Speaking of the impacts of MLB’s minor-league putsch and downsizing plan, I have an article up at Defector today that runs down the history and strategy of the move, from its origins in the brain of Astros GM Jeff “Trash-Can-Banging” Luhnow to the ways in which it will enable big-league owners to convert entire leagues into work-for-exposure internships and turn up the heat on cities to cough up for minor-league stadium improvements. Two brief excerpts for those who don’t want to read the whole thing (though you should, I spent long enough writing it):
The nine-team Pioneer League would become an independent “partner league,” with MLB providing some seed money and a bunch of radar guns; the 109-year-old Appalachian League, meanwhile, was converted to a “college wood-bat league,” of which there are already several throughout the U.S. Though the name sounds like a training service—you young’uns come learn how to hit with real lumber, and keep your NCAA eligibility too!—in practice it means that the 10 Appalachian League teams will be replacing paid employees with unpaid ones.
Shaking down bush-league cities has traditionally offered both advantages and drawbacks for baseball owners. Sure, teams had more places to threaten to decamp to—hello, Worcester!—but there were also enough teams out there that cities could hold out reasonable hope of digging up a replacement elsewhere.
With each farm system limited to no more than four affiliates, that hope fizzles, tightening the remaining teams’ monopoly on pro ball.
As noted this morning in relation to the Tennessee Smokies‘ stadium plans, reducing the number of minor-league teams — and placing the decision over which teams survive solely in the hands of MLB league office functionaries — increases team owners’ leverage in shaking down cities for new or upgraded stadiums. But while that may be the more lucrative benefit to MLB from its minor-league takeover, possibly even more alarming is that hundreds of ballplayers will now be expected to play for free, either as college students on summer break or, in the case of the new “MLB Draft League,” as college (or just high school) graduates seeking to showcase their skills to earn a spot in the MLB summer draft. As a former NLRB chair told me, this is kind of a gray area in labor law: Normally if someone tells you when and where and how to work, you’re an employee and subject to laws about minimum wage and overtime and the like; but labor law has traditionally looked the other way when it comes to college athletes, so it may well do the same in the case of college-graduates-but-still-amateurs-until-MLB-says-they’re-not.
Anyway, hopefully this is just the start of a longer discussion about baseball’s cartel power — maybe the 2020s will be the decade that antitrust action finally makes its long-awaited comeback? Plus the start of a longer relationship with Defector, which has hit the ground running after its September emergence from the ashes of Deadspin and is even offering its freelance writers decent wages and rights, against the tide of modern news (and sports) industry practice; consider throwing them some money for a subscription and a tote bag, journalism will be glad you did.