SAN DIEGO — Major League Baseball has been taking a beating over its minor league contraction proposal that would strip 42 teams of their major league affiliations.
Here at the Winter Meetings, MLB has finally decided it’s time to start fighting back.
Not only did commissioner Rob Manfred describe the state of the talks as a “tale of two cities” and advise Minor League Baseball to leave its “take it or leave it” stance to reporters Wednesday afternoon, his deputy commissioner Dan Halem took the battle to another level.
Halem brought 21 photographs from 13 minor league stadiums that he said depicted unsafe playing conditions, high-school-level clubhouses, and cramped training rooms, and shared a copy of an internal e-mail sent from the president of the Carolina League to 10 minor league owners extending them the opportunity to sell 50 percent or more of their club and move it to Wilmington, N.C.
The e-mail is dated Nov. 22 — a month after word leaked out about MLB’s plan to effectively abandon 42 communities.
Since October, Minor League Baseball as an organization and many of its owners have spoken to the media about the economic impact the plan would have in the affected communities and scoffed at the viability of an MLB-run independent “Dream League” and college-style wooden-bat leagues.
Congress has latched on to the abandonment issue, with US senators and representatives flooding Manfred’s inbox with letters decrying the plan, along with the creation of a “Save Minor League Baseball” task force comprising minor league owners and a 100-plus group of bipartisan House members.
It’s a messy, big-dollar dispute that likely will not subside much before the sides reach a September 2020 deadline to hammer out a new Professional Baseball Agreement.
To date, MLB has said little in its own defense, but the exhibits Halem brought to an interview Wednesday marked a new offensive.
Halem also said the list of 42 teams that has leaked is out of date and thus wrong. For example, he said, the Lowell Spinners, the Red Sox’ sole affiliate on the list, are not technically affected.
“You can write this: No decision has been made regarding Lowell — internally and not across the table,” said Halem. “That list is inaccurate. There are a lot of different moving parts.”
For now, Halem said, MLB is not going to release a revised list because of its fluidity and the negotiation’s intensity.
And while MLB is willing, for now, to endure criticism, it is unwilling to allow MiLB to continue to frame itself as the victim.
Halem made it clear that MLB believes MiLB has been unwilling to address the concerns about facility upgrades. Talks degenerated when the sides hired auditing firms to decide on facility standards and came up with different results. Trust was not helped, Halem said, when he discovered that information he had shared with MiLB president Pat O’Conner wound up in the New York Times and Baseball America in October.
Minor league owners don’t have enough stake in the game because they play in stadiums that are mostly government owned, Halem said, and those leases don’t stop a team from leaving a community.
“You have to understand their mind-set, too: They leave communities all the time; this is not like they’ve never left a community, they’ve left three in the last year,” said Halem. “The problem with them, there is what they say publicly, and what they say privately is different.
“Publicly they’re saying, ‘We’re staying in all these communities blah blah,’ and what they say privately is, ‘We’re going to deal with these situations such as Batavia and Binghamton, we’re going to leave and we have an area, a city here that’s going to build us a new stadium’ — that’s the way they’re going to deal with it.
“If you don’t think they’ve been trying to get new facilities in some of these places for years, you’re mistaken. They have.”
Halem described the minor league owners as “very smart” for how they have leveraged major league owners into buying into some of their teams to prevent them from leaving.
“If I wasn’t in my job and I had the money, I would buy a minor league affiliate, because these things do not really have any intrinsic value,” said Halem. “We supply the players, the city or state supplies the stadium.
“They’ll go to the Brewers, let’s say, and say, ‘We’re thinking of affiliating with another club but we’ll stay with you if you buy us at a higher valuation.’ And our clubs have bought into this because they’re desperately afraid if they lose their affiliate, they’re going to get stuck in a worse place.”
MLB does not think there is a need for 160 affiliated teams in large part because it believes a majority of MLB owners would be satisfied with four affiliates — a total of 120 teams — with more players on those teams having a better chance of making the majors and also making it easier for the MLB to pay them more.