The war of words between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball over the proposed contraction of 42 MiLB teams continues, with another meeting scheduled for later this month—a war highlighted with the unexpected emergence of the Batavia Muckdogs as a contraction issue.
There have been some changes in what’s on the table, however. Insiders on both sides of the table say the notion of an MLB-linked Dream League is pretty much dead, though MLB officials talked with independent-league owners and summer-collegiate league managers in January about ways the two sides could work together. It was on life support from the very beginning. In the act of proposing the contraction of 42 MiLB teams, MLB reps had proposed something akin to an independent league called the Dream League, with MLB “support” but no MLB coaches or players, made up of high-school and draft-eligible college players. Exactly what constituted MLB “support” for what would basically be a summer-collegiate league was never defined, nor was a practical explanation of how a league ranging from upstate New York to central Florida to Washington state could possibly work. And arguing that this would allow cities to keep baseball is pretty laughable: attacking MiLB for the move of the Casper Ghosts by the owners of the Colorado Rockies kinda undermines that argument. (Indeed, a letter from MLB deputy commissioner of baseball administration Dan Halem criticizes MiLB for allowing teams to move, but fails to point out that some of these moves, like the move of the Pawtucket Red Sox to Worcester and the move of Casper to Grand Junction, were done with the participation of MLB teams and investors.)
But what’s still on the table: MiLB contraction, league realignments and negotiations over facilities standards. Of those three, facilities standards may be the least-controversial part of any potential agreement, but it’s the part that MLB keeps asserting is unsolvable. So far MLB has not stepped forward with any specifics about what they want to see in an update of player facilities, making it impossible for MiLB owners to address shortcomings. Larger clubhouses? Upgraded workout facilities? New lounge spaces? Better nutritional facilities? Mandatory climate-controlled batting cages? Better turf? In the grand scheme of things, we’re not talking big-ticket items, and most MiLB and MLB owners and facilities managers love ballpark upgrades. Daytona, for example, has already pledged $4 million in player-facility upgrades at Jackie Robinson Ballpark in an attempt to keep the Tortugas (High A; Florida State League). If this were really a sticking point on the MLB side, the solution is simple: release specs for player facilities and give teams and cities a limited amount of time—say, three years—to meet them before contraction. Instead, MLB’s official position is that it’s up to MiLB to propose new facilities standards.
Similarly, league realignments to lessen travel isn’t necessarily the worst idea. Go ahead and realign Triple-A from two leagues to three. Realign the full-season A leagues to allow the Northwest League to go full season, if the West Coast MLB teams really want a Low-A league. There are some lesser issues that have not received much attention, such as a proposal by MLB to totally control the affiliation process, with affiliations assigned by MLB and MiLB teams having no say in the process.
The biggest point of contention, however, is the general notion of contracting 42 teams. In what seems to be a surprise to MLB officials, the grassroots fight organized by MiLB continues to grow, with bipartisan opposition to contraction on any level. MLB came in with a distinct advantage in the halls of Congress—MLB has a full-time lobbyist and 11 lobbying firms on retainer, spending some $1.24 million on lobbying in 2019, according to The Hill—but the grassroots opposition to contraction has been pretty strong.
Strong enough to where some of MLB’s rationales for contraction have been debunked. For starters: MLB officials insist that MLB subsidizes MiLB teams to the tune of $300,000 to $400,000. That’s not true—no MiLB team is cut a check by MLB—and upon further examination, the “subsidy” claimed by MLB is simply the total of player salaries, the cost of coaches and minor-league instructors, and other costs contractually called for in the PBA. To put this expense into perspective: the 2019 MLB minimum salary was $555,000—less than what each team pays for its entire minor-league system. And while it’s not unreasonable to think that player salaries won’t go up if low-level hourly wages go up, it’s not hard to see a scenario where the entire MiLB salary budget still costs roughly the same as the MLB minimum salary for a single player.
We are very grateful for the community we’re a part in! Check out how much the other 41 teams love their communities too ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/mqRkUKCljo
— Elizabethton Twins (@ETwinsBaseball) January 29, 2020
According to a letter released last week by MLB’s Dan Halem, addressed to MiLB: “This may be the most transparently false statement in a letter full of such statements. MiLB is an entertainment business. The largest single cost in virtually every entertainment business is the cost of talent. Major League Baseball provides MiLB with free talent. The provision of this free talent is clearly a subsidy.” (Not strictly true, either: MiLB teams do pay MLB for the privilege of hosting players via a 7.5 percent ticket tax.)
