Congress Changes Tune on Minor League Baseball’s Problems

photo: The United States Capitol (Amber Searls/Imagn)

Those who have recently become outraged by Major League Baseball’s (MLB) plan to eliminate 42 teams in Minor League Baseball (MiLB) include 105 members of The United States Congress.

The plan, to take effect in 2021, starts as high as some Double-A affiliates and goes down to shuttering several non-complex rookie leagues across the USA. It was first disclosed over a month ago by Baseball America, with the potential impact to the St. Louis Cardinals system detailed here at The Cardinal Nation.

How Might Minor League Reductions Affect the Cardinals?

What changed since October is that the 42 teams were specifically identified by name in an article from the New York Times on Sunday. As expected, this includes two affiliates in the Cardinals system, located in State College, PA and Johnson City, TN.

Then, the threat became real.

Now, Congressmen and Congresswomen have come to the realization that teams in their very districts will become extinct, meaning local jobs will be lost and their constituents will be negatively impacted. So, they sprang to action, sending this sharply-worded missile across MLB’s bow.

This move was predictable and expected as legislators protect their turf. What is ahead is to be determined.

And if matters weren’t bad enough for baseball fans, likely the most despised individual in baseball, Houston’s President of Baseball Operations/General Manager Jeff Luhnow, has been identified as the mastermind of MLB’s plan, which was reportedly approved by all 30 clubs.

Looking back

You will have to excuse me, but I am not overly impressed by this action taken on the part of America’s lawmakers. They didn’t jump until the wind blew directly into their faces.

Why was there no outrage from these 105 members of Congress when MLB successfully spent at least $1.32 million lobbying them to make the “Save America’s Pastime Act” (SAPA) law just last year?

For those who also missed this the first time, MLB shepherded the legislation through Congress. It specifically legalized baseball’s classification of its minor league players as seasonal employees. Therefore, these players remain exempt from the minimum wage laws that protect every other American, while enabling baseball’s long-standing substandard pay policies to continue.

Here is where it gets really interesting.

Part of the FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) campaign championed by MLB to guide SAPA into law was to strongly suggest to Congress that if they did not support the bill, then minor league teams and leagues could be eliminated.

One of those who helped deliver the message was none other than the President of Minor League Baseball.

“MiLB president Pat O’Conner has said that without such a bill, minor leagues or teams could shut down because of increased labor costs,” reported Baseball America in March 2018.

MLB got its wage protection.

Fast forward to today, less than two years later, and we find that MLB is moving ahead to contract teams, anyway. At the forefront of those standing is the way is none other than the same Mr. O’Conner.

“If we are forced to defend ourselves and fight for our mere survival, we will,” O’Conner told The Athletic last month. “We would hope to negotiate a reasonable settlement with MLB. Short of that we have multiple options. Appealing to Congress, state, county and local elected officials is certainly one of them.”

Now, in all fairness, MLB has not been straightforward in calling the 42-team reduction a salary expense matter. Instead, the vague talk is of travel expense reduction and leaving behind substandard facilities. Never mind the fact that a number of the to-be-eliminated teams play in modern ballparks and the others could (and should) be given a reasonable amount of time to address the brick and mortar concerns.

But, let’s be pragmatic.

With the operating agreement between MLB and MiLB concluding following the 2020 season, what leverage do O’Conner and those on his side have against the mammoth MLB machine, one that generated $10.3 billion in revenue in 2018?

At least now Congress may help – unless they are lobbied more heavily to the contrary, that is.

My opinion

The real driver (in my view) is that MLB must realize that while SAPA protects them legally, in the court of public opinion, few reasonable people back them up. Lawsuits continue by former players seeking back pay for mandatory, yet unpaid work, such as spring training camps, for example.

More and more people are joining the informal movement to shame baseball into substantially improving minor league pay. The protection SAPA affords MLB simply does not pass the “Sunshine Test” for many.

As such, MLB has likely determined that they are eventually going to have to step up to make considerable salary increases, SAPA or not. One way to fund that is by reducing the number of employees they need to pay. Fewer players mean fewer teams.

Can I prove this direct connection? No, I cannot. Do I doubt this is a factor? No, I do not.

(Edit: I realized I should have been clearer. Cutting 42 teams is a real threat. Increasing minor league salaries is a hope by some.)

You can read up and decide for yourself. If you are concerned, contact your Congressional representative and speak out.

While you are at it, suggest they repeal the SAPA on the way to protecting their beloved minor league teams, a move that could benefit all players.

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