Major League Baseball threw a high, hard brushback pitch at Minor League Baseball late Friday night: Shut up and negotiate, or we’ll run our own minor league system without you.
The tension is so high and the trust so low between the parties that, at 9:11 p.m. on Friday, MiLB issued a four-page memo blaming MLB for “repeatedly and inaccurately” describing the MiLB stance on a variety of critical issues in negotiations.
MLB quickly responded, choosing not to rebut the MiLB statement point-by-point but instead to threaten to end minor league baseball as we know it.
“If the National Association [of Minor League Clubs] has an interest in an agreement with Major League Baseball, it must address the very signifcant issues with the current system at the bargaining table,” the statement read.
“Otherwise, MLB clubs will be free to affiliate with any minor league team or potential team in the United States, including independent league teams and cities which are not permitted to compete for an affiliate under the current agreement.”
That agreement expires after the 2020 season, and MLB has proposed to cut 42 teams from the minor league lineup. On Wednesday, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred criticized minor league owners for approaching negotiations with what he called “a take-it-or-leave-it, status quo approach.”
MLB says that minor league teams have refused to address inadequate facilities, that major league owners subsidize too much of the cost of minor league operations, and that additional independent leagues could fill the void left in towns where the minor league team is cut.
MiLB says that it is willing to discuss facility improvements, that the major league owners simply want to pass the cost of higher minor league player salaries onto minor league owners, and that independent leagues have not succeeded in the small markets that would largely be abandoned. Manfred ripped minor league owners for taking the fight public, a criticism that outraged one minor league owner.
“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 on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing negotiations. “That’s rich.”
The issue has drawn bipartisan attention in Washington. On Sunday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is scheduled to meet with minor league executives, employees and former players in Burlington, Iowa, home of an Angels affiliate that is targeted for elimination.
If a proposal to kill about one-fourth of the minor league teams has made Congress take notice, a proposal to kill all of those teams might well result in Congress summoning Manfred for a public hearing, at which he would become a bipartisan pin cushion.
Still, in its statement late Friday, the league said it did not fear the politicians.
“MLB has assured every public official who has contacted us that MLB will work diligently to preserve organized baseball in a compelling, fan-friendly format in every American city that currently has an affiliate,” the statement read. “MiLB has not made such a commitment.”
The Bakersfield and High Desert franchises in the California League were terminated by MiLB because of inadequate facilities after the 2016 season. Independent league teams moved into the vacated ballparks; the team that moved into the High Desert stadium since has moved out.