Will Congress save the Sea Unicorns, Rumble Ponies from MLB ax?

Senators say communities in their states will suffer if baseball carries out plan to cut minor league teams

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., poses in her office with baseball hats from West Virginia minor league teams on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., poses in her office with baseball hats from West Virginia minor league teams on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 27, 2020 at 2:33pm

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are fighting to preserve America’s pastime, taking aim at Major League Baseball over its plan to shutter 42 minor league teams in 22 states and the league’s response to the sign-stealing cheating scandal.

A bipartisan group of senators introduced a resolution Thursday urging Major League Baseball to abandon a plan to slash the number of affiliated minor league clubs, which has garnered harsh criticism on Capitol Hill.

Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal and West Virginia Republican Shelley Moore Capito teamed up to lead the effort, which follows similar House action. The proposal highlights the economic, social, cultural and charitable contributions these teams anchor in their communities. It has drawn support across party lines, including Iowa Republicans Charles E. Grassley and Joni Ernst and Democratic presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar.

“Coming from a state that doesn’t have a major league baseball team, these are exciting, fun and valuable assets to a community,” Capito told CQ Roll Call, calling a night at the ballpark “relatively inexpensive entertainment," and "good clean fun."

The MLB proposal would be implemented following the 2020 season and would eliminate major league affiliations with 42 minor league teams and cut the amateur draft that feeds lower level minor league teams from 40 to 20 rounds. The eliminated teams would be allowed to join a much lower level independent league, called the Dream League, fielded with undrafted players hoping to catch the eyes of major league scouts.

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

“Our resolution sends a sharp signal to Major League Baseball — shuttering minor league teams like the Sea Unicorns is unacceptable. Communities depend on such teams for jobs and small business vitality. Young fans learn there to love and play America’s pastime. MLB is putting finances above fans. If MLB moves ahead with this shortsighted misguided plan, our resolution signals there will be consequences,” Blumenthal said in a statement.

Blumenthal, Capito and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer used the February recess to visit teams in their states slated for contraction, the Bluefield Blue Jays in West Virginia and the Binghamton Rumble Ponies in New York.

Capito said the loss of the Bluefield Blue Jays and two other West Virginia teams would be a blow to their communities, both culturally and economically.

“It would just really be a blow to these communities,” Capito said. “And this is downturn coal country where we're talking about in Appalachia.”

Unlike big-city MLB teams, many minor league clubs use local vendors for food, T-shirts and memorabilia. Capito said that the West Virginia teams targeted for elimination house opposing teams at local colleges, which is revenue that small rural schools rely on in the summer months.

“It’s all local. And it would make a devastating impact on a really rural area,” Capito said.

On a visit to Norwich last week, Blumenthal called the major league plan “unconscionable and inexcusable,” saying it would save only “pennies” while alienating fans, cities and teams.

“Greed is driving this decision to close these teams,” Blumenthal said. “Although they’re going to create a Dream League, you might as well call it a ‘dream on league.’ It will be in effect a nightmare for 1,000 players who will have no jobs, as well as for fans and local communities.”

Grassley gave a colorful speech thick with baseball references on the Senate floor Thursday in support of the resolution, saying that the MLB “is throwing local clubs a curveball, a curve that would hurt baseball, hurt local economies, and the fields of dream in my home state.”

“That’s three strikes right there,” Grassley said. “Don't count us baseball fans out. These local communities and this United States senator aren't going to sit on the sidelines.”

Grassley said that he’s been in touch with the deputy commissioner of the MLB and that other senators are also reaching out to urge the preservation of the minor league teams.

“I am and will always go to bat for Iowa,” he concluded.

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Capito said that while she’s been in touch to raise her concerns about the West Virginia teams, she hasn’t gotten much back from the league.

In response to Schumer’s visit to Binghamton, MLB issued a statement thanking the senator for bringing different sides to the table.

“The meeting was productive and adds to the ongoing dialogue between MLB, MLB clubs, Congress and local communities as we build a player development system fit for the 21st century that improves playing conditions and opportunities for players while protecting baseball in the communities where it is currently being played,” it said.

Major League Baseball has put pressure on minor league affiliates to upgrade stadiums and invest in facilities improvements and they feel like MLB is pulling the plug even after many complied.

Blumenthal’s visit to the Norwich Sea Unicorns' stadium last week shed light on major investment that could go to waste. The team signed a 10-year lease agreement last year, just months before the news of the contraction plan came out. The Norwich City Council approved $800,000 to upgrade the 25-year-old stadium with extended protective netting for fans, new LED field lights and planned renovations to the player clubhouses.

Some cities have taken out municipal bonds to fund stadium upgrades, only to have their teams listed for the minor league cuts.

“They've asked them to improve their facilities and they have, and now they turn around and say, ‘Yeah, we can do without you,’” Capito said.

Congressional dissatisfaction with Major League Baseball goes beyond the planned minor league contraction and at least one lawmaker is calling for hearings to examine baseball's sign-stealing scandal centered on the Houston Astros that resulted in the firing of the team’s general manager and manager, the manager of the Boston Red Sox, who served as the Astros’ bench coach in 2017, and Carlos Beltran, who was expected to become the manager of the New York Mets and was a player on the 2017 Astros team.

Rep. Bobby Rush has called for congressional oversight hearings on baseball's response to the scandal, requesting that Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Reps. Diana DeGette and Jan Schakowsky, who respectively chair the subcommittees on oversight and investigations and consumer protection and commerce, take up the issue.

Rush, a Democrat from Illinois, called it an “ethical and moral imperative” for Congress to investigate and said the investigation must probe how widespread the cheating was and if the punishments from the MLB and the individual teams were severe enough.

“It is clear that Major League Baseball is firmly in the midst of an ethical crisis. Cheating in any sport is anathema, especially in professional sports. Many children, and adults for that matter, look up to professional athletes as a testament to the American dream and what is possible through hard work and determination. This latest fiasco is nothing short of a gut punch to those ideals," Rush wrote.

There is plenty of precedent for congressional oversight of MLB and other athletic league scandals.

The most recent and most prominent government hearings looking into baseball cheating were in 2005 when Congress dug into steroid use in the MLB and, like Rush's proposal, focused on questions of fairness and attempted to determine if the league's handing of the scandal was adequate. But Congress also hauled the commissioner in for questioning about a proposed contraction in 2001 and there were antitrust hearings in 1995 and the 1950s.

“The Committee has a history of conducting oversight where sports practices adversely affect consumers and fans of all ages. We’re following the ongoing investigation closely to see if the interests of the public are adequately addressed,” said House Energy and Commerce Committee spokesman Evan Gilbert in a statement.

While House committees have not yet committed to hearings on the sign-stealing scandal. Capito said this week that if the Senate holds hearings, the minor league retraction could certainly also be on the table.

She referenced recent hearings the Senate Commerce Committee held on name image and likeness for NCAA sports and high-profile hearings about the sexual abuse scandal within USA Gymnastics.

“I think hearings are always good at shining a light,” Capito said. “I’m certainly interested in that.”

“Major League Baseball obviously has a problem. And I think one way they could alleviate their problem is to keep their teams in smaller communities that really are the fabric of their communities,” Capito said.