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Save Minor League Baseball Task Force goes straight for the heartstrings in MLB battle

Debbie McCracken, left, and Ted Grimm watch the Erie SeaWolves play the Trenton Thunder on April 18, 2018, in Erie, Pa. The SeaWolves, a Class AA squad, are among 42 franchises that could be on the chopping block as Major League Baseball reimagines its minor league system.
Debbie McCracken, left, and Ted Grimm watch the Erie SeaWolves play the Trenton Thunder on April 18, 2018, in Erie, Pa. The SeaWolves, a Class AA squad, are among 42 franchises that could be on the chopping block as Major League Baseball reimagines its minor league system. (Jack Hanrahan/Erie Times-News/AP)

In a dispute that is largely about cold, hard economics, pitting Major League Baseball against its minor league offshoot, the newly formed congressional Save Minor League Baseball Task Force on Tuesday leveraged its biggest advantage by going straight for the heartstrings.

At a briefing/news conference on Capitol Hill for congresspeople and media members, aggrieved representatives and minor league franchise owners took turns extolling the virtues of minor league baseball — its romance, affordability and sheer American-ness — and decrying MLB’s proposal to sever player-development ties with 42 minor league franchises.

“Profit ain’t everything,” said Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.), whose district includes the Staten Island Yankees of the possibly doomed, short-season New York-Penn League. “We’re talking about community here. We’re talking about the very backbone of our neighborhoods.”

Rose and Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) on Tuesday became the third and fourth co-chairs of the bipartisan task force, formed last week by Reps. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.) and David B. McKinley (R-W.Va.) — all of them representing districts with teams on MLB’s proposed chopping block. On Nov. 22, Trahan and McKinley wrote to MLB to protest the cuts; 102 additional representatives, a near-equal split of Democrats and Republicans, signed the letter.

“There’s nothing more American than baseball,” said Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.), whose district includes the Erie SeaWolves, one of a handful of Class AA affiliates MLB has proposed contracting.

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A hearing room in the Rayburn House Office Building was set up for maximum photo-op potential, with caps of some of the 42 teams targeted by MLB’s proposal spread out colorfully on a witness table and some of those teams’ jerseys draped over the chairs typically occupied by committee members.

A day earlier, MLB officials met with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has spoken out against the proposed cuts. A statement from MLB characterized the meeting with Sanders, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, as “productive.” MLB officials also met with McKinley and other House lawmakers Tuesday.

MLB has proposed contracting 42 teams because of concerns over what it says are inadequate facilities and geographical concerns, as well as its plans for across-the-board salary increases for minor leaguers. At the same time, MLB is arguing that its teams don’t need so many minor league players, because the vast majority never make it to the majors.

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The Professional Baseball Agreement, which governs the MLB/Minor League Baseball relationship, expires in September 2020. The sides expect to resume negotiations Friday in San Diego, ahead of baseball’s annual winter meetings next week.

“MLB is committed to negotiating with Minor League Baseball to find solutions that balance the competing interests of local communities, MLB Clubs, Minor League owners, and the young players who pursue the dream of becoming professional baseball players,” MLB said in a statement. “We repeatedly have stated both publicly and privately to the Minor Leagues that whatever the outcome of the negotiations, MLB will offer every community that currently hosts professional baseball options to preserve baseball in a viable, fan-friendly, compelling format with the full support of MLB.”

As part of MLB’s proposal, the 42 teams potentially on the chopping block could join a “Dream League” that, while unaffiliated with major league teams, would still receive financial support from MLB. However, Minor League Baseball President Pat O’Conner, who spoke to lawmakers Tuesday, said such a system would be “a death sentence” for the vast majority of the contracted teams — largely because the unaffiliated franchises, rather than an MLB parent team, would be responsible for player salaries and benefits.

“The model is flawed,” O’Conner said. “. . . This is an existential threat to our future. It’s a sad day when what I think are ulterior, nefarious, greedy motives are going to rob [baseball] from so many people in this country.”

Added Dave Baggott, owner of the Ogden (Utah) Raptors: “They’re considering throwing us out like garbage. . . . Once we have to play as an independent, the death clock for our team will start. It’s just a matter of time.”

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Although the lawmakers and minor league owners on hand Tuesday largely stayed away from the economics of the dispute, Rose went straight to the crux of the matter in a short speech that slammed MLB owners as he cast himself as the task force’s combatant voice.

“And now, what, just for an extra buck? Just so a couple of billionaires can, what, buy another yacht? We’re going to turn our backs on these communities? This is disgusting,” he said. “. . . And to those who think they’re going to get away with doing this, the funny thing is, they’re going to come to [Congress] next year asking us for something. And I want all of them to know we have long memories.”

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