When you look at this, it’s no surprise that the grassroots lobbying by MiLB owners and their communities has been effective: going after MLB fat cats has literally no political downside, especially when you look at the amount of money MLB is trying to save.
Still, MLB is sticking to its guns about contraction and taken issue more with MiLB’s fight for the survival of hometown baseball than the actual issues at hand. From Halem’s letter:
“I personally do not believe that exchanging letters of this type is productive or increases the likelihood that the parties will reach a mutually acceptable agreement,” he wrote. “When I was informed that MiLB was planning to send a letter to the commissioner, and then make that letter public, I told members of your negotiating committee that sending letters was not going to help us resolve our issues, and making such letters public would only further increase the acrimony on both sides.”
Which leads us to a rather bizarre assertion from MLB: That MiLB cares so little for the stability of its teams that it allowed the recent sale of the Batavia Muckdogs (Short Season; NY-Penn League). Halem wrote:
“The recent information we learned about the Batavia affiliate not only proves this point, but, frankly, calls into questions whether MiLB is truly pursuing a strategy in the ‘best interests of our 160 community partners.’ Batavia is a failing affiliate, with both facility and economic issues, that was put into receivership by the NY Penn League (which essentially owns and operates the team). New York State officials requested that MLB officials meet with Batavia community officials to discuss how to preserve baseball in Batavia. After we set up the meeting, we learned for the first time from multiple sources (but not MiLB) that the NY Penn League sold Batavia — presumably for millions of dollars — to an owner who intends to move the team to another city.”
One small catch in this argument: There’s literally no indication that the team has been sold.
True, the Muckdogs have been on the market for years. An attempt to sell the team came several years ago, but that sale to a Maryland group that would have constituted the only African-American ownership in MiLB was killed by the Baltimore Orioles. Since then, the team has remained on the market, but any chance of a sale would have certainly been killed when talk of contraction emerged: who would pay millions of dollars for an asset in danger of disappearing at the end of the 2020 season? From the Auburn Citizen:
Minor League Baseball and the city dispute the claim. When asked by The Citizen whether the team has been sold, Batavia City Manager Martin Moore responded: “Not true.”
A spokesman for Minor League Baseball said they don’t comment on the sale of teams, but added that “nothing has been submitted to our office about the sale of the Batavia team.”…
Moore said that the Muckdogs have an agreement to play for at least “another couple years” at the city-owned Dwyer Stadium. He met with the Muckdogs’ general manager, Brendan Kelly, on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the opposition to MiLB contraction continues on. The Mayors’ Task Force to Save Minor League Baseball is now up to 80 members, after the mayors of Billings and Great Falls, MT, both joined. U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT), whose district includes the Norwich Sea Unicorns (Short Season A; NY-Penn League), says the mood in Congress is running toward examining MLB’s anti-trust and minimum-wage exemptions as well as the number of visas issued to the sport, according to The Day:
He added that Major League Baseball “has not been too bashful” about asking Congress for carveouts when it comes to labor law, and later cited congressional action a few years ago that gave MLB an exemption from overtime rules.
“They are wearing out their welcome with members of Congress,” Courtney said. [Sea Unicorns owner Miles] Prentice added that MLB has “a very short memory” of what Congress has done for them.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., has threatened to push for revoking MLB’s antitrust exemption if the plan to demote the 42 teams moves forward. Courtney said the Education and Labor Committee, of which he is a member, will be looking at the overtime benefit.
“This is not acting in the best interests of the game,” Courtney said of MLB’s actions. “It is damaging the sport and reducing the fan base for years to come.”
U.S. Rep John Katko (R-N.Y.) echoes those sentiments, displaying the bipartisan sentiment at play. From the Auburn Citizen:
As talks between MLB and MiLB continue, there is no indication that MLB is backing off its proposal. That’s enough for Katko, who was an antitrust lawyer early in his career, to consider whether the MLB’s antitrust exemption should be revoked.
“That’s a pretty nice exemption they have and I understand why they have it,” he said. “But when you’re going to devastate communities, that’s when you say ‘enough is enough.'”…
Katko questions why the MLB can’t support the existing minor league system.
“That, to me, smacks of greed on their part and I think that’s ridiculous,” he said of the plan.
Up next: a scheduled Feb. 20 negotiating session.
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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