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Manfred Takes Aim at MiLB Owners, Says They Are Unwilling to Negotiate

BB&T Ballpark at Historic Bowman Field

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred today took aim at Minor League Baseball owners who oppose a plan to contract 42 MiLB teams, saying they were unwilling to negotiate an acceptable new PBA or upgrade their facilities.

Portraying himself as a negotiator willing to be flexible on the issues, Manfred said at the Winter Meetings that MiLB owners were unwilling to listen to MLB concerns. MLB has proposed eliminating 42 MiLB teams, pushing back the draft to August while eliminating short-season and rookie ball, take away any MiLB say in specific affiliate pairings, and realign the minors to reduce travel. Some of these are contentious; some could be addressed quickly.

(Ballpark Digest has been intensively covering the ongoing PBA negotiations between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball, from the initial public revelation of MLB’s plan for MiLB realignment to the release of specific insight into MLB’s realignment proposal and the reaction of elected officials on MiLB’s behalf around the country. Recently, Ballpark Digest publisher Kevin Reichard outlined how MiLB could address MLB’s concerns without full-scale contraction and reported on the latest from the Winter Meetings, while contributing editor Jesse Goldberg-Strassler looked at the last time MiLB suffered a mass contraction.)

From the Los Angeles Times:

He said the owners’ plan was “by no means a fait accompli.” He said MLB was willing to negotiate but said minor league owners have taken what he called “a take-it-or-leave-it, status quo approach” by refusing to consider funding ballpark upgrades, or to address aging ballparks that might be beyond feasible renovations.

Minor league owners have been vocal in their opposition to the MLB plan, and Congress has stood with them. More than 100 members of Congress have signed letters to Manfred urging him to back off….

“I think some of the activities that have been undertaken by the leadership of Minor League Baseball have been polarizing in terms of the relationship with the owners,” Manfred said.

“I think they’ve done damage to the relationship with Major League Baseball, and I’m hopeful that we will be able to work through that damage in the negotiating room and reach a new agreement. You know, when people publicly attack a long-time partner after they’ve committed to confidentiality in the negotiating process, usually people don’t feel so good about that.”

This stance doesn’t reflect what we’ve been hearing time and time again from MiLB owners and front-office leaders leading up to and during the Winter Meetings: That they’re happy to meet MLB facility guidelines, but so far MLB has refused to lay down any specific proposed guidelines. A large factor in the growth of the sport over the past two decades has been the facilities guidelines set forth in the last PBA: Teams had ammunition to ask cities for assistance if they wanted to keep Minor League Baseball, and since then we’ve seen a series of new and upgraded ballparks that better meet modern fan experiences. It’s silly for Manfred to argue that MiLB owners are refusing to discuss facility upgrades, when mandated facility upgrades were a core part of creating the modern MiLB game, both in the ballpark and on the ledger sheet. In many cases it’s fairly inexpensive (relatively speaking, of course) to address moves like expanded clubhouses and team spaces, with new weight rooms, workout facilities and indoor batting cages. We addressed this very issue when details about MLB’s proposal leaked out in late October:

One important thing to remember: what MLB considers on the facilities front is totally different than what fans interact with during the course of a game. For a Major League team, a facility is defined strictly as the player amenities: clubhouse, workout area, support spaces like a kitchen or player lounge, and enclosed batting/pitching cages. It doesn’t appear as though on-field upgrades play any role in this evaluation: the Lowell Spinners (Short Season A; NY-Penn League) are targeted for contraction even though team ownership installed new high-grade LED lighting system and new turf over the past few years at LeLacheur Park. And fan spaces, attendance or market performance or potential certainly don’t play a role in the MLB evaluations.

But then again: MLB is not being very precise about what exactly constitutes an acceptable facility. One of the biggest factors fueling the growth of Minor League Baseball in recent decades was the introduction of facilities standards covering every aspect of a ballpark, ranging from the number of urinals in fan restrooms to the minimum size of a player clubhouse. This gave MiLB a road map for expectations when negotiating for new or renovated ballparks. This time MLB officials have not made it clear exactly what they’re looking for in a facility, nor are MiLB teams being given a chance to upgrade their ballparks to meet any guidelines. When MLB officials say that MiLB has not been willing to discuss facility upgrades or player comfort, that’s simply not true. Adding a mid-Atlantic league to cut down on player travel on the Low-A level would be welcomed by many in the industry, and any proposal to flatten out two levels of Single-A ball to further address player travel would certainly have its adherents.

Nothing in our October coverage has changed, and as heard time and time again from MiLB owners at the Winter Meetings, just give us some specific facility guidelines and we’ll work to meet them.

We’ve talked to plenty of folks on both sides of this issue and laid out a road map on how an agreement could come to pass without causing major damage in the industry. But it’s clear MLB has been a little taken aback by the fierce reaction to their contraction plan–as if the leaders in the sport would just roll over and sacrifice a quarter of their fellow owners. The political reaction, including a stern letter signed by 106 U.S. Representatives of all political stripes, is probably a surprise as well to MLB officials: with U.S. Senators like Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) all decrying contraction, MiLB contraction is an issue that spans the political spectrum. Meanwhile, the negotiating will continue–but it’s clear the rules of engagement have changed.

Photo of BB&T Ballpark at Historic Bowman Field courtesy of the Williamsport Crosscutters. The Crosscutters are one of the teams proposed for contraction.

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