During a prolonged and intense campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, candidates like Vermont U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have targeted industries dominated by a small number of powerful corporations that hold outsized influence over our daily lives. There’s Big Pharma and Big Oil, and, increasingly, Big Tech. Other conglomerates have also established near-monopolies in their sectors — defense, agriculture, chemicals, finance — without attracting the “Big” sobriquet. They bear watching — and perhaps downsizing — which Sanders, Warren and others have sworn to do.
So it was not out of character, but it was interesting nonetheless, to see those senators recently turn their attention, at least briefly, to what might be called Big Baseball. Sanders and Warren, quite rightly, perceived, in a proposed restructuring by Major League Baseball (MLB) of its affiliation with the Minor League teams that provide its pipeline of new talent, a threat to the economic and cultural vitality of dozens of communities nationwide where those teams play ball.
One of those communities is Burlington, home of the Vermont Lake Monsters, a Class A (or, in baseball parlance, Single A) team affiliated with the Oakland A’s, in California. If MLB has its way, that affiliation would disappear and the complex system through which the Majors help prop up the Minors would end for Burlington.
The Lake Monsters might, or might not, be replaced by a team in what MLB plans to call the “Dream League,” but such a league, composed of more marginal players, would be unlikely to generate the excitement and interest of a team stocked by young players beginning their arduous journey toward the Bigs.
Warren has a stake in this fight, too. She, and her fellow Massachusetts U.S. senator, Ed Markey, are concerned about the Lowell Spinners, who play in that historic mill town and are a Single A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. Like the Lake Monsters, the Spinners are members of the short-season New York-Penn League. In this controversial proposal, the entire league would be terminated.
In all, the proposed restructuring would eliminate 42 Minor League (MiLB) teams, which, according to Baseball America, exceeds 25% of that system. Many additional teams would be affected in other ways.
This is not suicidal. It’s calculated. Rob Manfred, who became commissioner of Major League Baseball in 2015, has wasted no time trying to impose reforms to address structural and economic issues that he feels put the game at a popular disadvantage compared to the fast-paced back-and-forth games like football, basketball and hockey. New rules have attempted to quicken the pace of play; in 2018 MLB even instituted the practice of starting extra innings with a runner on second base — utter blasphemy for baseball fans — and may introduce this affront to the majors.
The sweeping Minor League reforms MLB has unveiled, as it moves toward scheduled contractual negotiations with MiLB prior to the 2021 season, envision improving pay and stadium conditions for the teams and players that remain. They would reduce geographic anomalies like a California MLB team having an MiLB affiliate in Burlington.
But, with so many communities bound to be affected — including struggling towns in places like West Virginia and Idaho, where money and self-concept are more at stake than in Burlington, Vermont — they have ruffled feathers, including both hawks and doves in the U.S. Congress. So far, not many senators are involved, but in the House, Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.) has spearheaded creation of the “Save Minor League Baseball Task Force,” now supported by more than 100 members. In this time of profound political division, the movement is astonishingly bipartisan.
Sanders — who grew up a Brooklyn Dodgers fan and has been photographed pitching to his grandson in his Burlington backyard and on the campaign trail in Iowa — assails the greed he detects in billionaire MLB owners who he says want a smaller, cheaper way to develop their future Major League players.
Even more striking, though, is a perception, voiced by a few Congresspersons, that focuses more keenly on the future of the game than Manfred and associates do. Says Trahan, “I can’t tell you how many families in Lowell don’t have the opportunity to go to Fenway Park. These teams, these parks, allow kids to experience baseball.” They’re not going to love it, and play it, without that affordable, exciting, first-hand exposure.
Congress holds lots of power over the MLB, including its controversial antitrust immunity. This vast reorganization plan has met with a dismal reception. MLB needs the politicians on its team, but so far it looks like they’re not going to play ball. Nor should they.