Some companies, like Big League Advance, propose minor leaguers cash to cover costs now, then take a cut of their future earnings if they make the majors.

Another option is Pando Pooling, a private company that allows players to pool their future earnings, increasing the chance of a life-changing pay day in a career where many top prospects never cash a million-dollar paycheck. For instance, a group of five third-round draft picks could agree to enter a pool together. If four players wash out due to injury or poor performance but one player becomes a star worth hundreds of millions of dollars, each of those players get a share of those earnings.

“We want players to be more comfortable with their decision to be a baseball player and to feel secure in their financial outcome,” co-founder Charlie Olson said.

There are stipulations. Pool contributions from a single player are capped at $20 million, and players don’t begin to contribute until they’ve earned at least $1.6 million in their career—roughly the amount a player would make via the major league minimum in his first three seasons before becoming eligible for arbitration.

“I think Pando presents an opportunity that hasn’t been presented in the past,” said Indians minor leaguer Logan Ice, a second-round pick in 2016 who leads his Pando pool. “It gives players a way to diversify the risk in baseball, which is a risky profession.”

Pando has more than 200 players on board, and it’s eyeing expansion. It has launched a similar operation with football players, who also face long-term uncertainty because NFL contracts are not guaranteed.

It also is considering a new model: pairing successful pro athletes with aspiring prospects. Olson says both MLB and NFL players have expressed interest in backing minor league baseball players, offering cash and other resources like access to trainers and nutritionists in exchange for a percentage of future earnings.

“We’re trying to find as many ways as possible to help improve the lives for professional baseball players,” Olson said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Texas bans clergy from executions after Supreme Court ruling

DALLAS – Texas prisons will no longer allow clergy in the death chamber after the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the scheduled execution of a man who argued his religious freedom would be violated if his Buddhist spiritual adviser couldn’t accompany him.

Effective immediately, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will only permit prison security staff into the execution chamber, a spokesman said Wednesday. The policy change comes in response to the high court’s ruling staying the execution of Patrick Murphy, a member of the “Texas 7” gang of escaped prisoners.

Texas previously allowed state-employed clergy to accompany inmates into the room where they’d be executed, but its prison staff included only Christian and Muslim clerics.

In light of this policy, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Texas couldn’t move forward with Murphy’s punishment unless his Buddhist adviser or another Buddhist reverend of the state’s choosing accompanied him.

One of Murphy’s lawyers, David Dow, said the policy change does not address their full legal argument and mistakes the main thrust of the court’s decision.

“Their arbitrary and, at least for now, hostile response to all religion reveals a real need for close judicial oversight of the execution protocol,” Dow said

Murphy’s attorneys told the high court that executing him without his spiritual adviser in the room would violate the First Amendment right to freedom of religion. The 57-year-old—who was among a group of inmates who escaped from a Texas prison in 2000 and then committed numerous robberies, including one where a police officer was fatally shot—became a Buddhist while in prison nearly a decade ago.

In his concurring opinion, the court’s newest justice, Brett Kavanaugh, wrote that Texas had two options going forward: allow all inmates to have a religious adviser of their religion in the execution room, or allow religious advisers only in the viewing room, not the execution room.

“The government may not discriminate against religion generally or against particular religious denominations,” Kavanaugh wrote.

Kristin Houlé, executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, called the new policy “cruel and unusual,” and urged the department to reconsider.

Prison chaplains will still be able to observe executions from a witness room and meet with inmates on death row beforehand, said Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jeremy Desel. He declined to elaborate on the reasoning behind the policy change.

The change brings Texas in line with most other death penalty states, which do not allow clergy into the execution chamber, according to Robert Dunham, a lawyer and executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. But it is also likely to open new legal fights for America’s busiest execution state, he said.

The policy change could be challenged as generally discriminating against religion and as retroactively targeting Murphy despite having a general formulation, Dunham said. If these arguments are presented to the high court, a ruling could have implications for how executions are conducted around the country, he said.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Murphy’s case followed a similar appeal in February, when the court ruled Alabama could execute a Muslim inmate without his Islamic spiritual adviser present in the execution chamber. The court decision that allowed Dominique Ray to be executed attracted public criticism , and Dunham said the ruling staying Murphy’s execution might have been an effort by the justices to avoid further blowback.

