It’s too late to save Minor League Baseball, but it’s not too late to punish MLB

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Major League Baseball is moving right along with their plan to disaffiliate around one-quarter of Minor League Baseball’s teams. Last week, they announced the new league names — basically placeholder descriptors before we end up with the Class-A Waffle House League or whatever — and which ones the remaining clubs now find themselves in after reorganization. No real opposition to the move exists — sure, fans of MiLB teams are furious, and some of those teams themselves are even suing, but there is no organized path to stopping MLB from doing whatever they want here.

Part of that is by design, since the antitrust exemption has given MLB an entire century to build up power that they could use, essentially unchecked, if no one was willing to threaten to remove said exemption. As I wrote for Baseball Prospectus last month:

If not for the existence of the antitrust exemption, MLB probably isn’t in a position to stage a hostile takeover of the second-largest professional baseball league in the United States. It wouldn’t be in a position to summarily dismiss dozens of teams for the sake of efficiency. There probably would have been more threats to MLB’s dominance in the years between the Federal League and the time you’re writing this, if not for the Supreme Court’s decision that effectively put ownership of the pro game in this country into the hands of one league, and those threats very well might have created a situation where Minor League Baseball itself had some power to throw around, since their teams and leagues would have had choices for affiliation. Instead, MLB has remained unchallenged for a century, empowered by the exemption, and now find themselves attempting to force the One Baseball plan not just on pro ball in America, but amateur ball, too.

The Save Minor League Baseball Task Force never officially threatened the existence of MLB’s antitrust exemption, though, founding member, Representative Lori Trahan, did tell me that she believed that “everything is on the table” to convince MLB to change course — that was a statement that carried some hefty implications. Of course, then the coronavirus pandemic occurred a few months after Trahan spoke on the issue, and Congress’ attention shifted from MLB’s power grab to bickering over whether Americans who needed help were worthy of being helped. So, you know, there isn’t really much new news on that whole front.

Which was a fear I had all along, of course: when the task force passed a resolution designed to let MLB know they were serious about fighting this thing, I wrote about how Congress needed to be doing more than making symbolic gestures if this was actually going to work out:

“Who blinks first” is what this all comes down to. Even the resolution passing doesn’t matter one bit if Congress won’t then actually go through with threatening MLB in a way that will get 30 owners and commission Rob Manfred to back off of an incredibly unpopular plan they haven’t been swayed from yet. MLB knows this, too: if this is all just political bluster, if the representatives who truly do care about this are outnumbered by ones who are just trying to score some political points with local voters ahead of the next election, then MLB is safe to do whatever they please with the far less powerful MiLB and its teams.

The Save Minor League Baseball Task Force and the rest of Congress have to mean it if they pass this resolution for anything it says or stands for is to matter. It can’t just be symbolic: symbolic isn’t going to deter the ultra-wealthy who care far more about money than baseball or its players or the fans who want to watch the sport.

The Save Minor League Baseball Task Force never did threaten MLB like it needed to, and whether it was because the pandemic wrested attention away or the existence of the pandemic gave some politicians something else to latch onto as an election approached or because there was never really any there there barely matters. Now there are dozens fewer MiLB teams than there were when this whole thing began.

Not everyone has quit on this just yet, with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders tweeting that this plan has “everything to do with greed” and that if “Major League Baseball does not reconsider this proposal, I think it’s time for Congress to rescind the huge tax breaks it has received.” Sanders was against MLB’s plan back when he was running for president in early 2020, as well, so it’s good to see he hasn’t ditched support for these teams and cities and fans just because that campaign is over. However, he’s just one senator, and Congress has its hands full, so my optimism that this threat will go anywhere is nonexistent. I was cautiously optimistic back when the task force formed, given the implied threat that the antitrust exemption would be on the table, but it’s been over a year since then, and all that’s happened is everything MLB wanted to happen.

There is still time for the task force to get together with Sanders and other like-minded politicians, to band together with local governments and the disaffiliated teams. There is little chance that MLB will actually reverse course, but they don’t have to: that doesn’t have to be the point anymore. The point, at this stage, should be to punish MLB for what they have done and will not change. Revoke the antitrust exemption, which Congress has the power to do. Strip them of tax breaks. Don’t grant favors to them — like shoving the Save America’s Pastime Act into a spending omnibus to limit pay for minor-league players — anymore. Make them pay!

Do I think this will happen? Again, nonexistent optimism. It is what I want to happen, though, for Congress to remove the tool that allowed MLB to do what they’ve done that cannot be undone.

  • So many of the best games these days are genre-spanning forays into new territory, so for Baseball Prospectus I decided to break MLB more than it already is so that it’s now a deck-building sport. How do I know this succeeded? Because readers argued about whether this was satire or if I’m just a guy with bad ideas, when the real answer is that I want to watch this sport and am probably a visionary.

  • Also at BP is Shakeia Taylor, on how MLB cannot elevate the Negro Leagues by subsuming them.

  • Eric Nusbaum wrote about how MLB’s shrinking of the minors (and its One Baseball plan) is an affront to baseball history.

  • Bradford William Davis spoke to Jerry Manuel about his vision of a “better Major League Baseball.” The kind of “better” they’re discussing is a lot more important than my above allusion to a “better” version of MLB. Do Jerry’s thing first.

  • The Mets are in the news for the third time in the past couple of months for one of their employee’s’ harassment of women: this time, hitting instructor Ryan Ellis. He was just let go, even though sexual harassment complaints from three different women came back in 2018.

  • Don’t worry, at least the Mets didn’t sign online harasser Trevor Bauer. Even if they sure did try to.

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