In a threat that was as unexpected as it was shocking, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred escalated the war of words between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball by threatening to completely walk away from MiLB.
The two sides are negotiating a new Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA). The current PBA expires at the end of the 2020 MiLB season. The current PBA was negotiated in 2011 and was basically an extension of the previous PBA, guaranteeing 160 MiLB teams and setting forth the standards for facilities, umpiring and player-development contracts. (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.)
The talks between MLB and MiLB have grown increasingly contentious: MLB clearly didn’t expect a high level of pushback to its proposal to lop off a quarter of the industry and has been playing defense since the proposal to eliminate 42 teams became public. At last week’s Winter Meetings, the two sides met and exchanged ideas, with MLB negotiators asking for a counter-proposal from the MiLB negotiators. (By the way, the MiLB negotiating team is now being advised by a select group that includes Chuck Greenberg, Andy Sandler, D.G. Elmore and Dave Heller.) We’ve covered the main issues involved in the negotiations, which have not changed.
And then Rob Manfred went on the offensive, first accusing MiLB owners of not being willing to negotiate in good faith (a laughable and provably false assertion), an assertion we addressed here. MiLB followed up with a point-by-point rebuttal of Manfred’s accusations, which you can read here. Take away some of the rhetoric and one thing stands out (something we’ve been reporting): MiLB is clearly willing to address concerns raised by MLB negotiators, but specifics on things like facilities need to be released. (We’ve always found that most MiLB owners will use any excuse to improve their ballparks: they love building things. Imposing new facilities standards on these folks is basically catnip.) That rebuttal did not sit well with MLB. The response was swift: play ball or else we can find alternatives in the form of indy ballparks and investors willing to bring pro baseball alternatives to existing MiLB cities. Nice ballpark you got there, MiLB; be a shame if anything happened to it. From the Los Angeles Times:
“If the National Association [of Minor League Clubs] has an interest in an agreement with Major League Baseball, it must address the very significant issues with the current system at the bargaining table,” the statement read.
“Otherwise, MLB clubs will be free to affiliate with any minor league team or potential team in the United States, including independent league teams and cities which are not permitted to compete for an affiliate under the current agreement.”
And the MLB statement contained this whopper:
“But whatever the outcome, MLB has assured every public official who has contacted us that MLB will work diligently to preserve organized baseball in a compelling, fan-friendly format in every American city that currently has an affiliate. MILB has not made such a commitment, and even now multiple teams are actively trying to leave their communities for better deals elsewhere.”
True. And some of those teams include MiLB affiliates owned or partially owned by the Milwaukee Brewers, Texas Rangers and the Boston Red Sox.
Not all of the public officials concerned about contraction have bought into the MLB argument. As we’ve noted, opposing MiLB contraction has been a truly bipartisan endeavor, with U.S. senators like Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) speaking out against the MLB proposal. In addition, we’re guessing the creation of a Congressional Task Force on the subject, joined by 106 U.S. Representatives of all political stripes, was probably a surprise as well to MLB officials. Congress does have some power in this situation, with the power to limit MLB visas and remove MLB anti-trust and FLSA exemptions and protections.
In particular, presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders has hammered home the need to protect MiLB teams, meeting yesterday with Burlington Bees (Low A; Midwest League) officials, fans and former players about the plan to contract the team. He went to Twitter once again to criticize the MLB plan:
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) December 14, 2019
As mayor of Burlington, Vermont, I saw what minor league baseball did for our community. It was a beautiful, beautiful thing.
Today @MLB is threatening to eliminate minor league teams in 42 communities — including here in Burlington, Iowa.
We will not let that happen. pic.twitter.com/pgAVTRoxwq
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) December 16, 2019
Also weighing in: The Reds’ Trevor Bauer:
At least Rob Manfred is trying to ruin baseball at all levels and isn’t discriminating. Something to be said for consistency, I guess. 🙄🙄 What’s your most hated Rob Manfred idea?
— Trevor Bauer (@BauerOutage) December 14, 2019
A statement issued by Minor League Baseball late Saturday was short and to the point:
MiLB agrees with MLB that contentious public statements are not conducive to the ability to conduct serious and good faith negotiations. However, as we are dealing with a matter of compelling public interest, we believe all should agree as well that accuracy in the public commentary is of the utmost importance and that the dissemination of non-conforming “information” serves no proper purpose. We sincerely hope that we can move forward with MLB in the spirit of the excellent partnership we mutually have enjoyed for so many years and reach agreement on a new Professional Baseball Agreement that is in the best interests of the game of Baseball and its future in communities across America.
After talking with MiLB and MLB folks at the Winter Meetings, it’s pretty clear that there is room for an agreement that works for all sides. (In fact, a big challenge for Manfred will be to keep his 30 owners happy; MLB owners and execs are far from unanimous in their support of the MLB plan, and behind closed doors several have expressed dismay about how PBA talks have veered so far off the rails.) What MLB is proposing goes farther than just eliminating 42 teams: it is proposing an overhaul of the player-development process that essentially eliminates entry-level ball in favor of an extra year of players under MLB control, working out in MLB camps. Working out a deal with MiLB is just the first step; we can’t wait to hear what Scott Boras has to say about the backdoor attempt to add an extra year to team control over players.
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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