“When you look at the court’s order, they were hoping that Texas would give them a way out by accommodating Patrick Murphy’s request,” he said. “Texas has chosen not to do that, so it’s likely that the ball with be back in the proverbial judicial court.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

House votes to end support for Yemen war

WASHINGTON – The House on Thursday voted to end American involvement in the Yemen war, rebuffing the Trump administration’s support for the military campaign led by Saudi Arabia.

The bill now heads to President Donald Trump, who is expected to veto it. The White House says the measure raises “serious constitutional concerns,” and Congress lacks the votes to override him.

By a 247-175 vote, Congress for the first time invoked the decades-old War Powers Resolution to try and stop a foreign conflict. The Senate vote was 54-46 on March 13.

“The president will have to face the reality that Congress is no longer going to ignore its constitutional obligations when it comes to foreign policy,” said Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He said the humanitarian crisis in Yemen triggered by the war “demands moral leadership.”

The war in Yemen is in its fifth year. Thousands of people have been killed and millions are on the brink of starvation. The United Nations has called the situation in Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

The top Republican on the committee, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, acknowledged the dire situation in Yemen for civilians, but spoke out in opposition to the bill, saying it was an abuse of the War Powers Resolution.

“This radical interpretation has implications far beyond Saudi Arabia,” McCaul said. He warned that the measure could “disrupt U.S. security cooperation agreements.”

Democrats overcame a Republican attempt to divide the majority party through a procedural motion involving Israel just minutes before the Yemen vote. Republicans wanted to amend the Yemen bill with language condemning the international boycott movement and efforts to de-legitimize Israel. Democrats argued the amendment would kill the Yemen resolution, and most of them voted against the Israel measure.

“This is about politics, this is about trying to drive a wedge into this caucus where it does not belong,” said Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., said to applause from Democrats. Deutch described the boycott movement as “economic warfare,” but called on lawmakers to vote against the amendment.

“The Jewish community also has a history of standing up against atrocities like the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. My colleagues are trying to block us from standing in support of human rights,” he said.

Opposition to the Saudi-led war in Yemen gathered support last year in the aftermath of the killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Washington Post columnist was killed in October by agents of the kingdom, a close U.S. partner, while he was in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. U.S. intelligence agencies and lawmakers believe that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of Khashoggi, who had written articles critical of the Islamic kingdom.

Lawmakers from both parties have scrutinized U.S.-Saudi ties and criticized Trump for not condemning Saudi Arabia strongly enough.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Mormons repeal ban on baptisms for children of LGBT parents

SALT LAKE CITY – The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Thursday repealed rules unveiled in 2015 that banned baptisms for children of LGBT parents and made same-sex marriage a sin worthy of expulsion.

The surprise announcement by the faith widely known as the Mormon Church reverses rules that triggered widespread condemnations from LGBT members and their allies and marked a jarring shift from the church’s push to carve out a more compassionate stance on LGBT issues.

The rules banned baptisms for children living with LGBT parents until they turn 18, disavowed same-sex relationships and received approval from global church leaders.

With the change, children of LGBT parents can now be baptized as long as their parents approve the baptisms and acknowledge that the children will be taught church doctrine, the church said in a statement from its highest leadership group called the First Presidency.

The faith said in a statement that it is not changing its doctrinal opposition to same-sex marriage and still considers same-sex relationships to be a “serious transgression.”

But people in same-sex relationships will no longer be considered “apostates” who must be kicked out of the church, the statement said.

“The very positive policies announced this morning should help affected families,” the leaders said in the statement. “In addition, our members’ efforts to show more understanding, compassion and love should increase respect and understanding among all people of goodwill.”

The change marks the biggest move yet by church President Russell M. Nelson, who has made a flurry of changes to how the church functions since taking over the faith in January 2018.

Troy Williams with the LGBT-advocacy group Equality Utah called the announcement a big step forward.

“Clearly this is a great development for the church,” he said. “I think this will go a long way toward healing Latter-day Saint families that have LGBT members.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

President Trump signs memorandum to stem counterfeit goods trafficking

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump signed a presidential memorandum on Wednesday to rein in what the administration calls the “Wild West” of online trafficking in counterfeit goods.

The memorandum is aimed at stopping the sale of counterfeit products on sites like Amazon, eBay and the People’s Republic of China’s e-commerce leader, Alibaba.

