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MLB to Congress: Players, fans lose without antitrust exemption



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Would minor league players be paid more if they could negotiate freely with every team?

Not necessarily, Major League Baseball warned Congress on Friday. Instead, players could lose job opportunities and communities could lose minor league teams, the league said in a 17-page letter to the committee exploring whether to strip baseball of its antitrust exemption.

“Without the exemption, Minor League Baseball could develop in a manner contrary to the public’s interest,” commissioner Rob Manfred wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The committee also has engaged with the nonprofit Advocates for Minor Leaguers, which asserts the exemption allows MLB to unfairly restrict how much minor league players can make and how long the they must remain under the control of the team that drafted them. Manfred said the Advocates are “mistaken” in claiming “free market principles” would benefit all minor leaguers.

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“The truth is, the supply of aspiring professional baseball players significantly exceeds the demand by Major League Clubs for players to fill out their Minor League rosters,” Manfred wrote.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told The Times this week that the committee could hold hearings on the issue, with Manfred testifying under oath, in September or October. Durbin said he believes minor leaguers “are treated very poorly” and he would like to see “concessions by Major League Baseball.”

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Manfred received widespread criticism last week after defending pay to minor league players, saying he would “reject the premise that they are not paid a living wage.” The federal poverty line for a household of one is $13,590; the starting salary for a triple-A player — the very top of the minor leagues — is about $14,000.

In the letter, Manfred wrote that 70% of double-A and triple-A players either earn a salary of at least $100,000 or received a signing bonus of $100,000.

MLB will spend $1 billion on minor league operations this season — $750 million of that on player compensation — and generate $25 million from those operations, Manfred said — that is, spending 10% of MLB revenue to run the minors to return 0.2% of revenue.

Manfred noted the NFL has no minor league, while the NBA runs the G League, where one team is affiliated with each NBA team. In baseball, four minor league teams are affiliated with each MLB team.

He did not explicitly threaten that MLB owners would slash minor league operations to that level, but he did say some MLB teams “may choose to carry fewer than four affiliations” in the absence of an antitrust exemption.

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In a free market, he said, teams may choose not to offer the housing, insurance, pension and college scholarship benefits that the league currently mandates for minor league players.

In 2018, after MLB lobbied Congress to pass a law limiting minor league pay under threat that minor league teams could be eliminated without it, Congress passed the law. MLB since has eliminated 43 minor league teams affiliated with major league clubs, although Manfred wrote in his letter that all but three of those affiliated teams have been replaced with teams playing in independent professional leagues or summer college leagues.

The committee asked Manfred to commit to no further elimination of minor league teams. In his letter, Manfred said the league believes “the current minor league structure is sustainable” and so the league “has no current plans” to eliminate additional minor league teams.

Harry Marino, executive director of Advocates for Minor Leaguers, said in a statement: “When it comes to the impact of baseball’s antitrust exemption on Minor League players and fans, Major League Baseball cannot get its story straight.”

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Marino noted that Manfred had told The Times earlier this month: “I can’t think of a place where the exemption is really meaningful, other than franchise relocation.”

In the letter, Manfred said the draft and entry-level contracts would not be impacted by the removal of the exemption because they are negotiated in collective bargaining with the players’ union. That would not preclude the union from negotiating different terms in the next collective bargaining agreement.

Manfred rejected as “inaccurate” the Advocates’ claim that congressional action is needed to “help bring players out of poverty.” The average minor leaguer who never makes the major leagues is in and out of baseball in three years, he said, young enough so as not to fall behind in other educational or career opportunities.

He cited one example: a left-hander who pitched for three affiliated minor league teams within two years, at no higher than the Class A level, then started law school at age 24.

His name: Harry Marino, that executive director of Advocates for Minor Leaguers.

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