How Government Devastated Minor League Baseball
It’s family Sunday FunDay here at Coney Island’s Maimonides Park, home of the Brooklyn Cyclones. For the low price of $18, enjoy the up-close views of future New York Mets stars and between-innings fan contests involving potato sacks. If the kids don’t wilt in the mid-July swelter, they can run the bases on the field after the game. It’s minor league baseball at its corny, affordable best.
Seven miles away as the seagull flies over the mouth of New York Harbor, the scene at Richmond County Bank Ballpark is considerably bleaker. Gawky weeds shoot up through the neglected infield dirt and mangy outfield grass where the Staten Island Yankees once roamed. Just over the chain-link fence in right field sits an overflowing dumpster. The sliver of real estate past left field was supposed to be a walkway to a billion-dollar Ferris wheel; now it’s a shady homeless camp dotted with flattened cardboard. “Let’s not eat here,” a mom says to her picnic-impatient 6-year-old.
The divergent fate of New York City’s two minor league ballparks, like too much of life in the five boroughs, is a cautionary tale about what happens when government and business promiscuously canoodle. The city spent $71 million on a picturesque stadium on the Staten Island waterfront (Maimonides cost $55 million) that after a two-decade run now stands empty, and it’s reacting to that calamity by throwing a fresh new $8 million toward cleanup costs in the hopes of luring baseball back.
Not for the first or even hundredth time, people elected to be caretakers of taxpayer money are discovering the ironic lie behind the most famous line derived from the overly nostalgic baseball film Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.” In fact, when governments become landlords, sports businesses, no matter how deep their pockets, start acting like tenants: always eyeing the exits for a potentially better deal. If you build it, they will leave.
This particular fable, though, transcends Gotham and the eternal ribbon-cutting temptations of local politics. The Staten Island Yankees were one of 40 minor league clubs—25 percent of the nationwide total—that were cut off overnight from their major league affiliates in December 2020. Local governments were suddenly on the hook for a quarter-billion dollars’ worth of investment in event spaces that no longer held events. Though the main culprit was a cost-cutting Major League Baseball (MLB), the federal government and the judiciary had their fingerprints all over the murder weapon.
Through a mix of obfuscating patriotism, congressional camera hogging, and legal reasoning more twisted than a kosher Cyclones pretzel, Washington over the past century-plus has granted latitude to MLB that no other professional sport enjoys. Baseball’s preeminent global league has not only blocked all halfway serious competition to its legally protected North American monopoly; it can dictate the most fundamental of operational details—employee salaries, game rules, even existence—to the once-independently owned professional teams and leagues that groom talented young men in the vast expanses between school and The Show.
“It’s about controlling the industry,” a bitter Jeff Katofsky, owner of Utah’s Orem Owlz, told ESPN after learning of MLB’s proposal to cull his team. “It’s all about money and power.”
Those who hold legislative power are proposing to fill the bush-league void with still more money, via the bipartisan $550 million Minor League Baseball Relief Act introduced in June 2021. That would be one way to extend the cycle of federal codependency.
But two other developments this season herald a potential break in the pattern. Republican senators, outraged by MLB’s hasty decision to relocate the annual All-Star game from Atlanta in protest over Georgia’s new GOP-written election law, introduced legislation in April that would punitively remove some of baseball’s legal carve-outs. More plausibly, a unanimous Supreme Court in June signaled a willingness to revisit the antitrust exemption that former 9th Circuit Court Judge Alex Kozinski once characterized as “one of federal law’s most enduring anomalies.”
Those are a couple of tentative paths out of this corporatist game of pickle. But there are lessons of broader application to be gleaned from retracing the policy missteps that squandered taxpayer billions while making the minor leagues unfree.
Playing the Senate Like a String Quartet
In early 2018, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred put the squeeze on the owners of the 160 minor league baseball teams: Go lobby Congress to pass the unsubtly named Save America’s Pastime Act, or face potentially dire consequences.
“We were told very clearly if we didn’t get that thing passed, we would be staring down the barrel of contraction,” multi-franchise owner Dave Heller recalled to ESPN. “So we were all supremely motivated to help MLB pass that legislation.” (Two of Heller’s four franchises lost their MLB affiliations in the December 2020 downsizing.)
The press release from sponsor Rep. Brett Guthrie (R–Ky.) announcing the 2016 bill warned that if it wasn’t passed, “the costs to support local teams would likely increase dramatically and usher in significant cuts across the league, threatening the primary pathway to the Majors and putting teams at risk.”
The Save America’s Pastime Act amended the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act to carve out an exemption for minor league baseball players so that they would not
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