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Bernie Sanders criticizes baseball’s plan to eliminate 42 minor league teams

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Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally Nov. 16 at Woodrow Wilson High.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The fight against baseball’s plan to eliminate 42 minor league teams hit California on Wednesday, when Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders issued a statement in support of the Lancaster JetHawks.

“Closing down Minor League teams like the JetHawks would be a disaster for baseball fans, workers, and communities across the country,” Sanders said. “We must protect these teams from corporate greed.”

Tom Backemeyer, the JetHawks’ executive vice president, said the team did not advise Sanders’ campaign team on the statement or get advance notice of it.

“But it’s accurate,” Backemeyer said. “I like that he said it.”

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Backemeyer said the JetHawks have been given no reason why they are on baseball’s hit list. Major League Baseball says its plan is designed to upgrade and standardize minor league facilities and improve travel and living conditions. The JetHawks, the only California team on the list, play in a ballpark that opened in 1996 — and, as Sanders noted in his statement, a solar-powered stadium — within a reasonable driving distance of every other team in the California League.

The Angels face a Dec. 31 deadline to opt out of its stadium lease or remain bound to it through 2029, but one councilman suggested the deadline might not be that firm.

The statement from the Vermont senator dropped the name of Dodgers utilityman Enrique Hernández in listing some of the players who passed through Lancaster on their way to the majors.

“The team has produced baseball legends like José Cruz, Jr., Brandon Webb, Enrique Javier Hernández, and Micah Owings,” Sanders’ statement read.

Critics contend the plan is designed to save money for major league owners tired of subsidizing low-level leagues that produce very few major league players.

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In a letter sent Tuesday to commissioner Rob Manfred, more than 100 members of Congress slammed what they called a “radical proposal” that would eliminate teams that 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.”

House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), who represents the district in which the JetHawks’ ballpark is located, was one of the signers. As if it were not enough to present the league with the rare issue on which Sanders and McCarthy could agree, the letter also obliquely reminded MLB that Congress has the power to revoke baseball’s treasured antitrust exemption.

“Reducing the number of Minor League Baseball clubs and overhauling a century-old system that has consistently been safeguarded by Congress is not in the best interest of the overall game of baseball,” the letter read, “especially when Major League Baseball’s revenues are at all-time highs.”

The Sanders statement concluded with another reference to the Dodgers.

“Sanders’ politics were shaped early in life, when his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers were moved away from his home city. The move left an economic and cultural hole in Brooklyn,” the statement read. “The same will be true for Lancaster if the plan proposed by owners is allowed to go through.”


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