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Congress sends letter to Manfred blasting proposed MiLB overhaul

A group of 104 US Congressmen on November 19 co-signed a stern letter sent to Major League Baseball, urging the league to reconsider their “radical proposal” to overhaul the affiliated minor leagues, and threatened an erosion of their historical legislative support of the game.

The letter, sent to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred from a broad bipartisan mix of both Democrats and Republicans, in particular calls the league’s bid to reduce 42 clubs an “abandonment” that “would devastate our communities, their bond purchasers, and other stakeholders,” and something that would strip communities of teams that “provide affordable, family-friendly entertainment, support scores of allied businesses, employ thousands of individuals, donate millions in charitable funds, and connect our communities to Major League Baseball.”

Though the letter does not address any specific regulatory element addressing MLB, including the sport’s notable antitrust exemption, it does pointedly say that moving forward with the plan to eliminate affiliated teams puts at risk “the long-term support Congress has always afford our national pastime on a wide variety of legislative initiatives.”

MLB is seeking the minor league overhaul in part to improve the overall quality of facilities for its developing player prospects, as well as a geographic realignment to reduce team travel. MiLB, the other party in ongoing negotiations with MLB toward a new Professional Baseball Agreement, has argued that its teams play a vital role in helping develop overall baseball fandom. 

More than 80 percent of Americans live within a MiLB market. But with only 30 MLB teams, many live hundreds of miles away from their closest major league club. 

“If enacted, [the plan] would undermine the health of the minor league system that undergirds talent development and encourages fan loyalty,” the Congressional letter reads in part. “It would particularly be felt in areas far from a major league team or where tickets to a major league game are cost-prohibitive.”

The Congressional letter also attacks the MLB proposal when the league’s revenues now approach $11 billion annually and continue to set new records for the sport. The outreach to Manfred was organized by US Rep. Lori Trahan, Massachusetts Democrat, who represents the Lowell, Massachusetts, area, where the Class-A Spinners are among the clubs targeted to lose their affiliation with MLB. Trahan’s chief Republican signatory on the effort is US Rep. David McKinley from West Virginia.

“Together we are sending a clear, bipartisan message that the MLB plan is way off base, and the People’s House is ready to standup for Minor League Baseball,” Trahan said.

The letter does not reference any lawsuits. But it is likely that various communities with impacted clubs will be exploring potential legal challenges against the proposed move.

MLB Deputy Commissioner Dan Halem provided Congress later on the 19th a lengthy response that details the league’s desire for improved facilities, reduced travel, and better overall working conditions for minor league players. Halem went on to say that MLB owners believe there are too many minor league players currently playing within the affiliated system, and cited figures that less than 5 percent of players selected after the 25th round of the First-Year Player Draft reach the major leagues.

Halem also said any community that would lose an MLB-affiliated minor league team would be offered several other alternatives to retain organized baseball, including fielding teams in collegiate summer leagues such as the existing Cape Cod League or a proposed new “Dream League” that MLB would oversee for undrafted prospects but would technically be comprised of independent clubs. Halem called the Dream League a “potentially novel and compelling format,” a feeling not shared by the 42 clubs targeted to lose their MLB affiliation.

“We have already committed to both MLB and local communities that have inquired that MLB will offer options to preserve baseball in a viable and fan-friendly format in all cities that currently have an affiliate,” Halem said.

Individual MiLB clubs on the list to potentially lose their major league affiliation also have become increasingly outspoken and made a variety of public statements critical of MLB’s proposal, either by themselves or in tandem with local elected leaders. The Class-A Daytona (Florida) Tortugas were one of those teams, saying it would do “everything humanly possible to protect the future of professional baseball in Daytona Beach and Volusia County.

“We also stand with the other 41 communities across this country that have been placed on Major League Baseball’s “hit” list by league executives whom are too short-sighted to realize that baseball is played — and fandom cultivated — in the cornfields of Iowa, in the sandlots of Tennessee, in the mountains of West Virginia and yes, on the playgrounds and baseball fields a block or two from The World’s Most Famous Beach,” the Tortugas said.

The Congressional letter in full can be found here.