“This president has decided that it’s time to clean up this Wild West of counterfeiting and trafficking,” said Peter Navarro, director of the White House National Trade Council.

“The central core of the problem is that right now, third-party online marketplaces … have zero liability when it comes to trafficking in these counterfeit goods. That simply has to stop. We are going to attack that on numerous fronts.”

In a statement released on Wednesday, Amazon said that it “strictly prohibits” the sale of counterfeit products and welcomes more coordinated support from law enforcement to stem the problem. Amazon said that last year it spent more than $400 million fighting counterfeits, fraud and other forms of abuse.

“We have built industry-leading tools like Brand Registry, Transparency and our newly launched Project Zero to protect our customers and help rights owners drive counterfeits to zero,” the company said. “With these and other tools, we ensure that over 99% of the products that customers view on Amazon never receive a complaint about counterfeits.”

Navarro said discussion of possible actions the administration will take to deter online trafficking in counterfeit merchandise is premature. He says the directive orders the Department of Homeland Security to work with other agencies on a report identifying the scope of the problem. The report also is to identify the origin of the fake goods and recommend administrative, regulatory, legislative or policy changes to stem the problem.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that the value of trade in counterfeit and pirated goods is about a half trillion dollars a year, with roughly 20% infringing on U.S. intellectual property, according to the directive.

The U.S. is engaged in a trade dispute with the People’s Republic of China after the Trump administration made several complaints, including that the PRC was stealing U.S. trade secrets and forcing companies to give them technology to access its market. Trump imposed tariffs on $250 billion of Communist Chinese imports, about half what the United States buys from that country. China retaliated with tariffs on about $110 billion of U.S. items. Trade talks are ongoing.

Navarro told reporters in a conference call, however, that the new memorandum has nothing to do with the U.S.-PRC trade talks or Trump’s criticism of Amazon owner, Jeff Bezos. Trump has accused Amazon of not paying its fair share of taxes, harming the U.S. Postal Service and putting brick-and-mortar stores out of business.

A recent Government Accountability Office report examined four categories of frequently counterfeited goods, and, based on a small sample of these goods purchased through various online third-party marketplaces, investigators found that more than 40% were counterfeit, Navarro said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Newly elected Chicago mayor: Victory means ‘a city reborn’

CHICAGO – Chicago Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot’s resounding victory was a clear call for change at City Hall and a historic repudiation of the old-style, insider politics that have long defined the nation’s third-largest city.

Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor who’d never been elected to public office, defeated Cook County Board President and longtime City Council member Toni Preckwinkle on Tuesday with backing from voters across the city. Late results showed Lightfoot, 56, winning every one of the city’s 50 wards.

Lightfoot also made history, becoming the first African American woman and the first openly lesbian person to be elected Chicago mayor. Chicago will become the largest U.S. city to have an African American woman serve as mayor when Lightfoot is sworn in May 20. She will join seven other African American women currently serving as mayors in major U.S. cities, including Atlanta and New Orleans, and will be the second woman to lead Chicago.

“Out there tonight a lot of little girls and boys are watching. They’re watching us, and they’re seeing the beginning of something, well, a little bit different,” Lightfoot told a jubilant crowd at a downtown hotel. “They’re seeing a city reborn.”

She pledged to make Chicago “a place where your zip code doesn’t determine your destiny,” to address the city’s violence and to “break this city’s endless cycle of corruption” that allows politicians to profit from their office.

Lightfoot emerged as the surprising leader in the first round of voting in February when 14 candidates were on the ballot to succeed Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who decided against running for a third term.

She seized on outrage over a white police officer’s fatal shooting of African American teenager Laquan McDonald to launch her reformer campaign. She got in the race even before Emanuel announced he wouldn’t seek re-election amid criticism for initially resisting calls to release video of the shooting.

Joyce Ross, 64, a resident of the city’s predominantly black or African American West Side who is a certified nursing assistant, cast her ballot Tuesday for Lightfoot. Ross said she believes Lightfoot will be better able to clean up the police department and curb the city’s violence.

She was also bothered by Preckwinkle’s association with longtime Alderman Ed Burke, who was indicted earlier this year on charges he tried to shake down a restaurant owner who wanted to build in his ward.

