SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey of Massachusetts 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 affiliations.
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 also running for president, and Markey minced few words on the harmful impact they believe the overhaul would have not only in Lowell but also the Merrimack Valley region, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and even southern New Hampshire once fans lose access to the Red Sox’ 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, “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 members of the US House of Representatives spearheaded by Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass., 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 he has reached out to speak directly with Manfred’s office.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont also is upset with the contraction plan and met with Manfred at MLB headquarters last week.
The two baseball entities are co-dependent, yet more than nine months out from the expiration of their Professional Baseball Agreement next September, they are divided by a yawning gap created by MLB’s dramatic contraction and reorganization plan.
The sides resumed face-to-face 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 outright elimination, while the other 29 are slated for an MLB-supported independent “Dream League” concept, which 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 between $5,000 and $10,000 for the entire season, with no overtime. MLB is exempt from having to meet minimum-wage laws, thanks to a Congress-enacted “Save America’s Pastime Act” inserted into a $1.3 trillion omnibus spending ball passed a year ago.
The combination of workforce reductions 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 or not the efforts of Warren, Markey, and Sanders, as well as Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has also spoken against the plan, plus the task force will make an impact on the negotiations between MLB and MiLB is unknown.
But Congress has inserted itself into MLB’s business before.
Eighteen years ago, Congressional pressure played a role in defeating then-commissioner Bud Selig’s plan to contract both the Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos.
Besides holding the ultimate hammer of baseball’s antitrust 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 efforts on 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.