MLB, Congress play hardball in fight over minor leagues

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Congress and MLB are barreling toward a showdown over the league’s plans to eliminate 42 minor league franchises across the country ahead of the 2021 season.

The league insists the plan is needed to improve the finances of minor league baseball and conditions for developing players. But MLB is facing opposition from the general public and a broad coalition of lawmakers from both parties who say closing those teams would devastate communities in their districts.

Lawmakers moved quickly against the plan, setting up the Save Minor League Baseball Task Force, which is drawing broad bipartisan support.

In a letter to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred in November, more than 100 lawmakers detailed the damage contracting minor league teams would have.

“These professional baseball clubs are vital components of our communities because they provide affordable, family-friendly entertainment to members of our communities, support scores of allied businesses, employ thousands of individuals, donate millions of dollars in charitable funds, and connect our communities to Major League Baseball,” the letter read.

MLB has said it is pushing ahead to force an overhaul to the system. Its plans to cut minor league teams are part of larger negotiations over a new contract with the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the group for the minor leagues.

“MLB wants to modernize our minor league system, improve playing conditions for our players and protect baseball in communities across America. Those are goals we share with lawmakers and communities, however Minor League Baseball’s approach thus far has been neither constructive nor solutions-oriented,” a MLB spokesperson told The Hill.

The spokesperson said the league is “actively” talking to lawmakers about its goals and the state of minor league baseball.

“We’re also letting them know that the most constructive role Congress can play is encouraging Minor League Baseball to return to the bargaining table,” the spokesperson said.

As spring training begins, both sides are digging in. Last week, members in the House introduced a resolution that calls on MLB to retain the current minor league structure instead of eliminating teams.

Reps. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.), David McKinley (R-W.Va.), Max Rose (D-N.Y.) and Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) are the lawmakers who started the task force, which is likely to grow with members who signed on to the letter to Manfred or resolution.

“We launched the Save Minor League Baseball Task Force for a simple purpose — to help ensure a level playing field in the negotiations between MLB and Minor League Baseball so that they yield a fair resolution and protect minor league baseball in communities across the country,” Trahan told The Hill.

She said Congress has long been a partner with MLB.

“We deserve to have our voices heard in any conversation with such potentially devastating consequences. Our resolution makes our position clear,” Trahan said.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a Democratic presidential contender, has also been vocal on the issue, meeting with Manfred in December. In a letter to the commissioner, Sanders said the “extreme proposal … would be terrible for baseball.”

Some lawmakers are threatening to play hardball.

Baseball because of its long history has enjoyed a special status, with the league exempt from antitrust laws since 1922. But Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) floated ending that exemption.

“That’s a pretty nice exemption they have and I understand why they have it,” Katko said in an interview with The Citizen, a paper in his district. “But when you’re going to devastate communities, that’s when you say ‘enough is enough.’ ”

Lawmakers in recent days have been speaking to local media and meeting with minor league owners and city officials in their districts, vowing to fight the plan.

Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) on Monday met with businessowners in Norwich, Conn., to hear about the effect closing the town’s Norwich Sea Unicorns would have.

As one of the most popular sports leagues in the world, MLB is not immune to scrutiny from Washington. Last month, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) called for a hearing on the league’s embarrassing cheating scandal involving the Houston Astros.

The fight over the future of minor league teams, though, is the biggest clash between Congress and the league since 2005, when lawmakers investigated steroid use among players and many of the game’s biggest stars testified.

The league in recent years has built up a strong presence on K Street. MLB opened a Washington office in January 2016 run by Josh Alkin, their vice president of government relations.

Alkin is the only in-house lobbyist, but there are 11 others on retainer, including the Duberstein Group, Ernst & Young, Ballard Partners and Hogan Lovells. The league spent $1.24 million on lobbying in 2019, on par with another league in the headlines: the NFL, which spent $1.35 million.

MLB’s lobbying efforts made headlines in May when it hired Ballard Partners, a firm with ties to President Trump, after the administration ended a deal allowing Cuban ballplayers to play in the U.S.

MLB has been pushing back on the criticism from Congress.

Daniel Halem, MLB deputy commissioner of baseball administration, wrote back to lawmakers in November to correct what the league said were mischaracterizations of its plan. Halem said the league’s goals are to improve the minor leagues, including ensuring suitable facilities, reducing travel burdens for players and improving pay.

Trahan and McKinley responded to the letter in a statement, saying they were “disappointed” with the “dismissive tone toward ongoing negotiations.”

A congressional aide who spoke to The Hill on the condition of anonymity said MLB mobilized quickly against lawmakers looking to save minor league teams.

“I heard from several offices that were contacted by MLB’s government affairs team, and it was clear that they were interested in minimizing the number of representatives taking a public stand,” the aide said.

What happens next is unclear as negotiations between MLB and the minor leagues continue with Congress watching closely. Even if lawmakers pass a resolution condemning the plan, all eyes are on MLB’s next move.

Lawmakers are not at the stage of reviewing MLB’s antitrust exemption yet, but nothing is off the table, congressional sources told The Hill. Others said that threat should motivate MLB to address lawmakers’ concerns.

“MLB is in a somewhat unique situation given the antitrust exemption, so it’s important in the short term to be responsive, transparent and proactive in engaging members of Congress and their constituents,” said Brian Walsh, partner at PLUS Communications, a public affairs firm.

“How do these changes benefit baseball fans along with impacted communities, and are there supportive voices within the affected areas that include those in Washington representing them?” added Ron Bonjean, a partner at ROKK Solutions. “They should be put out there front and center as voices in favor of the MLB proposal.”

A K Street communications strategist with ties to Congress said the optics would be a challenge for MLB’s wealthy owners.

“People view them as ultra-rich. The contracts that they give out to the players for millions of dollars makes it feel disingenuous when they say they have to cut these teams for cost benefits,” the strategist said.

The strategist warned of the danger for MLB if the fight with Congress drags on.

“Guess who’s going to win that one in Washington?” the strategist said. “When you’re looking at the smallest communities to go after, they’re usually represented by political heavyweights.”

Tags Bernie Sanders Bobby Rush David McKinley Donald Trump Joe Courtney John Katko Lori Trahan Max Rose Mike Simpson

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