M.L.B.’s War of Words With the Minors Hits a Boiling Point

M.L.B.’s War of Words With the Minors Hits a Boiling Point

Ever since the news of Major League Baseball’s plan to overhaul the minor leagues emerged in October, major league and minor league officials have carried out a public relations battle, volleying statements and letters back and forth amid contentious negotiations.

On Wednesday, M.L.B. issued a pointed and heated letter in response to a minor league message that cast doubt over whether the two sides could ever reach an agreement on the future of their relationship.

Dan Halem, the deputy commissioner and lead negotiator for M.L.B., wrote that the minor leagues, known as MiLB, and its president, Pat O’Conner, were “doing significant damage to your relationship with the 30 clubs by attacking M.L.B. publicly and in the political realm.”

Halem added that M.L.B. teams were “united in our negotiating position and misinformation tactics you have employed have only made the 30 clubs more resolute.”

The sharp missive came as the two sides were negotiating over an M.L.B. proposal that would, among other changes, cut off major league ties for as many as 42 minor league affiliates and replace them with independent teams in what it would call a “Dream League” — which would not include any players under contract with major league teams.

Minor League Baseball has vehemently objected to the proposal, and the two sides have held several negotiation sessions to reach a new agreement. The current Professional Baseball Agreement, which governs the relationship between the majors and minors, expires in September.

But with another bargaining session scheduled for Feb. 20, each side is accusing the other of spreading falsehoods and misinformation, as the tenor of the discourse becomes increasingly acrimonious.

On Jan. 23, MiLB sent an unsigned letter to M.L.B. Commissioner Rob Manfred, which was published by NBC Sports on Wednesday, outlining its opposition to contracting and reorganizing the 120-team minor-league system.

Halem’s response on behalf of M.L.B. struck an exasperated tone: “Although we have fully explained our views on all issues both formally and informally to members of your negotiating committee, there continues to be a disconnect between MiLB’s public messaging, government messaging and written communications on the one hand, and the views expressed by MiLB at the negotiating table on the other.”

M.L.B. insists the restructuring can be done in a way that still preserves some form of minor league baseball in those communities. It also asserted that MiLB was hypocritical because of how frequently its owners moved teams around on their own.

“Minor league owners routinely leave communities because the team is not economically viable, or the owner receives a better offer elsewhere,” Halem wrote. “And when they do leave, neither MiLB nor the owner, typically offers anything as a replacement to the community, such as the case in Pawtucket (2020), New Orleans (2019), Mobile (2019) and Helena (2018) in the last two years alone.”

Representatives of minor league baseball did not immediately respond to requests for comment, and a spokesman for M.L.B. said Halem’s letter spoke for itself.

M.L.B. has drawn widespread criticism for its proposal, including from federal lawmakers. Four members of the House of Representatives introduced a bipartisan resolution on Tuesday asking M.L.B. to abandon its restructuring proposal.

“Minor League Baseball teams have had a major impact on small communities,” Representative David McKinley, Republican of West Virginia, said in a statement. “These teams provide an enormous cultural and economic benefit to the communities they call home. Doing away with 42 teams is not a reasonable solution.”

Wednesday’s letter underscored M.L.B. officials’ belief that MiLB, instead of negotiating in good faith, had instead sought to build outside pressure to prevent any changes to the existing agreement. If a new deal is not reached by September, M.L.B. could choose to continue operating under the current P.B.A., or it could leave it to individual M.L.B. teams to act as they see fit. In that case, several major league clubs could cut their affiliations with their minor league teams on their own.

Major league teams generally pay for the minor league teams’ players and coaching staffs, and the farm teams cover everything else, including travel and equipment.

In its letter last week, MiLB accused M.L.B. of false statements and outlined alternatives to M.L.B.’s proposals. Instead of eliminating teams that play in substandard facilities, it proposed that the owners of those identified teams should be given time to upgrade their stadiums. If they failed to do so, then MiLB would find other ownership groups or could even move the clubs.

It also dismissed M.L.B.’s description of the support it provided minor league teams: “It is simply not true that M.L.B. ‘heavily subsidizes’ MiLB,” the letter said.

Halem, whose eight-page letter attempted to refute the MiLB letter point by point, asserted that the players were the subsidy: M.L.B. clubs pay the players and assign them to the teams. He said the players were the most valuable commodity, in an entertainment sense, to the minor league teams.

M.L.B. has all but abandoned the Dream League concept, according to a person with knowledge of the negotiations who requested anonymity to discuss private talks. It is instead floating a different league — to be played in the cities of contracted teams — consisting of players preparing for the M.L.B. draft, which is likely to be cut from 40 rounds to 20.

In the conclusion of his letter, Halem issued something of a plea to his minor league counterparts: “I personally do not believe that exchanging of letters of this type is productive or increases the likelihood that the parties will reach a mutually acceptable agreement.”

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