Courtney: Major League Baseball is 'wearing out their welcome' with Congress

Norwich — After listening to area businesses on Monday describe the impact of the Norwich Sea Unicorns, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, emphasized the important economic benefit the Minor League Baseball team has on the city and its surroundings.

Courtney joined city Mayor Peter Nystrom in holding a stakeholders meeting at Dodd Stadium to discuss Major League Baseball's proposed disaffiliation of 42 minor league teams, including the Sea Unicorns.

Following the meeting, there was a news conference in the stadium's indoor batting facility, with about 100 people in attendance.

Café Otis owner Nancy Isa said in the meeting that Sea Unicorns players, who hail from all over the country, come to her restaurant in-season and bring their families.

Dime Bank CEO Nick Caplanson said the bank gives away baseball tickets, holds its company picnic at the stadium, and is a corporate sponsor of the team.

Greg Schlough, of Relay for Life of Southeastern Connecticut, worried about spending money on a facility for its American Cancer Society fundraiser if Dodd Stadium were no longer an option.

Also present were representatives of the Holiday Inn, Levine Distributing Co., US Foods, Peter Pan Bus Lines, and Norwich Free Academy, whose varsity baseball team plays its home games at Dodd Stadium.

One of the reasons for Monday's event was to highlight the quality of Dodd Stadium, since one argument made by MLB is that teams selected for the contraction plan have inferior facilities. Luke Gabordi, head baseball coach at NFA, called Dodd "beyond adequate."

Courtney also said the idea that there's an economic argument for the plan is "preposterous," considering the average annual subsidy MLB pays to each minor league team is $300,000 to $400,000, whereas the minimum MLB player salary is $600,000. In 2019, the average MLB player was paid $4.3 million, according to an Associated Press analysis.

"This is not acting in the best interests of the game"

MLB said in a statement before the rally it "is confident that we can modernize our minor league system, improve playing conditions for our players and protect baseball in communities like Norwich. However, doing so is best achieved with Minor League Baseball's constructive participation and a recognition that they need to be part of the solution. So far, their approach has been neither constructive nor solutions-oriented."

Sea Unicorns owner Miles Prentice said it's not true that Minor League Baseball hasn't been negotiating, and said MLB hasn't scheduled a meeting.

Major League Baseball said its goal is not to eliminate any club in the negotiations, and that it "currently has a plan for every club to continue operations with some level of support."

But Prentice argued that a so-called "Dream League" of unaffiliated teams is not viable.

"The head of Major League Baseball would like this to go in the closet," Nystrom said. "He doesn't want the public talking about it; he doesn't want them knowing about the decisions they're making."

In a Jan. 29 letter to Minor League CEO Pat O'Conner, MLB Deputy Commissioner Daniel Halem said O'Conner is "doing significant damage to your relationship with the 30 Clubs by attacking MLB publicly and in the political realm" and accused him of "misinformation tactics."

Courtney criticized MLB's lack of transparency in this process, noting its proposal was originally leaked from a closed meeting.

He added that Major League Baseball "has not been too bashful" about asking Congress for carveouts when it comes to labor law, and later cited congressional action a few years ago that gave MLB an exemption from overtime rules.

"They are wearing out their welcome with members of Congress," Courtney said. Prentice added that MLB has "a very short memory" of what Congress has done for them.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., has threatened to push for revoking MLB's antitrust exemption if the plan to demote the 42 teams moves forward. Courtney said the Education and Labor Committee, of which he is a member, will be looking at the overtime benefit.

"This is not acting in the best interests of the game," Courtney said of MLB's actions. "It is damaging the sport and reducing the fan base for years to come."

e.moser@theday.com

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