Heard on the Hill

Bipartisan task force to ‘save minor league baseball’ unveiled in House

Group held first meeting about Major League Baseball plan to cut 42 teams

Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Mich., seen here in the congressional baseball game, is among the members concerned about reducing the number of minor league teams. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Rep. John Moolenaar has fond memories of the opening of Dow Diamond, the ballpark that is home to the Class A Great Lakes Loons.

“I can still remember when the field was built, and they had the opening day. I asked the general manager, you know, are any of these players that are on the team going to make it to the big leagues,” the Republican from Michigan said Tuesday. “I remember him saying, well, watch this pitcher. He’s only going to be with us for a little while.”

The pitcher? It was three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw. The Loons, which play in the Midwest League, are an affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Loons were not among the 42 teams targeted to lose their major league affiliations under a proposal from Major League Baseball that has drawn considerable ire on Capitol Hill. But Moolenaar was among the bipartisan contingent of House members joining Democratic Rep. Lori Trahan of Massachusetts and Republican Rep. David B. McKinley for the inaugural meeting of the Save Minor League Baseball Task Force. Members also met with Minor League Baseball President Pat O’Conner and a number of team owners.

The attendees included lawmakers from New York and Pennsylvania, both states that could see palpable economic effects from the potential contraction of teams, including those of the short season New York-Penn League.

Rep. Max Rose, D-N.Y., whose district predominately includes Staten Island, represents the Yankees’ minor league affiliate there.

“No disrespect to any of your teams, but that’s the best organization in the history of professional sports,” Rose said, offering a word of caution to Major League Baseball.

The congressional response is beginning to resemble the reaction when the Pentagon proposes to close military installations through the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process.

“Profit ain’t everything. We’re talking about community here,” Rose said. “For those who think they’re going to get away with doing this — funny thing is that they’re going to come to us next year asking for something, and I want all of them to know that we got long memories.”

The interest of public officials has extended beyond the halls of the Capitol.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, met with MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred on Monday in New York City.

“At my meeting today at Major League Baseball headquarters, Commissioner Manfred said that he is committed to a good faith negotiation with Minor League Baseball and is open to solutions that would maintain professional baseball in the 42 communities while addressing concerns about facilities, working conditions and wages for minor league players,” Sanders said in a statement, promising to keep an eye on the discussions.

The Vermont Lake Monsters, which play home games in Burlington, are on the list of proposed teams to be cut. Sanders is a former mayor of Burlington and takes some credit for the establishment of the Lake Monsters.

“MLB fully recognizes the importance of professional baseball to communities throughout the United States without a Major League team and, as our national pastime, appreciates the support of the tens of millions of fans in our country. MLB also understands that we have an obligation to local communities to ensure that public money spent on Minor League stadiums is done so prudently and for the benefit of all citizens,” Manfred said in a statement after the meeting.

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, sought to get Manfred’s attention Tuesday by highlighting that public money has gone to minor league facilities on the chopping block like Dodd Stadium in Norwich. 

“The Connecticut Tigers are a valuable component of our state as the team provides families with an affordable sports and entertainment opportunity within their own local communities,” Lamont wrote. “That support from the community was proven just last year when the City of Norwich made an $800,000 investment to upgrade Dodd Stadium — a decision that was made because they recognize the advantages of having the league in this city.”

Underlying public figures' comments to Major League Baseball is the sport’s exemption from anti-trust laws. That privileged status is something Congress could move to revoke. 

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