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Congress boos plan to cut Minor League Baseball teams

Sen. Bernie Sanders raises questions about MLB antitrust protections

Baseball has been a staple in Hagerstown, Md., for the better part of the past century but would be eliminated from the minor leagues if Major League Baseball gets its way. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Baseball has been a staple in Hagerstown, Md., for the better part of the past century but would be eliminated from the minor leagues if Major League Baseball gets its way. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A proposal from Major League Baseball to slash the number of affiliated minor league clubs is generating outrage on Capitol Hill and the campaign trail.

Sen. Bernie Sanders took those complaints to the next level Monday afternoon, with the independent from Vermont writing in a letter sent through his presidential campaign to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred that the league’s exemption from antitrust laws could be at stake.

“I am writing to urge you and the owners of Major League Baseball franchises not to eliminate any of the 42 Minor League Baseball clubs that have been put on the chopping block,” Sanders wrote. “Shutting down 25 percent of Minor League Baseball teams, as you have proposed, would be an absolute disaster for baseball fans, workers and communities throughout the country. Not only would your extreme proposal destroy thousands of jobs and devastate local economies, it would be terrible for baseball.”

Sanders quoted from “Field of Dreams,” saying, “the one constant through all the years has been baseball.” Sanders hosted a campaign trail softball game back in August on the Field of Dreams itself in Dyersville, Iowa.

The 2020 White House hopeful had previously expressed opposition to the proposal in response to a tweet from Washington Nationals star relief pitcher Sean Doolittle.

“Sean is absolutely right. Closing down Minor League teams, like the Vermont Lake Monsters, would be a disaster for baseball fans, workers, and communities across the country,” Sanders tweeted on Nov. 19.

Sanders is not alone in expressing concern about eliminating the affiliations, which tie minor league teams to the major league pipeline.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer is pointing to the potential effects all across New York state, from the Staten Island Yankees to the Southern Tier.

“Since World War II, minor league baseball has been sewn into the very fabric of Upstate New York, with teams having passionate local fan bases and acting as beloved components of their home communities,” the New York Democrat said in a statement last week.  “To learn, then, that MLB might be playing hardball with teams in Binghamton, Batavia, Auburn, and Staten Island, and planning to strike them out of their major league affiliations and to drastically alter the business plans of the Capital Region, Hudson Valley, and Brooklyn teams was startling to say the least.”

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Two Maryland teams have made the cut list: the Frederick Keys and the Hagerstown Suns. That prompted a response from Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, both Democrats.

“I urge Major League Baseball (MLB) officials to negotiate in good faith with the owners of these and other minor league teams, out of regard for the well-being of these small cities and towns across America and to maintain baseball’s integrity and standing as America’s pastime,” Cardin said in a statement to the Herald-Mail, the hometown newspaper of Class A Hagerstown.

The newspaper reported that minor league teams believed there were several factors that landed affiliates on the draft list, including geographic scale and distance from the Major League teams to which they are connected.

The Suns are affiliated with the World Series champion Washington Nationals, whose home stadium is a mere 65 miles away. The Keys are affiliated with the Baltimore Orioles, whose home stadium at Camden Yards is 49 miles away. 

There’s been considerable consternation from the House side, as well. More than 100 House members, representing both parties, signed on to a letter led by West Virginia Republican Rep David McKinley and Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Lori Trahan.

Both states have minor league teams that were named in a story published by Baseball America on Oct. 18 as potential targets for losing their Player Development Contracts after the 2020 season.

“I was alarmed by news that the MLB is considering a reorganization that will wipe out the Spinners and 41 other minor league teams across the country. The Spinners bring enormous pride and joy to the Greater Lowell Community and the City has invested heavily in LeLacheur Park and surrounding infrastructure, providing an affordable, fun night out for families in the region,” Trahan said in a statement.

“These clubs employ thousands of people, donate millions of dollars to local charities, and provide families with affordable entertainment,” McKinley said. “This proposal to fundamentally change the minor league system would be a blow to small towns in West Virginia and across the nation.”

Congress has threatened baseball with an antitrust crackdown from time-to-time, most notably during the debates over the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

The House members did not make as specific a warning as Sanders about the antitrust exemption in their letter to Manfred, which was copied to teams throughout baseball, but they certainly sent a hint.

“You are the most important steward of the great game of baseball and tasked with ensuring the popularity and love of it across the world,” the House lawmakers wrote. “Reducing the number of Minor League Baseball clubs and overhauling a century-old system that has been consistently safeguarded by Congress is not in the best interest of the overall game of baseball, especially when Major League Baseball’s revenues are at all-time highs.”

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