Response to Last Minute Negotiating Team Changes

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We’re here in August of 2020, and our old pal J.J. Cooper at Baseball America keeps cranking out updates on the Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) that expires in less than sixty days from when I write this, raising my eyebrows and justifying my BA subscription. Let’s dig into the latest buzz.

The first update on the story (since I last wrote) came on August 3rd, when Cooper broke the news that Minor League Baseball (MiLB) President Pat O’Conner had swapped out MiLB’s negotiating committee–replacing it with a new group that backs O’Conner’s goal to protect MiLB as an independent entity rather than have MLB run the show. Two days later, the new MiLB committee send MLB a PBA counter-proposal, outlining their desired provisions. The main sticking point seems to be the desire for a continued (mostly) independent MiLB office, and Cooper alluded to MLB sources calling it a “major step backward.” A follow-up article the next day revealed a few more details about MiLB’s submitted proposal. These included some good stuff like the split-season idea for the Florida State League and New York-Penn League (covered here) as well as some ridiculous provisions such as raising the fee for independent/expansion franchises to join MiLB to a prohibitive $35 million.

[Note: if you are frustrated by these BA paywalls and would rather hear it from the source than have me relay the info, listen to Cooper on this podcast episode.]

Even though I like good drama, an attempt at a power play by MiLB at this stage in the game seems kind of pathetic and is potentially dangerous. O’Conner, for all of his revealed faults, was fighting a scrappy fight back in the winter. He had brazenly used the press to its full extent–embarrassing MLB by leaking the “list of 42,” rallying politicians and the media behind MiLB’s cause. It was shaping up to be a fascinating pitcher’s duel between the big flame-throwing ace and the undersized knuckleballer, and the knuckleballer was hitting the strike zone. But then coronavirus came to North America, and by the time the two sides returned to the negotiating table, MiLB was impotent–on the verge of a cancelled season and ready to submit to MLB’s will. MLB, for its part, seems to be resuming negotiations in good faith, in the enviable position of getting what it wants, yet also being able to save face by throwing bones to the minors.

That’s still more or less where we are today, but MiLB making the choice to play hardball at this juncture can only cause damage. Pat O’Conner now comes across as a man desperate to preserve his job (even though that’s no guarantee) and is putting up obstacles (like the $35 million fee) in front of some of the new possibilities that certain MLB teams seem to cherish most. If O’Conner doesn’t back down from the ledge, it’s easy to see where this is headed: MLB lets the PBA expire.

In this nuclear option, MiLB (both as an entity and as a collection of teams) stands to lose much more than MLB. The majors would then be free to forge a new system of affiliations that could be even more slimmed-down and bear more resemblance to the efficient and soulless systems alluded to by Travis Sawchik’s inflammatory article that was published nearly a year ago (wow!) and was a precursor to this whole discussion. O’Conner would be a fool to try to call MLB’s bluff. Sure, the majors would take some flak in the press. Sure, they would have to deal with the tangled logistical mess of setting up their own system rather than subscribing to what’s already there. But there are big benefits for MLB teams, who would have much more freedom to efficiently customize their farm systems and curate the prospect experience. Many current MiLB teams (especially those owned by MLB teams) would be picked to join the new system, but many more would be pushed out by independent clubs and a possible overall reduction–such as to only three levels of the minors. The cost to minor league baseball would likely be much more catastrophic than the expected reduction to 120 teams.

Thus far, I’ve been able to stay somewhat emotionally distant from this saga–I can see points and goals on both sides, and have been optimistic that the proposed changes could have healthy benefits to the overall system. But I also bemoan the potential loss of the structure I grew up with, and, as you would gather from reading my team eulogies in the DIA, I personally care about each individual team. While I am prepared to somberly pour one out for each of the teams we are poised to lose (Burlington Bees! Hagerstown Suns! Lancaster JetHawks!, lots more!) it would tough to see the minor leagues themselves dissolve. If MLB goes rogue in the absence of a PBA, would the leagues even have names? Would a hand-picked selection of teams in say, the Carolina region, still be called the Carolina League? Or would it just be, in the soulless sense that the Arizona League and Gulf Coast League currently just are. I believe that Pat O’Conner already pushed things too far last fall. If he tries to push again now, expect MLB to knock him (and the rest of the minors) back to the wall.

With all that clearly expressed, I’d be remiss to not carry at least a shred of uncertainly regarding Pat O’Conner and his new team of negotiators. Back in the fall, the PBA negotiations looked like a David and Goliath battle. The stone was sailing through the air, right at Goliath’s eye, but then the coronavirus knocked it out of the air. These guys present as ruthless scrappers fighting for their jobs and the system they’ve built their career upon. O’Conner knows as well as anybody (certainly better than me) about the power MLB wields in these negotiations, so why would he appear so desperate and foolhardy? Does he have an ace up his sleeve?

This is getting conspiratorial, but what if MLB did strike out on their own, without a PBA, and then O’Conner had legal recourse to say, “fine, but then we’re operating all the leagues independently and freezing trademarks.” Especially in a post-pandemic world, this would likely spell long-term doom for the minor leagues, but it could give MLB teams pause. They may be able to hand-pick their clubs, but designators like the “Eastern League” or “Texas League” could not be used. In fact, “Minor League Baseball” itself is a trademark, and MiLB could probably sue affiliated teams that use it outside the confines of the PBA. It’s zero sum–very much a quit-and-take-the-ball-home idea. Franchise values would plummet and the whole sport would suffer. But don’t forget that there are many MiLB teams owned or partially-owned by MLB clubs. Threats like these could be enough to keep negotiations fiery.

Thank you for letting me air some of my fears, perplexities, and ill-informed speculation. I remain optimistic that cooler heads prevail and that will we see a system that meets most of the goals for both sides while preserving the traditional farm system. There will be changes–big changes–but I will be here to walk with you through these troubled times, whichever direction the story takes.

 

 

 

 

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