“My momma always said birds of a feather flock together,” Ross said.

Preckwinkle said she called Lightfoot Tuesday night to congratulate her on a “hard-fought campaign.”

“While I may be disappointed I’m not disheartened. For one thing, this is clearly a historic night,” she told a crowd gathered in her South Side neighborhood. “Not long ago two African American women vying for this position would have been unthinkable. And while it may be true that we took two very different paths to get here, tonight is about the path forward.”

That path will have major challenges. Chicago has been losing population, particularly in predominantly African American neighborhoods hit hardest by violence and a lack of jobs.

The new mayor will take over a city that faces massive financial problems. She will have just a few months to prepare a new budget, which in 2020 is expected to have a roughly $250 million deficit. Lightfoot also will take over the worst-funded public pensions of any major U.S. city. Chicago’s annual payments to the retirement systems are slated to grow by $1.2 billion by 2023.

She has expressed support for a casino in Chicago and changing the state’s income tax system to a graduated tax, in which higher earners are taxed at a higher rate—two measures lawmakers have tried for unsuccessfully for years to pass.

Violence and policing will also continue to be an issue, and one that has proven to be politically difficult.

The Chicago Police Department must implement a federally monitored consent decree approved in January. It followed the McDonald killing and a U.S. Justice Department review that found a long history of excessive use of force and racial bias by officers.

While voters also elected several newcomers over City Council veterans, Lightfoot will have to work with a council that has a sizable number of members who are the type of politicians she railed against during her campaign.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Former New York teacher threatens lawsuit against school

NEW YORK CITY – A former New York middle school teacher has threatened to sue a school district in New York State, saying it was because of a topless photo of herself had gone public.

“My career has been ruined, my reputation has been tarnished,” said 25-year-old teacher Lauren Miranda. “I have been stigmatized.”

Attorney John Ray said South Country School District fired his client from her job teaching mathematics at Bellport Middle School on Long Island last week because the superintendent said Miranda wasn’t a good role model after a photo of her exposed chest was leaked to a student. Since January, Miranda has been on leave from teaching with pay.

“That picture was never posted,” Miranda said. “How it got out is the million-dollar question.”

Miranda said she plans to file a $3 million claim against the district, accusing the school system of treating her unfairly because she’s a woman, local sources in New York have reported.

“I am a teacher who is being penalized for being a woman,” Miranda said. “My future has been condemned because I am a female, with female breasts, seen in a mild selfie.”

Miranda’s attorney said his client will drop her planned lawsuit if she’s reinstated at the school, but he said the district told Miranda that’s not going to happen.

The district has stayed quiet on the issue.

“The district does not comment on active litigation,” the superintendent said in a statement.

Ray said the district held a meeting about the selfie in which they called Miranda in and questioned her, as the leaked picture was “displayed in full color, with all the men in the room sitting there,” local sources report.

“What is wrong with my image?” Miranda asked at the press conference Monday, according to ABC News local NYC station, WABC. “It’s my breasts. It’s my chest. It’s my body. It’s something that should be celebrated.”

Censored topless picture of Lauren
Lauren Miranda’s topless selfie, censored

It’s also a double standard, her attorney said.

“Anytime a man has ever exposed his chest, no one has ever commented or had any problem with it whatsoever,” Ray said, according to WABC. “But when a woman displays her chest, as happened here, she gets fired from her job.”

According to legal documents, it is legal in New York for women to go topless in public.

Miranda is considering teaching roles in other districts, local sources report.

Performance evaluations on Miranda, who was to be considered for tenure in June, described her as an “outstanding math instructor, knowledgeable of her content area, but most of all genuinely dedicated to the academic progress of all of her students.”

Miranda said one reason she’s fighting the dismissal is to send a message to female students.

“What message is that saying to the girls who have their photos airdropped all over the high school and sent all over?” Miranda said, according to WABC. “What message are we sending to them? To roll over when your picture gets exposed without your permission or consent? So how am I now not being a role model to them?”

Some parents said the school district made the right choice.

“Whether her intentions were for the picture to get out or not, it happened—and now you have to be responsible for your actions,” said parent Randy Miller.

Miranda said she doesn’t regret snapping the picture and sending it to her then-boyfriend.

“I’m proud of my body,” she said, according to local reports.