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Congressmen urge Major League Baseball to scrap 'radical' minor league overhaul

More than 100 congressmen, including U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, signed a letter sent Tuesday to all Major League Baseball teams and four members of the MLB commissioner’s office expressing “firm opposition” to the plan to eliminate 42 minor league teams in an overhaul of the minor league baseball system starting in 2021.

The Connecticut Tigers and the New York-Penn League the team plays in are slated for elimination in the plan. It also would cut the number of rounds of the amateur draft from 40 to 20 and invite undrafted players to a new independent try-out league run by Major League Baseball in the hopes of catching the eye of Major League scouts.

The Connecticut Tigers would be eliminated, but the Thomas J. Dodd Memorial Stadium in Norwich could receive one of those “Dream League” teams — deemed by critics of the overhaul plan to be a longshot to succeed. The Tigers, a Short-Season Single A team affiliated with the Detroit Tigers, now routinely receive high-round college and high school draft picks to play at Dodd Stadium, including Riley Greene, the fifth overall pick in the 2019 draft last summer.

“If enacted, it would undermine the health of the minor league system that undergirds talent development and encourages fan loyalty,” the congressmen’s letter stated. “It would particularly be felt in areas far from a major league team or where tickets to a major league game are cost-prohibitive.”

The congressmen asked Major League Baseball to “strongly reconsider its proposed course” and ensure continuity of minor league baseball with Major League affiliations in their communities.

The congressmen said the “abandonment” of minor league teams would be devastating to the cities they represent, and the move could undermine congressional support for Major League Baseball for more than a century.

“For over a century, Congress has taken numerous actions specifically designed to protect, preserve and sustain a system and structure for both Major and Minor League Baseball to flourish,” the letter stated.

In a news release sent to The Day along with the letter, Courtney’s office called the plan “a betrayal of the fans, players, municipalities, stadium vendors and employees who have supported these clubs for decades.”

Major League Baseball sent a four-page response, written by Deputy Commissioner Daniel R. Halem, to the congressmen Tuesday explaining desired "significant improvements" in the minor league system.

The letter outlined heavy financial subsidies major league owners pay to the current minor league teams, including nearly $500 million in signing bonuses and salaries paid to minor league players each year. Minor league teams pay about $18 million per year to big league teams under the existing Professional Baseball Agreement set to expire next September.

The proposed changes, Halem wrote, would ensure teams have adequate facilities, reduce travel times by aligning leagues geographically and improve hotel accommodations.

"Based on significant feedback from both Major League Clubs and players," Halem wrote, "we have identified more than 40 Minor League stadiums that do not possess adequate training facilities, medical facilities, locker rooms, and, in some cases, playing fields, to satisfy the requirements of our Clubs and players."

Minor League Baseball Director of Communications Jeff Lantz said Tuesday the congressional letter was launched by Democratic U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan, who represents the Lowell, Mass., area. The Lowell Spinners, the New York-Penn League Red Sox affiliate, also would be eliminated in the MLB plan. Trahan quickly received bipartisan support from congressmen across the country.

“Obviously, we’re very grateful to her,” Lantz said.

Lantz said a group of Minor League Baseball team owners representing all levels will meet on Thursday with Major League Baseball officials in Dallas to discuss issues and concerns about a proposed new Professional Baseball Agreement between the parties. The current agreement expires Sept. 15, 2020, Lantz said. Discussions are expected to continue at the baseball winter meetings in San Diego in December.

“We want to preserve Minor League Baseball in all 160 cities,” Lantz said, “and 42 of them have been put on a ‘hit list’ by Major League Baseball. Our goal is to save all 42 of those teams and all the other cities (hosting minor league teams).”

In his letter, Halem wrote that MLB cannot commit to guaranteeing all 160 minor league teams would be retained with Major League Baseball affiliates. He wrote that teams that lose their major league connections could convert to independent teams and "would be responsible for signing their own players — no different than the dozens of teams that operate in independent leagues across the U.S."

Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom said he will be looking to contact chief elected leaders in all 42 cities and towns slated to lose their teams. He said he has discussed the issue with the Connecticut Tigers and assumed other city leaders have talked to their team representatives. But Nystrom said he thinks the cities should be in communication and not “become isolated” in the effort to fight the elimination plan.

“There’s probably not a chance for everyone to meet, given the distances involved,” Nystrom said of the municipal leaders. “I just think people should be communicating and not leaving it to Congress, although we certainly appreciate their support.”

c.bessette@theday.com


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