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MiLB Contraction Talks in Crucial Phase as 2020 Begins

As we enter 2020, the negotiations over Major League Baseball’s proposal to contract 42 Minor League Baseball franchises are entering a crucial phase—but the war of words continues, as both sides are now competing for the hearts and minds of the public.

The plan, as detailed here, came up as MLB and MiLB officials negotiate the next Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) to replace the current PBA, which expires at the end of the 2020 season. What MLB initially proposed in addition to the contraction of 42 teams: league realignments including new Triple-A and Single-A circuits (in the name of lessened travel), new facilities standards (covering player facilities, including clubhouses, weight rooms and support spaces like kitchens and lounges), and a player-development arrangement that calls for rookies to spend time at MLB camps and not in entry-level leagues, with an additional year of service under team control. As part of this, MLB would cut back the number of Minor League players under contract and pay them a higher wage—two moves that don’t require MiLB negotiation. (We examined how MLB’s goals could be met without the contraction of 42 teams here.)

Since the 2019 Winter Meetings, things have been quiet on the MLB-MiLB front. More politicos have come out against contraction, including Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, who issued a letter to Manfred pointing out the economic importance of her state’s five MiLB teams:

The minor league organizations in Clinton, Burlington, Cedar Rapids, Davenport and Des Moines each have a positive impact not merely on the communities in which they are located, but in neighboring communities across our state and on the game of baseball itself. Iowa’s MiLB teams bring significant economic opportunity to their towns. They support surrounding local businesses and are a magnet for attracting people to their host communities. They each are also significant job creators. These teams typically sustain more than 200 jobs apiece each year, and that number excludes players, coaches, managers, trainers and all of the other positions under the purview of MLB.

Iowa’s Minor League Baseball teams also make significant charitable contributions to the communities they serve. They pay for free flu shots for local children, provide college scholarships to area families, and donate thousands of tickets and hundreds of thousands of dollars to non-profits and charitable causes in their regions. In small communities such as these, that kind of philanthropy simply cannot be replaced.

It is also important to note the millions of dollars of public and municipal investment that have gone into ensuring that Iowa’s Minor League ballparks are in compliance with MLB facilities standards. Cities across our state recognize the economic impact that minor league clubs represent and, as a result, have funded millions of dollars in ballpark improvements.

Additionally, our cities and towns are very proud of their teams and have demonstrated that pride by providing tax incentives, municipal bonds, debt forgiveness and reduced rent to make it possible for MiLB clubs to remain in their communities.

In addition, U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (I-VT) continues his crusade against contraction while on the campaign trail, comparing the loss of MiLB teams to his loss of the Brooklyn Dodgers as a youngster, per the Boston Globe:

“I saw what kind of devastation it did to the community where I grew up,” said Sanders from his home in Burlington Monday afternoon. “It was more than a baseball team, there was a sense of community developed around the Brooklyn Dodgers, and in order to make more profits, the owner of the Dodgers moved them to California.

“And right now you’re in a similar situation. You have an extremely profitable organization called Major League Baseball that makes $1.2 billion in profits [a year], and in order to save a few bucks they are prepared to punish 42 communities around this country. That is greed, and the kind of corporate greed that we see every day, but in this case we are dealing with the national pastime.”…

The unity behind this cause strikes Sanders as significant.

“It’s one of the few issues lately where we’ve had any bipartisan activity on,” he said. “You’ve had Republicans and Democrats, progressives and conservatives coming together, because I think everybody understands baseball, and local baseball creates community, it allows kids to go out and watch games. It’s far, far less expensive than going to the Red Sox. The Spinners, the price of admission is considerably less than it is for the Red Sox, so bottom line here, we’re going to do everything we can to protect the 42 communities around the country who currently have minor league baseball, and we’ll do everything possible to prevent them from losing their affiliations.”

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) met with Manfred in December, urging him to reconsider the elimination of four New York State teams (Binghamton Rumble Ponies, Staten Island Yankees, Auburn Doubledays and Batavia Muckdogs) under the current contraction plan. From a statement issued by Schumer’s office:

“Last month, Commissioner Manfred and I had a productive meeting to discuss Minor League Baseball’s presence in New York. Throughout the state, from Binghamton to Auburn, to Batavia, Staten Island and beyond baseball is woven into the very fabric of our communities, with fan bases that glean a sense of pride and joy from their success. That is why I will continue to fight to ensure that these teams remain in those communities. It is critical going forward that all of the parties—from team owners, to local leaders, to MLB and MiLB representatives—step up to the plate and negotiate in good faith,” Schumer said. “In fact, I have urged MLB officials to come to these communities and hear directly from local leaders, and I expect that will occur early this year.”

“We appreciate Senator Schumer’s efforts to bring the parties together to discuss the issues that currently exist in Minor League Baseball,” Manfred said. “We are at the very early stage of negotiations and are hopeful that Minor League Baseball will come to the negotiating room and engage in good faith negotiations in an effort to make a deal.”

Which may be difficult, as negotiations have apparently ground to a halt, according to multiple sources, despite the expectation they’d resume come the new year. MiLB representatives have asked for further negotiating sessions, but potential meeting dates have been rejected by the MLB negotiators, and to date no potential dates have been proposed on the MLB side. And while there are many areas of common ground between the two sides, such as realignment to cut down on travel time, facilities upgrades on the player side and a less drastic contraction, we won’t know how they could be worked out with no meetings planned.

Still, there are indications that the contraction plan is fluid, to say the least: MLB officials say a previous list of contracted teams is now outdated, and that teams once slated to be contracted are still alive. That would include the Lowell Spinners, which would survive as a Low-A team, as reported today.

Photo of Dehler Park, home of the Pioneer League’s Billings Mustangs, one of the teams proposed for contraction by MLB negotiators.

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