Baseball's annual Winter Meetings open Dec. 8 in San Diego and while the usual business will take place, there figures to be plenty of tension in the air coming from minor-league operators.
The Professional Baseball Agreement between Major League Baseball and the minors runs out after the 2020 season and negotiations on a new PBA have included a stunning proposal that would wipe out 42 of the 160 minor league teams.
As reported by the New York Times, the majors want upgraded facilities, better pay and better travel for their minor leaguers. They also want to cut back the number of low-level players. Some teams would be reclassified, but many others would be contracted. That list includes several New York-Penn League teams, such as the Batavia Muckdogs and Auburn Doubledays, and Double A Eastern League teams in Binghamton and Erie, Pa.
In Triple A, the Fresno Grizzlies would be dropped to the Class A California League while St. Paul would enter the Pacific Coast League and several current PCL clubs might join the International League. But the potential elimination of longtime franchises, almost all at Class A, has minor league clubs at all levels up in arms.
"Our real hope is that it's early in the process and ideas get exchanged and you eventually get a new agreement, but this seems like a heavy proposal," said Mike Buczkowski, president of Rich Baseball Operations and vice president and general manager of the Bisons. "For those of us on the minor league side, we have to prepare as if they're trying to eliminate 25% of minor league baseball and that's not a good thing for anybody, for any of those communities, the future of what people have come to know of minor league baseball."
In a recent outline of the proposal, MLB deputy commissioner Daniel Halem said minor league baseball made $100 million in profit in 2018, but the proposal argues that teams at the lower levels need money from their major league parent clubs to remain viable. According to Halem, major league teams pay nearly $500 million in signing bonuses and salaries annually and get a total of $18 million in return each year from the minor leagues.
Buczkowski said the Bisons are bracing for more costs to be passed their way and perhaps more requests for upgrades to Sahlen Field in areas such as clubhouses and training facilities. Rich Baseball's Double A team in Northwest Arkansas and the Class A team in Morgantown, W.Va., are not on the 42-team list, although Buczkowski said the West Virginia club would likely go to a different league because most of its New York-Penn League opponents would be contracted if the proposal went through.
"We're David in this fight. They're Goliath, no doubt," Buczkowski said of the minors-majors dynamic. "And every new agreement that's come out, it's never gotten cheaper for the minor leagues to operate. There's always been some increased sharing of resources and expenses, whether it's ticket taxes, different baseballs, whatever it might be.
"All the focus right now is saving minor league baseball in these cities and we haven't even got to the economic side of things."
One uncertain part of the proposal is the alignment of Triple A leagues, with rumors suggesting a 20-team International League that would bring back many of the old American Association clubs such as Iowa, Omaha and Nashville and perhaps a few others to the Eastern-based group.
"Whether all this happens or not, I'm disappointed it was even put forth," Buczkowski said. "So much has gone into the last 20-plus years, including Major League Baseball working with the minors to get new funds to build new stadiums or renovate stadiums so that it's good for their players. Now you make a proposal like this? That's the dollars and cents part of how. But at this point, with attendance down in Major League Baseball, people complaining about pace of game, you're going to just rip baseball away from 42 communities?
"They all become baseball fans because they follow pick-a-name that started in that town. That's how you become a fan of that player or that team. 'I became a fan of (infielder) Kevin Kramer from the West Virginia Black Bears who's playing an hour down the road in Pittsburgh as a big leaguer four years later.' That's how you build fans."
What's behind all of this? The Houston Astros are the chief proponent of the plan in part to cut down the number of minor leaguers each franchise carries and thus has to pay for. The Yankees, for instance, have more than 200 in their system and some reports have MLB looking to cut that number to perhaps 150 per team.
As Buczkowski noted, the Bisons often go through 70 players a year and sometimes have to dip into Class A ball for a player for a couple of days. The Blue Jays' Class A club in Bluefield, W.Va., is on the contraction list. Many of the contracted teams will be offered spots in a so-called "Dream League," which would play unaffiliated with major league clubs. Few cities or fan bases likely would be interested in that.
Speaking last week at owners meetings in Arlington, Texas, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred spoke harshly about the ongoing dialogue. Manfred accused top minor league officials of leaking the proposal and the teams cited for contraction to the New York Times and said the focus on contraction is taking away from the main issues.
"At the end of the day, Minor League Baseball needs to make an agreement with us,” Manfred said. “I’m sure we probably will make an agreement at some point. But we are not going to stand by and let the dialogue or the story that’s out there be a misrepresentation of what happened.”
New York Yankees president Randy Levine acknowledged the inclusion of the Staten Island Yankees of the New York-Penn League on the list but indicated the organization is not happy about it.
"We have been assured that there have been no decisions made regarding the elimination of the Staten Island Yankees," Levine said. "We support the Staten Island Yankees and their facility, and people should give the negotiations a chance to conclude before speculating on any outcome."
Baseball also is looking at a flood of lawsuits on the issue, largely from communities that have used public money to build or renovate their ballparks. Nearly $70 million in public funds were used to build post-2000 ballparks in Staten Island and Brooklyn. Officials in Binghamton have spent $9.5 million on NYSEG Stadium since 2014 and the ballpark is hosting the 2020 Eastern League All-Star Game.
"Why is Binghamton on the list?" Rumble Ponies owner John Hughes asked at a news conference last week. "The Major League Baseball proposal is clear about this being the first of many steps in cleaning out minor league baseball from rural communities, working-class people who don’t have the means or ability to drive three hours to pay several hundred dollars to watch a Major League Baseball game.”
Binghamton is likely on the list because it was last in attendance in the Eastern League last season and the proposal has Brooklyn moving up from the NY-P to Double A as the Mets' affiliate.
New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer assailed the plan on a conference call last week. Beyond the New York teams on the contraction list, Schumer argued the plan would impact the state's other New York-Penn League teams: the Tri-City Valleycats, Hudson Valley Renegades and Brooklyn Cyclones.
"These franchises are cherished by their communities in New York, and since demoting them to a new independent league could have a devastating impact, I’m urging MLB to stop, sit down with community leaders, local stakeholders and Minor League Baseball to rework this plan as soon as possible," Schumer said. "Baseball is our nation’s – and New York’s – pastime, and we must do everything possible to ensure that it doesn’t become a forgotten part of upstate’s past.”
Last week, 105 members of the House of Representatives co-signed a letter to Manfred and the 30 MLB teams decrying the plan and threatening baseball's long-held antitrust exemption.
"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," the letter said in part. "We want you to fully understand the impact this could have, not only on the communities we represent but also on the long-term support that Congress has always afforded our national pastime on a wide variety of legislative initiatives.”
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, a senator from Vermont, released a letter to Manfred on Monday.
“Instead of paying Minor League Baseball players a living wage, it appears that the multimillionaire and billionaire owners of Major League Baseball would rather throw them out on the street no matter how many fans, communities and workers get hurt in the process,” Sanders wrote in part.
In Erie, city councilwoman Liz Allen wrote a scathing email to Manfred that she shared with the Detroit News (the Erie SeaWolves are a Tigers affiliate). Pennsylvania has committed $12 million to upgrade UPMC Park and construction has already begun. She said she will urge the state's General Services Administration to take legal action to recoup the money.
"Your decision is reckless and ill-timed," Allen wrote. "The Erie SeaWolves have a diverse workforce and the team provides entry-level experience for many young people in our community. Minor league baseball doesn’t just provide jobs; it nurtures future fans of your product.
“Rob Manfred may think that he is saving baseball. In reality, he is trying to line the pockets of greedy owners, but in the long run, he is killing America’s pastime."