A broad, bipartisan group of legislators, presidential candidates, current players, state officials and local politicos have condemned Major League Baseball’s plan to contract 42 Minor League Baseball franchises for the 2021 season.
That there would be a backlash to the proposal is no surprise: we predicted one when we first reported on the Professional Baseball Agreement negotiations in October:
Taking shots at greedy MLB owners will be a very easy, bipartisan sell for U.S. senators and representatives from rural states who could lose one or more teams. There’s just no downside for a politico on either side of the aisle to decry the loss of grassroots baseball, whether it be a liberal from New York State or Massachusetts, or a conservative from Tennessee, Montana or Iowa. Thinking that a Joni Ernst or a Chuck Grassley would pass on the opportunity to rail against the MLB fat cats is naïve. Inevitably we’ll see attempts to rescind MLB’s treasured anti-trust exemption—and with 33 U.S. Senate seats up for election in 2020, the exemption would be an easy target.
And so it begins, with a bipartisan letter from 106 U.S. Representatives across the nation calling for MLB to pull back plans on contracting 42 teams (you can see the list here). The reps signing the letter, initiated by Representatives Lori Trahan (D-Massachusetts) and David McKinley (R-West Virginia), called for MLB to reconsider the contraction plan:
“The Lowell Spinners and other minor league teams across the United States provide critical economic and cultural benefits to the communities they call home. I was alarmed by news that the MLB is considering a reorganization that will wipe out the Spinners and 41 other minor league teams across the country. The Spinners bring enormous pride and joy to the Greater Lowell Community and the City has invested heavily in LeLacheur Park and surrounding infrastructure, providing an affordable, fun night out for families in the region. I am proud that my friend, Rep. David McKinley, and 104 of our colleagues in the Congress have joined forces to stand up for our communities. Together we are sending a clear, bipartisan message that the MLB plan is way off base, and the People’s House is ready to standup for Minor League Baseball,” said Congresswoman Trahan.
“Minor league baseball is an important part of the fabric of communities in all corners of America. These clubs employ thousands of people, donate millions of dollars to local charities, and provide families with affordable entertainment. This proposal to fundamentally change the minor league system would be a blow to small towns in West Virginia and across the nation. I am proud to help lead this effort to protect minor league baseball and the communities it serves,” said Congressman McKinley.
And, as predicted, there’s a veiled reference to Congress’s support of MLB’s antitrust exemption and wage exemptions over the years (last year MLB received an exemption from overtime on a base of a $7.25 minimum wage, with payments limited to 40 hours weekly)—support that could disappear:
For over a century, Congress has taken numerous actions specifically designed to protect, preserve, and sustain a system and structure for both Major and Minor League Baseball to flourish.
You can read the letter here. It’s worth a read, if only to marvel at the wide range of political persuasions uniting to support Minor League Baseball.
With talk that some MLB teams are expressing displeasure with the plan, the New York Yankees issued this statement from team President Randy Levine:
We are here at the Major League Baseball owners meetings. There are negotiations currently taking place between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball. We have been assured today that there have been no decisions made regarding the elimination of the Staten Island Yankees. We support the Staten Island Yankees and their facility, and people should give the negotiations a chance to conclude before speculating on any outcome.
Also weighing in: Washington Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Doolittle chimed in via Twitter:
This is really sad and I hope it doesn’t happen. https://t.co/KptDp8Jj8e
— Obi-Sean Kenobi Doolittle (@whatwouldDOOdo) November 18, 2019
And followed up with this:
It would eliminate an MLB opportunity for over a thousand players. It would also remove thousands of jobs from local economies in small towns where minor league baseball is a convenient and affordable way for fans to watch our sport in person.
It also doesn’t feel like a good way to grow our sport? Especially when MLB attendance is on the decline. Minor league baseball brings the game to fans in some more remote parts of the country and gives more people more opportunities to fall in love with the game.
Over 40 million fans attended minor league games in 2019. I wish the conversation was about finding ways to improve the existing structure of minor league baseball (paying players more, improving facilities, etc.) rather than tearing it down to try and save money.
