SAN DIEGO — Massachusetts Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey have entered the escalating fray over Major League Baseball’s proposal to strip the Lowell Spinners and 41 other minor-league teams of their major-league affiliation.
In a sharply worded letter delivered to MLB commissioner Rob Manfred late last week, Warren and Markey depicted the contraction plan as “a slap in the face to Lowell, and to communities across the country.”
Warren, who is running for president, and Markey minced few words on the harmful impact the overhaul would have not only in Lowell but also in the Merrimack Valley, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and even Southern New Hampshire, once fans of both baseball and the Red Sox lose access to the big-league ballclub’s short-season Class A affiliate of the last 20 years.
“This scheme would cause significant economic damage to the City of Lowell, eliminate an important piece of the community’s cultural footprint, and disappoint baseball fans of all ages all while doing long-term damage to the game’s ability to keep and grow its fan base,” the letter read.
The senators urged Manfred “to strongly reconsider this ill-advised proposal” before concluding that “We reiterate our strong opposition to any efforts to eliminate or disaffiliate the Spinners and dozens of other Minor League teams.”
The missive came just days after the creation of the Save Minor League Baseball Task Force, a bipartisan group of more than 100 US representatives spearheaded by Representative Lori Trahan (a Massachusetts Democrat whose district encompasses Lowell) along with a bevy of minor-league owners, including the Spinners’ Dave Heller and Minor League Baseball itself.
Markey spoke with Red Sox president Sam Kennedy about the Spinners last week and has reached out to speak directly with Manfred’s office.
Senator Bernie Sanders, Democrat of Vermont, is also upset with the contraction plan, and he met with Manfred at MLB headquarters last week.
The two baseball leagues depend on each other, yet more than nine months before their Professional Baseball Agreement expires next September, they are divided by MLB’s dramatic contraction and reorganization plan.
The sides resumed negotiations in San Diego late last week before the start of baseball’s annual winter meetings.
Thirteen teams, not including the Spinners, are targeted for elimination, while the other 29 are slated for an MLB-supported independent “Dream League” concept that minor-league owners fear will be a bust for both fans and franchise values.
MLB owners believe the 160-team system is bloated and disorganized, with players not making enough money, too few players having a real shot at ever making the majors, and the development of the players stunted by poor facilities and too much travel.
MLB owners pay the salaries of minor-leaguers, many of whom make $5,000 to $10,000 for the entire baseball season, with no overtime. MLB is exempt from minimum-wage laws, thanks to Congress’s Save America’s Pastime Act, inserted into a $1.3 trillion omnibus spending ball passed a year ago.
The fact that workforce reductions come on top of the minimum wage exemption was not lost on Warren and Markey.
“And Congress, in May 2018, created a minimum wage and overtime pay exemption for Minor League Baseball players – which we continue to oppose – ostensibly to help reduce costs and ensure the viability of minor league teams across the country,” the senators wrote.
Whether the efforts of Warren, Markey, and Sanders, as well as Senate minority leader Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat who has also spoken against the plan, plus the task force will affect the negotiations is unknown.
But Congress has inserted itself into MLB business before.
Eighteen years ago, congressional pressure played a role in defeating then-commissioner Bud Selig’s plan to contract with both the Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos.
Besides holding the ultimate hammer of baseball’s anti-trust exemption, congressional action could take the shape of tying up MLB through a number of avenues, including the Fair Labor Standards Act as it relates to the minimum wage, as well as sports betting and laws related to performance-enhancing drugs.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, MLB has spent approximately $1.3 million in each of the last three years on lobbying Capitol Hill on a variety of causes, including the minimum-wage exception, tax reform, and the flow of Cuban baseball players to the United States.