Protecting the pasttime

If MLB won’t stand up for communities that depend on minor league teams, Congress should.

The Editorial Board
Mon, 02 Dec 2019 05:00:00 GMT

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Major League Baseball, the guardian of America’s pastime, is taking a page out of the 21st-century corporate playbook with its plan to consolidate its minor league operations, pulling out of small towns throughout the country.

A league proposal would end pro affiliation with 42 minor league teams in 21 states as part of a larger plan to reorganize baseball’s system of developing young players. Among the teams slated to leave the Minor League Baseball circuit are Detroit Tigers affiliates Erie (Pa.) SeaWolves and (Norwich) Connecticut Tigers and Cleveland Indians affiliate Mahoning Valley (Ohio) Scrappers. The Toledo Mud Hens, Detroit’s top affiliate, is not on the list.

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Most of the teams Major League Baseball is looking to shed belong to various rookie leagues, which MLB has argued are an outdated venue for player development. Its consolidation proposal, however, just so happens to arrive as the players’ union makes a push to raise the salaries of minor league players, some of whom receive as little as $6,000 per year. So the remaining minor league players may get raises, but many others will lose their jobs.

It is not just players on the imperiled teams who are at risk. It is also the communities that surround, staff and support these organizations. Residents are employed by these minor league teams and spend hard-earned money at the ballpark. The presence of a minor league team, a sign of significant investment in a town, can help attract new residents or businesses to the area.

Major League Baseball has made it clear that it does not care. It has not invested directly in the construction of minor league ballparks or facilities, so it does not believe it has any responsibility for what comes of them. This despite the efforts of these minor league outfits to groom many of the premier players who now make the big bucks for the big leagues.

MLB has proposed spinning the unaffiliated teams and players off into an independent “Dream League,” but it is hard to imagine how such a league could remain economically competitive without a meaningful connection to the pros.

This issue has drawn the attention of a bipartisan coalition of congressional representatives — 60 Democrats and 46 Republicans — who wrote a letter imploring MLB to reconsider its plans, for the sake of the communities these teams call home. Dan Halem, deputy commissioner and chief labor negotiator for the league, responded by blaming the minor league owners, arguing that the consolidation plan became necessary due to bloat and disrepair in the minor league structure.

Mr. Halem and MLB are pushing their luck. Need the league be reminded that it is the beneficiary of a controversial 1922 Supreme Court ruling that exempted MLB from antitrust law? Congress has the power to rescind that exemption.

If MLB, which generated a record $10.3 billion in revenue in 2018, will not hear or cannot recognize the concerns of the communities affected by its consolidation plan, Congress should consider exercising its authority.