Sanders, via his Twitter account, replied with this:
Sean is absolutely right. Closing down Minor League teams, like the Vermont Lake Monsters, would be a disaster for baseball fans, workers, and communities across the country. We must protect these teams from corporate greed. https://t.co/g8BZi6HGeH
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) November 19, 2019
MLB Deputy Commissioner Daniel Halem issued a most curious defense, including a claim that MiLB officials said there is no way contracted teams could meet facility guidelines—even though MLB has been very careful not to actually define what they want to see in player facilities in terms of clubhouse sizes, workout areas, kitchen spaces, coaches rooms, etc. This may rankle team owners the most, as enhancing player facilities is seen as a very fixable solution on the financial front, and the fact they were not given a chance to address these “deficiencies” shows MLB has another agenda in mind:
…we have identified more than 40 Minor League stadiums that do not possess adequate training facilities, medical facilities, locker rooms, and, in some cases, playing fields, to satisfy the requirements of our Clubs and players. MiLB has communicated to us that it is unrealistic for us to expect lower-level Minor League affiliates to meet our facility standards because of the costs involved in upgrading the facilities.
On the team front, several front offices have launched offenses to counter MLB’s argument that contraction arises from a desire for better team facilities. It’s a nuanced argument: when fans think of facilities, they envision the diamond, the grandstand and party decks. But when MLB discusses facilities, they mean clubhouses, workout areas, kitchen spaces, indoor batting cages and more–the behind-the-scenes player-development areas that fans don’t see. Here are some of the developments:
- Chattanooga Lookouts (Class AA; Southern League) owner Jason Freier bought the team in December 2014 and launched an effort to replace AT&T Field soon after. Freier’s approach to ballpark development is ambitious, building a new facility as the core of a larger public-private partnership. That approach has worked well with Parkview Field, home of the Fort Wayne TinCaps (Low A; Midwest League) and Segra Park, home of the Columbia Fireflies (Low A; Sally League). A plan under discussion for an extended period calls for a new ballpark and adjoining development at the 141-acre former Wheland/U.S. Pipe foundry property and surrounding area. With contraction looming, Freier told the Times Free Press that more urgency needs to be applied to a new ballpark in an effort to save pro ball in Chattanooga, which first hosted pro ball in the 1880s. “Our position for the last five years that we’ve owned the team has been that we know that eventually a new ballpark would be something that would be good for both the team and the community, and that we have been able to be very patient on that,” Freier said. “Were it our choice, we would certainly continue to be patient, but I do think this circumstance is going to pose an outside restriction on us that will make the time frame to make those sorts of decisions more compressed than if it would be left up to us.”
- The Erie SeaWolves (Class AA; Eastern League) are pointing out that $12 million in state money was used for upgrades to UPMC Park in 2019 and 2020. The playing surface was completely overhauled prior to the 2019 campaign at the behest of parent Detroit Tigers. During this offseason’s round of construction, player facilities are being upgraded with a climate-controlled batting/pitching facility. A new entrance plaza will be added down the left-field line, while a new a multi-level structure will include a team store and offices on the first floor, with an upper-level club area connecting to the adjacent Erie Insurance Arena. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf is urging that the SeaWolves, State College Spikes (Short Season A; NY-Penn League) and Williamsport Crosscutters (Short Season A; NY-Penn League) all be spared the ax: “Pennsylvania’s professional baseball affiliates help provide affordable family-friendly entertainment and improve the quality of life in each of their communities,” Wolf said in a statement to the York Daily Record. “I strongly urge the MLB to keep its commitments to local fans, which helps ensure future generations of fans for the sport.”
- Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) says he’ll work to keep his state’s MiLB teams in the fold, though his statements didn’t exactly sound like someone interested in a broader discussion of Minor League Baseball across the nation, preferring to focus on the Batavia Muckdogs (Short Season A; NY-Penn League): “I think it would be very bad for the Muckdogs to be downgraded, and any other team and I’m going to call Mr. Manfred, he’s the head of Major League Baseball and he actually comes from upstate New York, he’s a Rome, New York native, and make a strong push,” Schumer told WHEC.
- A more robust defense was put up by Binghamton Mayor Richard David, as the Binghamton Rumble Ponies (Class AA; Eastern League) are slated for contraction. Since 2014 the state, the city and team owner John Hughes have spent $8.1 million on NYSEG Stadium improvements, including improved lighting, two rounds of clubhouse upgrades, new batting cages and bullpens, turf replacement and more, as well as many fan-facing improvements.
Tomorrow we’ll follow up with a look at some of the proposals floating around from MiLB owners and executives that would address MLB’s stated concerns.