Major contention: Minor League Baseball is fighting back against an MLB plan that could downsize the league
When the visiting clubhouse in a Midwest League minor league ballpark flooded, players joked that the water actually had cleaned out the clubhouse’s unsanitary conditions. And for one Northwest League team, a scarcity of lockers to accommodate players in the visiting clubhouse prompted them to draw straws to see which two needed to use sinks as makeshift stalls.
Those are just two examples included in a comprehensive review that MLB conducted for more than a year to examine playing conditions, facilities, travel logistics and hotel accommodations for minor league players. MLB enlisted a consultant to visit minor league venues nationwide and then conducted expansive, internal surveys among its 30 clubs at different touch points — including owner, general manager and farm director — to make qualitative and quantitative assessments of all their affiliates. The findings are the underpinning of MLB’s proposal to dramatically overhaul minor league baseball, which could result in the elimination of more than 40 teams.
That proposal has touched off a rare public display of rancor between two groups long viewed as partners in growing the game. But now Pat O’Conner, the president and CEO of MiLB, believes MLB is treating MiLB like a vendor and “doesn’t respect what we stand for,” while MLB believes MiLB is merely content with the status quo and is not willing to systematically address issues of playing conditions and travel that have lingered for decades.
“The relationship has changed drastically under this current administration,” O’Conner said. “It’s decidedly more handled like a labor negation, it’s decidedly more just about the business. I find it very difficult to believe there is a genuine interest in growing the game and then cutting 40 teams out of grassroots America baseball.”
“There is an economic system in minor league baseball where we heavily subsidize what goes on in minor league baseball,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said at the World Series. “We are more than prepared to continue to do that. Against that backdrop, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for us to expect that we have facilities that are first-class for some of the greatest athletes in the world, that we have league alignments that are reasonable and not onerous for those same athletes.”
The heightened acrimony remained a much discussed topic among baseball executives and others connected to the game last week during the World Series. MLB and MiLB are currently engaged in early, yet contentious negotiations because the Professional Baseball Agreement between the two expires Sept. 15, 2020. MLB wants to address player welfare issues — improving playing conditions, reducing travel time and increasing compensation — while MiLB has been rankled at what it views as MLB’s aggressive negotiating tactics that strains the longstanding relationship between the two.
MLB currently pays the salaries of minor league players while MiLB provides and maintains facilities for its 160 teams. Under MLB’s proposal, some teams could lose their minor league designation and be relegated to a new Dream League that would consist of undrafted players, if the teams survive at all. The teams that could be eliminated were not made public, but O’Conner said those in the Appalachian League, the Pioneer League and the Northwest League are the most vulnerable.
O’Conner said his organization is open to contracting teams over time. And while he said both sides have long felt facility issues need to be addressed, he noted that many minor league teams have already made facility upgrades for player amenities at the insistence of their major league affiliate. O’Conner said that MLB’s real issue is not facilities, but rather control over minor league teams.
“They gave us a proposal on facility standards that’s draconian, that’s onerous, and that their own facilities could not pass,” O’Conner said of MLB. “And they said every facility has to meet these standards, from Triple A down to Single A — they all have to be the same. And we held those facility standards up against our facilities. Not one facility meets their standards, including the $100 million facility just built in Las Vegas.”
MLB stressed that while issues related to MiLB playing conditions are not pervasive, there were alarming findings at the lower levels. MLB provided SBJ with photos it believes show dilapidated or unsanitary conditions related to playing fields, weight rooms, showers and visiting clubhouses.
“There is a recognition on our side that some [Class] A stadiums should have different standards than a Triple A or Double A stadium, but the fact of the matter is we have over 40 facilities that are not going to meet any standards,” said MLB deputy commissioner Dan Halem. “There’s a lot of facilities that need so much work. It’s a question of whether those single A and short-season [stadiums] can meet a minimum standard required by our clubs.”
Halem said MLB’s 120 Plan has the support of all 30 clubs. He added that MiLB has yet to propose an alternative plan in three meetings — one formal, two informal. Manfred said he expects MiLB to be at the negotiating table, adding that the public spat in the press since Baseball America first reported the news is a “momentary interlude.”
“We agree that minor league baseball is an entree into fandom,” Manfred said. “If you look at the discussions we had, many of those franchises average less than 2,000 people a game. They’re not really major drivers of attendance in the minor leagues. Our preference was never to reduce numbers. It was to get to first-rate facilities. If we can’t get to first-rate facilities, I’m not sure it makes sense for us to send people to play in facilities that are inadequate, and continue to subsidize those inadequate facilities.”
MLB is also examining how best to configure leagues to make travel between games easier on teams and players because scheduling in some leagues currently include bus rides of 10 hours or more. For instance, consider the Pioneer League, a Rookie League where the average distance of 481 miles between teams is the longest in the minors and 57% of bus rides are seven hours or more. Similarly in the Class AA Texas League, the average distance is 438 miles, and 43% of bus rides are at least seven hours.
Clubs who play night games at Bowling Green, Ky., in the full-season Class A Midwest League, typically make eight- to 10-hour bus rides overnight to play games the following night. In an email, Eric Leach, the Bowling Green Hot Rods COO and general manager, deferred all comment on MLB’s proposed plan to the MiLB office.
As for issues related to hotel accommodations, MLB considers it limited to a small minority of hotels, though its concern is significant. Among the hotel issues cited in MLB’s study: a prior guest attempting to use the coffee pot to cook methamphetamines; mold; bedbugs; cockroaches; blood on the walls; and no running water in the bathrooms.
O’Conner said MLB gave MiLB a list of 36 hotels deemed unacceptable. With the list and MLB’s survey results, O’Conner said MiLB has itself deemed 15 of the hotels unacceptable for future use by minor league teams and hopes to make improvements in other accommodations.
In emails to 10 executives from teams most vulnerable to contraction — mostly in the Rookie-level Appalachian League or short-season Class A Northwest League — most deferred comment to MiLB. One general manager, Allan Benavides of the Eugene (Ore.) Emeralds, a Northwest League affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, acknowledged that MLB’s proposal could dramatically affect the Emeralds. He cited record-high attendance for the team in 2019, the team’s use of the University of Oregon’s $19.2 million stadium, PK Park, and the team’s stronghold in the community as reasons why the changes are not needed.
“I think it’s crazy,” Benavides said of the proposal. “But at the same time, I’m not concerned. It’s so early in the negotiations. The news headlines scare everybody, but I think at some point we’ll look back and say, ‘That was crazy that they said that.’”
First Look podcast, with the baseball discussion beginning at the 12:05 mark: