After taking heat for their minor league contraction plan from Minor League Baseball last month and more heat from Congress on Tuesday morning, Major League Baseball struck back Tuesday night.
In a feisty letter directed to “Dear Member of Congress,” Dan Halem, deputy commissioner and chief labor negotiator for MLB, argued that baseball only wants to conduct overdue pruning and reshuffling of its sprawling, 160-affiliate system to improve the product.
And, said MLB, stripping 42 teams in 22 states of their big-league franchise affiliation is not as drastic as it seems because MLB will help operate a new, independent “Dream League” for many of the disenfranchised teams.
The letter attempts to shift much of the blame for contraction onto the Minor League Baseball owners who allowed the system to become bloated and fall into disrepair.
“We know for a fact that many Minor League owners — including owners in districts represented by Members of Congress who signed the letter to the Commissioner — are presently attempting to relocate their affiliates to different cities or sell them outright,” said the letter from Halem.
Halem’s letter came hours after US Representative Lori Trahan (D-Mass.) and US Representative David McKinley (R-W. Va.) co-authored a scorching letter to MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, Halem, and all 30 club owners about the issue.
With 60 Democrats and 46 Republicans signing on, the letter beseeched baseball to reconsider its plans for the sake of the communities that would lose teams.
The Lowell Spinners play in Trahan’s district, and they are the only Red Sox affiliate on the list.
The letter also reminded MLB that Congress is responsible for baseball’s antitrust exemption, an implied threat that the exemption could be reexamined if the plan is not reconsidered.
MLB did not sound particularly cowed by the threat.
“We cannot commit to you that the next PBA [Professional Baseball Agreement] will require MLB to guarantee 160 affiliates,” said Halem’s letter. “Even if Major League Clubs determine that they will commit to 160 affiliates, they are not willing to send their players to substandard facilities or impose on them unreasonable burdens with respect to travel and working conditions.”
Halem’s letter said that a majority of its owners believe there are too many minor league players and that contraction will allow MLB to compensate its minor league players better, improve the ballparks and clubhouses where they work, make them travel less, and provide them with better hotels and food.
Minor League Baseball does agree in principle that the current geographic map of teams and affiliates needs to be redrawn, and it has said that it wants to upgrade its facilities.
But on the issue of the number of players and teams, it’s only the big-league owners who see excess.
“Most of the players on the rosters of rookie, short-season, and low-A teams are there to fill rosters so the Minor League teams can stage games for their fans, not because the Major League Clubs require all of those players to develop Major League talent,” Halem’s letter stated.
Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball are expected to return to the bargaining table for face-to-face negotiations on a new PBA later this week in Dallas, where MLB owners are currently meeting, and then resume in San Diego next month at baseball’s Winter Meetings.
The current PBA expires on Sept. 30, 2020.
The Spinners have played for their parent club, the Red Sox, for the last 24 seasons.
“The abandonment of Minor League clubs by Major League Baseball would devastate our communities, their bond purchasers, and other stakeholders affected by the potential loss of these clubs,” stated the letter from Congress.
Two other New England teams play in the NY-Penn League, the Vermont Lake Monsters (Oakland ) in Burlington, Vt., and the Connecticut Tigers (Detroit) in Norwich.
MLB wants to drop some, not all, of the affected teams into a new independent “Dream League.”
The Spinners are targeted for Dream League play, but in a statement attached to the letter’s release, Trahan voiced enough distress to make it clear that affiliation with a “Dream League” and unattached to a big-league franchise is not a viable business plan.
“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,” said Trahan. “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.”
Michael Silverman can be reached at email@example.com.