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MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred criticizes minor league owners

Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during the Major League Baseball winter meetings on Wednesday in San Diego.
Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during the Major League Baseball winter meetings Wednesday in San Diego.
(Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

Commissioner Rob Manfred took a contentious stance Wednesday at the winter meetings when addressing the owners’ plan to eliminate 42 minor league teams, in the name of what he said would be better facilities, travel arrangements and pay for minor league players.

Although major league owners successfully lobbied Congress last year to exempt baseball from federal minimum wage laws, arguing in part that higher wages could force the closure of minor league teams, the league now proposes to close teams anyway.

Manfred suggested there is room to compromise.

“Obviously,” he said, “there is a way to pay people more without reducing the number of franchises.”

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He said the owners’ plan was “by no means a fait accompli.” He said MLB was willing to negotiate but said minor league owners have taken what he called “a take-it-or-leave-it, status quo approach” by refusing to consider funding ballpark upgrades, or to address aging ballparks that might be beyond feasible renovations.

Minor league owners have been vocal in their opposition to the MLB plan, and Congress has stood with them. More than 100 members of Congress have signed letters to Manfred urging him to back off.

Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) told The Times last week he wants Manfred to commit to retaining all the minor league teams targeted for elimination, not pursue a compromise that might save some teams while killing others.

“I think some of the activities that have been undertaken by the leadership of Minor League Baseball have been polarizing in terms of the relationship with the owners,” Manfred said.

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“I think they’ve done damage to the relationship with Major League Baseball, and I’m hopeful that we will be able to work through that damage in the negotiating room and reach a new agreement. You know, when people publicly attack a long-time partner after they’ve committed to confidentiality in the negotiating process, usually people don’t feel so good about that.”

Said Pat O’Conner, president of Minor League Baseball: “There is no question the relationship has been damaged, but who is ultimately responsible is a matter of opinion.”

One minor league club owner, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing negotiations, said he was appalled by Manfred’s comments.

“Rob is attempting to decimate the industry, destroy baseball in communities and eliminate thousands of jobs, and he’s upset that the owners of the teams have gone public with that information in an effort to save their teams,” the owner said. “That’s rich.”

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As Sanders campaigns in Iowa, with seven weeks remaining before the caucuses there kick off the presidential primary process, he scheduled an event Sunday in Burlington, home of the Angels’ Class-A Midwest League team.

The Bees are one of the teams targeted for elimination. Sanders is set to meet with players and team employees, according to a campaign press release, and take batting practice with the players.

DRAFT SITE TO MOVE

Manfred also announced that the annual draft would move from a television studio in Secaucus, N.J., to Omaha, the site of the College World Series. The draft is scheduled three days before the CWS opens, and players from all the CWS teams are invited to attend.


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