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Internal Minor League Drama Threatens To Further Slow MLB Negotiations

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(Photo by Jeff Speer/Getty Images)

On Aug. 11, Minor League Baseball’s Board of Trustees selected a new negotiating team to continue talks with Major League Baseball in the two sides’ efforts to reach a new Professional Baseball Agreement.

The move came just eight days after MiLB President and CEO Pat O’Conner disbanded the league’s negotiating committee and replaced it with a group, titled the Transition Committee, to continue talks with Major League Baseball.

The new group will be the third negotiating team to represent MiLB in less than 10 days.

The new negotiating team could be described as a return to the first negotiating team. The new group includes many members from the committee that O’Conner disbanded Aug. 3. As such, it can be perceived as a clear message from the Board of Trustees to O’Conner that the trustees were comfortable with the direction of negotiations under the original negotiating team.

The Board of Trustees has sent the new, revised negotiating team to O’Conner’s desk for approval.

For most of 2020, MiLB’s negotiations with Major League Baseball were run by a negotiating committee led by five minor league team owners: Joe Finley, Marv Goldklang, Andy Sandler, Tom Volpe and D.G. Elmore. That is the group that was disbanded by O’Conner on Aug. 3.

They were replaced by the O’Conner-appointed transition committee, which was headed by MiLB Board of Trustees members Sam Bernabe and Ken Schnacke. With the new transition committee installed, MiLB presented to MLB a new proposal on the structure of the minors for 2021 and beyond.

The Board of Trustees was not consulted before the new MiLB negotiating proposal was sent to MLB.

Major League Baseball acknowledged receiving the new proposal and indicated its regret to Minor League Baseball that the negotiating team it worked with for months was being replaced. Otherwise, it did not officially respond to the substance of the proposal.

The Board of Trustees held a call Aug. 7 without O’Conner to get a sense of whether the Board felt it should install a new negotiating group, leading to the Board of Trustees appointing the new negotiating team.

It’s not clear, however, whether or when the new group will actually get a chance to negotiate. Before the Aug. 11 Board of Trustees meeting, O’Conner spelled out in clear terms that he believes he holds sole power to select and guide who negotiates for MiLB in its discussions with MLB.

O’Conner believes the National Association Agreement that governs Minor League Baseball gives him power in such matters. The trustees have sent the proposal for the new negotiating team to O’Conner for his approval, signaling their understanding of O’Conner’s authority over negotiations. O’Conner has not yet approved the new committee.

In recent weeks, there has been a steady push from many MiLB owners to wrest the power of negotiations away from O’Conner. Multiple owners have said privately that they see O’Conner’s interests in the negotiations as different from theirs.

O’Conner has made clear to MiLB owners that he views it as important to retain some form of the current governance and independence of MiLB, which the National Association has had for more than a century.

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Numerous MiLB owners have said privately that they see the independence of MiLB as less important in these negotiations than getting a deal that ensures long-term stability for minor league teams in a beneficial economic system.

O’Conner’s decision on Aug. 3 to replace MiLB’s negotiating committee—one O’Conner had played a part in appointing—with the transition committee helped push those concerns to the forefront for a number of owners.

If O’Conner approves the Board of Trustees' new negotiating team, it may push the intra-MiLB tensions to the background, but it would also leave O’Conner the option of disbanding the team in the future. Many MiLB owners see any internal MiLB squabbles as counterproductive to efforts to get a deal completed. There is a worry that with time running out on the current agreement, any further MiLB-induced delays raise obstacles to completing an agreement.

While talks have been going on for a year, there are just 49 days left until the current Professional Baseball Agreement expires Sept. 30.

MLB has been expected to present MiLB a much more detailed proposal on the structure of the minors for 2021 and beyond, but until the negotiating team on MiLB’s side has been settled upon, it is unlikely there will be any significant discussions.

O’Conner has noted publicly the 1990 negotiations between MiLB and MLB stretched far beyond the expiration of the existing deal—an agreement wasn’t reached until December. But there are no guarantees that similar negotiations far past the expiration of the current agreement would occur this time.

Multiple minor league owners and other involved parties say that if no significant progress towards a new deal is made in the next seven weeks, they would not be surprised if Major League Baseball sets up its own developmental system. Such a system would likely receive interest from many current affiliated minor league teams.

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