The battle between MLB and MiLB is just beginning

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Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball met at the winter meetings to continue negotiations on a new Professional Baseball Agreement — the governing document for the relationship between MLB and MiLB — and those talks were not promising. If anything, everything surrounding MLB’s plan to disaffiliate 42 teams is somehow worse than it was before the latest talks, as the two sides brought a somewhat-public discussion fully into the public, and spent the end of the week sniping back and forth. This was ugly, and it’s only getting uglier.

MLB is protective of their plan, and, as Michael Silverman put it for The Boston Globe, fired back at Minor League Baseball owners for letting the public know that MLB’s plan to devastate dozens of communities with a connection to pro baseball and gut thousands of jobs is extremely unfair, poorly thought out, and is an excellent summation of the level of greed that’s currently in favor among MLB owners. MiLB then responded to this by going point-by-point on MLB’s plan, including tearing the “Dream League” idea to shreds by saying it’s completely nonviable both for affected MiLB owners and the smaller communities many of these disaffiliated teams hail from.

MLB’s response to this was… not measured. They threatened to walk away from Minor League Baseball entirely, taking their ball and giving it to whichever owners and teams comprised a new, MLB-run version of minor-league ball:

“If the National Association [of Minor League Clubs] 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. 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.”

As Craig Calcaterra put it: “So, in the space of about 48 hours, Manfred has gone from being angry at the existence of public negotiations to negotiating in public, angrily.”

The full story on MLB’s response at the Los Angeles Times is full of good info like this, as well, and you should read up on all of these to be fully caught up on this story:

MiLB says that it is willing to discuss facility improvements, that the major league owners simply want to pass the cost of higher minor league player salaries onto minor league owners, and that independent leagues have not succeeded in the small markets that would largely be abandoned. Manfred ripped minor league owners for taking the fight public, a criticism that outraged one minor league owner.

“Rob is attempting to decimate the industry, destroy baseball in communities and eliminate thousands of jobs, and he’s upset that the owners of the teams have gone public with that information in an effort to save their teams,” the owner said on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing negotiations. “That’s rich.”

I have no love for the MiLB owners, who have made money for years by convincing communities to give up taxpayer money for stadiums, who pay a bare bones per diem to their players, who profit wildly off of the fact that MLB’s owners pay the vast majority of all costs involved in operating a minor-league team, like the players’ salaries. It’s not a perfect analogy, but they’re essentially the petty bourgeoisie in this relationship: they strive to be like the true, “high” bourgeoisie — in this case, MLB’s owners — and are willing to throw anyone below their own class status under the bus in order to better cozy up with the ruling class and increase their chances of one day becoming part of it themselves. MiLB’s owners have played a significant role in holding players down, keeping them from eating right or playing in the safest conditions or from unionizing, and because of that, it becomes difficult to sympathize with their current plight as the boot comes down on their necks for once.

Generally speaking, that is: while both sides are guilty of working in concert against players over the years, MLB is certainly in a better position to do all of the things they supposedly want done in order to improve the minors, be it paying players more, or upgrading facilities, or reorganizing the leagues so travel makes more sense. They, the ones profiting the most from a $10 billion-per-year industry, have the money to fix all of this, and the real problem here is that, like with everything else, they’d much prefer someone else spend their money to do it instead. So, MiLB’s owners are now being thrown under the proverbial bus as well for refusing to play ball, and once again, it’s the players and the communities that will suffer the most from it in what is a completely avoidable battle.

MLB has been acting as if there are no consequences for all of this weight being thrown around, but they are going to need to be careful, as the United States Congress has noticed what’s happening to the communities they represent. US House Representative Lori Trahan, one of the authors of the letter Congress sent to MLB about their plan to disaffiliate 42 minor-league teams, spoke with me about that very thing, which has unified politicians in a way we rarely see. “Very quickly, probably faster than any other bipartisan coalition in recent memory, we formed, because my thought bubble was similar to every other member of Congress who set to lose a team,” said Trahan. “It has been probably one of the easiest coalitions to bring together, given that we all care so deeply about our communities, and we want to prevent this proposal from moving forward.”

Trahan, who represents the community of Lowell, Massachusetts, which was at one point in the plan set to lose their team, the Spinners, appears willing to actually fight MLB on this and not just wrap this up with the sending of a strongly-worded letter. Trahan and the other 100-plus Representatives who signed the letter have formed a task force, appropriately named the “Save Minor League Baseball Task Force,” to continue monitoring the situation and figure out next steps. Those next steps could include some battles MLB’s owners might not be willing to fight. When asked about what lengths Trahan and Co. were willing to go to, Trahan said that, “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.”

Trahan continued by explaining that, “Right now we’re in the process of monitoring these conversations and the negotiations, and we’re also in the process of mobilizing our voice. We’ve got over one-quarter of the US House of Representatives, and that’s growing. As you’ve seen, a lot of the Senators and presidential candidates are making their voices heard. The governors will be next and the mayors will be after them. We’re going to continue to build this so that Major League Baseball understands the consequence of this proposal. You’re right to point out some of the exemptions we’ve given to Major League Baseball, and we’ll be ready to exercise our options as these negotiations progress.

You would be forgiven for thinking that the implication of “everything is on the table” is that MLB’s antitrust exemption could be in danger. MLB is the only major sport with such an exemption, thanks to a case from nearly a century ago at a time when the league and the world of business and sports were much different than they are today. While multiple challenges to the antitrust exemption have failed in the courts since it was first initiated, Congress, not the Supreme Court, is actually the political power with the ability to straight-up remove that status from MLB, since that method wouldn’t bring retroactivity into the fallout, like a Supreme Court decision would. And MLB threatening to walk away from the minors if they don’t simply acquiesce to the demands in front of them is surely going to bring up the whole idea of removing the antitrust exemption in more than just veiled terms.While MiLB has benefited from the antitrust exemption over the decades, too, because of how it benefits MLB, stripping the exemption would open up options for competition, outside investing, and new league formations that just aren’t available while MLB-affiliated baseball is the literal only game in town.

Bernie Sanders, one of Vermont’s Senators and a presidential candidate, spent time in Iowa on Sunday with MiLB players, and responded to MLB’s plan to walk away from the minors as well:

And this not that long after he gave Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times a call to discuss, at length, his issues with the greed of MLB and their planned devastation of these baseball communities, all in the name of pocketing some more money. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Senator also running for president, urged MLB to “rethink this shortsighted plan.” No wonder MLB is furious at MiLB owners for speaking up: the attention is not only incessant, but it’s attached to a lot more than just the local politicians in the affected communities.

One thing with all of this is that it’s extremely easy to call MLB out here, since it’s clear they’re lying about the why of it all. Trahan pointed out that, “MLB is at an inflection point right now, and they have a decision to make in terms of what they want to stand for as a brand.” Furthermore, “MLB has offered this plan despite the fact that Minor League Baseball just completed its 15th-consecutive season with an attendance above 40 million, which makes it the ninth-largest season total in Minor League Baseball’s 100-plus-year history. MLB is going to have a hard time defending their brand to the American public if the route that they choose to go is to walk away from these 42 communities that rely on these teams for baseball.”

Trahan isn’t wrong: MLB is struggling to explain themselves, because the truth is even worse than the lie. Their now extremely public frustration is with not being able to get what they wanted with ease, to exert their power and influence over those beneath them without a fight. Sanders had it right when he said this was simply a matter of greed among MLB’s owners, of billionaires trying to take even more of the pie for themselves. And with players, communities, Minor League Baseball, and the US government all in opposition to MLB’s goal here, their fight is not going to get any easier. No matter how many public tantrums they throw in the coming months.

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