SAN DIEGO — Given the recent adversarial tenor between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball, the fact that MiLB president Pat O’Conner Monday morning could say “we were not discouraged — it was productive” after face-to-face negotiations here Friday qualifies as the most positive piece of news generated in the last couple of months.
That’s not to say the sides have progress to report, or even a date for more negotiations on a Professional Baseball Agreement that expires next September — the sides remain firmly entrenched when it comes to MLB’s plan to strip affiliation from 42 ballclubs around the country.
But O’Conner suspects that MLB finally might be open to the idea of explaining why and how it arrived at its overhaul proposal.
And because O’Conner has only been able to offer shoulder shrugs when it comes to why their team is on a hit list, the prospect of finally hearing a rationale from MLB amounts to a step forward.
“We really think that now we are going to be able to be given things that let us better understand their position — ‘Why is it 120? How did you get to 120?’ — I think we’re going to have a chance to learn,” O’Conner said about MLB’s desire to reduce the total number of teams to 120. “Understanding the proposal is as important as knowing what it is, probably more important than what it is — that’s the glimmer of hope that I have. I’m not sure it’s going to change the outcome. We may have to agree to disagree on certain aspects of the relationship but I’m not comfortable taking those types of decisions and making decisions uninformed.”
O’Conner addressed minor league owners and executives Monday morning at the Winter Meetings in a speech that emphasized unity and solidarity at a time when the minor league owners feel under attack for an out-of-the-blue proposal to shrink their size by 25 percent.
It arrived unbidden and, to date, unexplained, leaving O’Conner and his members looking over their shoulders to see what might be coming next.
“If the process takes us against our will from 160 to 120, what’s going to stop us from being taken to 90?” said O’Conner. “Or 60? Or we lose control altogether?”
O’Conner is pleased that last week’s creation of a “Save Minor League Baseball” task force, which includes letters from Massachusetts Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey to MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, have required little to no effort of lobbying from MiLB.
“We just go in and tell our story and leave it up to them to decide but I have to tell you, that our efforts in Washington, the most impressive thing, the most humbling thing to me is the organic nature of the support,” said O’Conner. “We don’t have to go in and sell it. We just have to go in and tell them. They get it. These people are fired up.”
O’Conner is happy to have Congress turn up the heat on MLB. But he is not looking for them to enact punitive measures to solve the problems.
“All we’re trying to do with this is make Congress aware of what’s at stake — we’re looking for a level playing field to negotiate this deal, we are not looking for Congress to help us negotiate this deal,” said O’Conner. “They tell us they have no place and we fully agree with that. This deal must be negotiated and we are committed to negotiating the deal.”
Part of the deal MLB wants is to place most of the 42 teams in a new, MLB-supported “Dream League” setup that O’Conner believes is doomed — a minor-league team without a major-league affiliation is simply not going to be able to draw enough loyal fans.
“They will tell you — and it’s their position, they believe it and they’re allowed to believe it — ‘We’re not taking baseball from the community, we’re going to put the Dream League in there,’ ” said O’Conner. “We can show you every reason that if that works in Year 1, that team won’t be around in Year 5. It’s not a long-term solution. It’s not economically viable.”
That MLB is not happy with the space and modernity of some minor league facilities is a solvable problem in the eyes of O’Conner, if MiLB is given two or three years to address it. Facilities standards have not been updated since 1990.
Thirty years later, minor league teams send videographers, nutritionists, strength and conditioning coaches and sometimes massage therapists to work with players in ill-suited surroundings.
“Those people need space that was not contemplated,” said O’Conner. “There are three issues with facilities — time, money and space, and space might be the biggest problem.”
MLB and MiLB have a long way to go before arriving at a negotiation that concludes with a mutually agreeable PBA nine months from now.
But that the pitter-patter of a small step forward still could be heard in early December amounted to a banner day.