• Max DelBello

MLB Plans to Ruin Minor League Baseball

Updated: Oct 2

The Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) between Major League Baseball (MLB) and Minor League Baseball (MiLB) expires at the end of the upcoming 2020 season. As part of the new PBA negotiations, MLB has proposed to reduce the number of MiLB teams from 160 to 120. This would eliminate 42 current minor league teams starting in 2021. Two current independent league teams would become affiliated. Another part of the proposal is the realignment and reclassification of the remaining minor league teams and leagues.

Through the new PBA, MLB hopes to upgrade minor league facilities, improve working conditions for minor league players, and improve travel and hotel accommodations. Essentially, MLB wants to make the minor leagues more efficient. By cutting a quarter of minor league teams, MLB also plans to increase wages for minor league players. The very low pay for minor league players has been a point of contention for a long time.

Along with eliminating affiliated teams, MLB plans to reduce the draft from 40 rounds to 20-25 rounds. Also, each MLB team would face a limit for the number of players they can roster on MiLB contracts. Currently, teams face no such limit, and organizations can roster as many minor league players and field as many minor league teams as they want. The new proposal would allow somewhere between 150 and 200 players per organization. Right now, most teams have somewhere around 275 players in their organization.

MLB suggests the remaining 42 teams and thousands of players should form the Dream League, which would be an independent league with teams of undrafted players. MLB would help fund the league, but teams would face the significantly increased cost of running an independent league team.

This plan by MLB and commissioner Rob Manfred is ridiculous. The proposal will help ruin minor league baseball and alienate millions of baseball fans.

Baseball fans across the country will be left without easy access to professional baseball. For example, the proposal cuts all three of Montana’s minor league teams. A fan in Montana is not going to drive over 10 hours to go see the Mariners in Seattle or Rockies in Denver. For the 42 eliminated teams, the average distance from an MLB team is over 200 miles. Binghamton, about an hour from Cornell, is on the list of teams to be eliminated. Casual baseball fans who live in Binghamton are mostly likely not going to drive over an hour to go watch more expensive minor league baseball in Syracuse or Scranton, and they are definitely not driving 3 hours to watch an MLB game in New York or Philadelphia.

MiLB helps build baseball in rural areas. Minor league games provide an opportunity for kids to see a professional version of baseball up close. This can help increase youth participation and interest in the sport. Younger generations will no longer be introduced to the sport through minor league baseball, and MLB will forever lose fans in minor league cities. For a sport that many consider to be dying (it’s not, but that is a different argument), MLB not caring about and cutting off millions of fans is absurd. Despite being faced with the problem of decreased major-league attendance in recent years, MLB somehow thinks it is a good idea to eliminate millions more from minor league attendance.

It is ironic that MLB and Manfred lead the “Play Ball” campaign to attract kids into the sport of baseball. Getting rid of 42 professional teams and the opportunity for millions of kids to watch the sport in-person seems like an excellent idea to get kids excited about what the sport has to offer. Supposedly, MLB is “making it easier for kids to get into baseball.” Yeah, right.

The Play Ball campaign has included expanding baseball to rural areas. As a part of this initiative, MLB games are played every year in Williamsport, PA on Players Weekend during the Little League World Series. Guess what town will be losing their minor league baseball team. Williamsport.

Baseball is often thought of as a grassroots sport. Unlike other major sports in America, baseball is a significant part of the culture of rural areas and towns across the country. Baseball, America’s pastime, should be a sport to unite the country. Instead, MLB wants to further isolate rural America. People in rural America across the country will no longer be able to spend a summer night at a ballpark.

Minor League Baseball is a critical part of small communities. MiLB president Pat O’Conner said, “You have communities that are threatened in this process. This is the social function. This is the communal centerpiece.” In otherwise boring areas, MiLB provides a cheap form of entertainment and a place for people to gather.

The New York Times article concerning this proposal highlights the Elizabethton Twins. “Officials in Elizabethton, TN, population 14,000, faced a choice a couple of years ago. They could either renovate the police station or meet a condition of the Minnesota Twins: to spend more than $1 million modernizing the clubhouse at the city-owned ballpark, home to its beloved minor league affiliate. They deferred the police station renovation, and now the Elizabethton Twins have a huge locker room, an upgraded kitchen, a training room, and space to relax and study game video.”

I have been to an Elizabethton Twins game in Elizabethton, TN. The small stadium was filled on a July night with many families and kids. Fans in attendance got the chance to watch future number one prospect and current Blue Jays player Vladimir Guerrero Jr. up close. The concourse area had large banners of American League MVPs Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Both started their professional career in Elizabethton. Leaving a small town like Elizabethton without professional baseball would hurt both the sport and the community.

Independent baseball offers a similar product to affiliated minor league baseball. However, MLB’s Dream League idea is completely unrealistic. MiLB teams operate under the current system where MLB teams pay for the salaries and benefits of players and coaches. MiLB teams are only responsible for the team staff, stadium expenses, and the cost of travel. The independent league model requires teams also pay the players, coaches, and trainers. Most teams on the list to be cut are rookie-level teams that will simply not be able to afford such costs. Salaries of players, coaches, trainers, and workers comp insurance typically total over $400,000 per year. Add in the challenges of travel and scheduling for a league that would have teams from Idaho to Iowa to Kentucky to Vermont, the idea is unrealistic. Maybe the Dream League can save a dozen teams, but it is not a solution for most of the 42 teams.

In addition to eliminating teams, the MLB proposal will eliminate thousands of players. There is a reason so many players currently play minor league baseball despite earning below minimum wage. Many players understand the challenges of playing in the minor leagues. Only the top prospects will likely make it to MLB, and players often just serve as competition and roster fillers to allow the top prospects to play. Nobody is forcing these players to continue to earn a poor wage as a minor league player. They do it because they love the game and want a chance at making the major leagues. Playing in independent league baseball such as the proposed Dream League is very different from affiliated baseball. Affiliated players are part of an organization that provides a variety of benefits to players. They are also fighting for a chance to make the organization’s major league team. Eliminating thousands of opportunities at making the major leagues doesn’t seem like a great way to expand a struggling sport.

Many current and former MLB players never would have had the opportunity to play affiliated baseball with a smaller draft. Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza was a 62nd round draft pick, and Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz was a 22nd round pick. Recognizable names such as Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, Travis Hafner, Roy Oswalt, Mark Buehrle, Kevin Kiermaier, and J.D. Martinez were all taken in the 20th round or later. With limited roster spots, many international players like Jose Altuve would have also never had the chance at making the major leagues.

MLB has been faced with a lot of criticism following the proposal. More than 100 members of Congress sent a letter to commissioner Manfred denouncing the “radical proposal” that “If enacted, would undermine the health of the minor league system that undergirds talent development and encourages fan loyalty.” The letter encourages MLB 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.” All-Star pitcher Sean Doolittle and politician Bernie Sanders have publicly shared their opposition to the proposal on Twitter. MLB could also face many lawsuits from minor league owners and cities, and Congress could potentially take away or narrow antitrust exemption for MLB.

The concerns about the minor league lifestyle and sub-standard facilities are legitimate, but these issues can be addressed with money. MLB does not need to reduce both the access to the game for fans and the opportunity to play the sport professionally. It is hard to understand how this proposal will benefit the sport in the long run. MLB has earned record revenue and profits in recent years, and the league can easily afford the relatively small cost of paying minor league players and improving minor league conditions. Instead, MLB wants to eliminate millions of fans and help kill the sport’s connection to rural America.




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CONTACT: ilr.sbs@cornell.edu