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Congress Takes Small Step to Limit Proposed Contraction of 40 MiLB Teams

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A small step was taken by the U.S. House of Representatives in an effort to limit MLB’s proposed contraction of 40 Minor League Baseball teams, as talks continue in a circuitous path over the future of pro baseball.

Most recently, the action has centered on a request from a bipartisan group of legislators for the Government Accountability Office to evaluate the “social, economic, and historic contributions” of Minor League Baseball to American society. So far, the resolution has garnered over 20 bipartisan cosponsors, with debate mostly coming from conservatives who question the need for government intervention on the contraction issue. Today, the request passed the U.S. House of Representatives on a voice vote, with no opposition from Major League Baseball. The next step: a vote in the U.S. Senate.

Otherwise, it’s been mostly quiet on the contraction front, though talks have continued following a Feb. 20 meeting. The Congressional action comes at a time when various scenarios have been raised regarding the contraction of 40 MiLB teams after the 2020 season. (MLB also says they’re working from a different list of potentially contracted teams than was leaked last fall.) According to several industry sources, the number of teams slated for contraction had fluctuated between 30 and 40 teams, with MLB changing the lineup of teams to be eliminated. Also, at one time there was a discussion of Short Season A surviving in the form of a slimmed-down NY-Penn League, as well as the potential survival of the Rookie-level Pioneer League if enough MLB teams committed to affiliate deals with at least six teams. A three-year extension to the current PBA was also floated to give teams enough time to secure facility upgrades. (There seems to be no scenario where the Appalachian League survives, as MiLB has no leverage here: All Appy League clubs are owned by MLB teams, which are free to shut them down.) But in recent discussions MLB has retreated from the possibility of retaining short-season and rookie ball, albeit in a slimmed-down form, and suggested that contracted teams would be better off as summer-collegiate markets. (Indeed: what’s emerging is MLB’s eagerness to work with college and summer-collegiate programs on wider player-development strategies, as talk of a longer NCAA baseball season has popped up once again.)

In other words: We’re basically at the same point we were last fall when it was publicly revealed that MLB wanted to contract 42 MiLB teams; we’re now at 40. We’re also now at the point where both sides are digging in their heels, with external factors potentially impacting planning.

One such factor: continued political pressure from U.S. representatives and senators. U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer was part of a meeting in New York State designed to save the Binghamton Rumble Ponies (Class AA; Eastern League) that apparently succeeded. Meanwhile, MLB representatives have agreed to travel to Billings, Montana to meet with U.S. Senator Steve Daines and local representatives to discuss the future of all three Montana MiLB teams—the Billings Mustangs, Great Falls Voyagers and Missoula PaddleHeads—as well as the entire Pioneer League. As noted, the future of the Pioneer League has been in flux, and Daines and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte—both Montana Republicans—have signed on to the Congressional effort to prevent contraction, as has Montana’s other U.S. Senator, Democrat Jon Tester. While this may not be a huge factor in this meeting, there may be a little more pressure for Daines to deliver: as of today he has a formidable opponent in his quest for reelection in the form of Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. Politically, there’s no downside for Daines to pressure the New York fat cats into saving multiple Montana baseball teams and delivering jobs to the state.

The big unknown: how much political pressure can be developed. In the middle of MLB’s annus horribilis—fallout from a sign-stealing scandal, declining attendance, a looming battle for a new labor agreement with players, and now potential financial hits from a coronavirus outbreak—coming to some sort of agreement with MiLB, especially one minimizing the number of contracted teams and giving owners three years to secure facility upgrades—would be an incredibly cheap way for MLB to buy some sorely needed positive public relations.

UPDATE: MLB issued the following statement regarding a potential GAO study:

Major League Baseball would gladly participate in a serious Government Accountability Office (GAO) analysis of the many problems in Minor League Baseball that are impeding the development of players–including the widespread inadequacy of facilities, playing conditions, nutrition programs and burdensome travel demands. A thorough study would show that the status quo is not just outdated but failing both players and communities across the country that are at risk of being left behind by minor league owners who can move their team and leave town at any moment.

MLB is confident that we can simultaneously keep baseball in the communities in which it is currently being played and modernize our player development system so that it fits the 21st century, improves playing conditions and increases opportunities for players. We look forward to working with Congress and the GAO, but the most constructive role they can play at this time is to encourage Minor League Baseball to continue working with MLB to address the real issues impacting minor league players and communities.

Image courtesy Williamsport Crosscutters, one of the teams that appeared on a list leaked last fall of 42 MiLB clubs proposed for contraction by MLB.

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