Minor League Baseball, for over a year now, has been fighting Major League Baseball about shutting down or disaffiliating over one-quarter of its teams. It appears that fight is at an end, and if you were rooting for MiLB, you’re going to be disappointed.
Baseball America reported on Tuesday that, when talks resume on Wednesday between the two sides currently negotiating the Professional Baseball Agreement that governs their relationship, that MiLB will give in to MLB’s demands that they shrink to 120 affiliated clubs. It always felt like it was bound to happen, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, but that sealed the fate of 40-plus clubs. Federal, state, and local governments were going to be the greatest ally of these potentially disaffiliated minor-league teams, and with all of their attention now focused on handling a pandemic, MLB has MiLB right where it wants them: in a corner, alone.
Yes, presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren spoke out against MLB, and the House of Representatives put together a task force to combat MLB’s initiative, and even passed legislation in favor of protecting MiLB teams, but that was what seems like in a completely different time and place. In part, because it was: I spoke with Representative Lori Trahan, one of the founding members of that task force, in December of 2019, months after MLB’s plan to dismantle the minors as they were currently built was officially revealed instead of just whispered, and that all feels like it was 10 years ago.
And how could it not, given what we’re dealing with worldwide, and in America itself, which currently leads in deaths from coronavirus even though not all of the deaths from the virus are even being counted because of how that count is even figured out, even though countries with exponentially larger populations or fewer resources at their disposal are struggling with the pandemic as well, and for longer.
Everything is upside down, and while the problems of yesterday aren’t at the forefront, they remain problems: the world won’t have coronavirus forever, but organizations like Major League Baseball are making sure the post-pandemic baseball world is shaped as they see fit. That’s why the draft will be shortened this year, as MLB already wanted it to be. It’s why proposals for making the 2020 season happen include MLB’s pre-existing plans for expanded postseason play, resumption of play plans that put everyone at risk besides the people —the owners and advertisers and network executives — who would benefit the most from it, why the international free agent signing period is basically being tossed aside until MLB can squeeze an international draft as a replacement for it out of the upcoming collective bargaining talks, and why MLB is going ahead with its plan to completely reshape the minor leagues and player development even when it might make sense to focus on the now and the damage the pandemic is wreaking on the relatively smaller business of Minor League Baseball.
It might not be disaster capitalism that registers on the same scale as, say, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos raking in $24 billion during COVID-19’s stay in America at the same time he’s forcing his underpaid and overworked wage earners to toil in dangerous conditions without paid sick leave or proper protection in their warehouses. But it’s the kind of consolidation of power that Naomi Klein would describe as part of the shock doctrine of disaster capitalism all the same.
Over 1,000 minor-league players are going to lose their jobs because of this cleaning up of “waste,” and without having had an official say on the matter. Pay for the remaining players is going to go up in 2021, sure, but at the expense of cutting out those 1,000 players, and mostly so MLB can attempt to put an end to the contentious discussion of minor-league compensation… without actually spending more money on it. It’ll serve as a lesson to players, that if you speak up about pay, you could lose your job, and in a league where there will be fewer jobs to speak of, that lesson will be painfully obvious to all.
So, what will we have instead of the current MiLB model? The “Dream League” pitch, plus MLB’s insistence that MiLB cities maybe won’t outright lose baseball teams in general, leads one to believe that MLB has decided to create a minor-league within a minor-league, where the pay and living conditions can remain terrible but a little more out of sight. Maybe the teams are affiliated with MLB itself instead of specific clubs, the players available to whichever club wants to sign them for their own rosters. These teams would be made up of undrafted amateurs and international players who would now exist in much larger quantities than before, when the MLB draft was larger and international free agency existed (assuming an international draft is indeed where we’re going). Those players would not only have cheaper signing bonuses than their predecessors, but lighter salaries, too, especially since it would reintroduce and reinforce MLB’s beloved idea of “short-term seasonal apprentices.” Look, these players are basically in an extended tryout! And they’re being paid for it! Combine that with the jump in pay for the other 120 teams of players, and MLB has fortified themselves against quite a few public attacks about their compensation models.
Well, not fortified against me, but you know what I’m saying.
Once the pandemic hit, this wasn’t going to end any other way. MLB doesn’t let feelings or national emergencies get in the way of achieving their goals, and as we’ve now seen, they’ll actually pounce even harder in those instances knowing they can get away with it while attention is diverted elsewhere. We’ll have to see what MLB actually plans for the minors, but given everything that’s led to this moment, and all the reasons for it, it’s not going to be good.