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MLB’s fight with minor league baseball is getting uglier

MLB: Winter Meetings Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

The main issue with baseball’s minor leagues the past few years has been woefully inadequate pay for the players. But that has morphed into a threat to the very existence of the minor leagues as we know it.

The working agreement between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball was at the forefront of the winter meetings in San Diego, with both sides sniping at each other in the days since. It’s a sign of contentious negotiations between the two sides, trying to work out a new deal before this one runs out after the 2020 season.

MLB’s proposed plan to eliminate major league affiliation for 42 teams — roughly a quarter of the minors — understandably drew ire from several of the teams and cities affected.

Commissioner Rob Manfred wasn’t a fan of the negotiations with MiLB becoming public, though that had a lot to do with a year-long investigation by Baseball America culminating in October. At the winter meetings, Manfred cast an ominous shadow over the idea that minor league teams would object to their very livelihood being threatened. Per the Associated Press:

“I think they’ve done damage to the relationship with Major League Baseball,” Manfred said. “And I’m hopeful that we will be able to work through that damage in the negotiating room and reach a new agreement.

“You know, when people publicly attack a long-time partner after they’ve committed to confidentiality in the negotiating process, usually people don’t feel so good about that.”

The two sides had discussions at several points during the winter meetings, and in his press conference Wednesday Manfred described MiLB’s stance as both “unreasonable” and “a take-it-or-leave-it, status quo approach,” which was later called “demonstrably inaccurate” in a statement by Minor League Baseball.

“We subsidize to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars every single year the operations of minor league baseball,” Manfred said. “Having said that, our players deserve to play in facilities that are up to grade. They deserve to have reasonable travel limitations. They deserve to be paid fairly.”

Manfred saying minor league players should be paid fairly is rich, considering the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent my MLB to lobby for what eventually became the dubiously named “Save America’s Pastime Act”. That saving meant making minor leaguers exempt from being paid overtime, regardless of how many hours a week they worked, and was passed as part of a larger spending bill by the Senate in March 2018.

Minor league players are paid as little as $1,100 per month, and only get paid for the months during the regular season.

Minor League Baseball issued a response to Manfred in the form of a 12-point rebuttal of his claims. Particular umbrage was taken at Manfred’s claim that MLB subsidizes MiLB to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, noting that the agreement struck between the two sides in 1990 shifted control of player contracts, benefits and rights from minor league teams to their major league affiliates.

“What is overlooked in MLB’s argument about subsidies is the value of money, goods and services MiLB contributes to the relationship each year. As part of the current agreement MiLB annually incurs expenses in excess of $60 million in cash, goods and services directly tied to players, coaches and staff,” the MiLB statement read. “In addition, over $20 million a year is paid by MiLB to the commissioner’s office in the form of a “ticket tax” which is required under the current PBA, an amount equivalent to nearly 50% of player salaries below the Double-A level.

“It is untrue to claim, as the Commissioner has, that MiLB is a “heavily subsidized” industry. Indeed, a reasonable argument can be made that the reverse is true.”

In response to the response (have I lost you yet?), MLB decried MiLB’s public debate by issuing a public statement that read much more like a threat. Per the Boston Globe:

“If the National Association 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.”

Don’t like your situation, minor league owner? Good luck if you are left without a major league affiliate!

A study commissioned by MiLB showed that of the “over 100” teams that were part of independent league baseball over 20 years, only 11 cities that fielded teams in 1999 still had those teams in 2019.

“It works in Sugarland, Texas, and it works in St. Paul, Minnesota, but it’s really, really hard to have a sustainable business model with an independent team,” MiLB senior director of communications told SB Nation in November.

This minor league kerfuffle has gotten ugly, to the point that politicians are getting involved. Several representatives and senators have spoken out against the proposed cuts. Rob Manfred even met with Vermont senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

Sanders in a Dec. 14 letter accused MLB of negotiating in bad faith, then one day later at a campaign stop in Burlington, Iowa — home of the Class-A Bees, an Angels affiliate and one of the 42 teams on the proposed cut list — Sanders issued a threat of his own.

“It’s not just another business where you can pay people low wages and then shut down your enterprises in communities where it means so much to the kids and the families,” Sanders said. “On this issue you’ve got Democrats and Republicans from all over the country saying to Major League Baseball, ‘Do not take away minor league baseball from 42 communities from all over this country. Ain’t gonna happen, and if it does happen you’ll have to deal with Congress, who will respond accordingly.’”

Having to deal with Congress could be less than ideal for baseball. The main power Congress has over MLB is threatening to repeal its antitrust exemption, which has protected baseball for nearly 100 years against competition.

Whether or not Congress actually goes that far remains to be seen, but it sounds possible, at least as a threat. Representative Lori Trahan’s in Massachusetts includes Lowell, home of the Spinners, a short-season Class-A affiliate of the Red Sox, also on the cut list. She told Marc Normandin this week:

“It might be too early to say, but I do believe everything is on the table. The MLB does not exist in a vacuum: for over a century, Congress has taken numerous actions, specifically designed to protect and preserve and sustain a system and a structure for both Major and Minor League Baseball to flourish.”

Perhaps holding MLB’s feet to the fire will help bring an agreement. But it sure seems like it will be a bumpy ride before we get there.