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MLB turns the screws on MiLB, demanding teams sign nondisclosure and indemnification agreements

This is what disaster capitalism looks like in baseball

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Rob Manfred at Game 2 of the NLDS in Texas
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Nine months in one of the most striking elements of the COVID-19 pandemic is how it has just laid bare every inequality in America. Millions of Americans remain unemployed and while businesses are more open than they were during the initial lockdowns in March, there is very little demand for their services as the number of COVID cases surges across the country:

COVID-19 Hot Spots by county as of December 13
NY Times

But as small businesses on Main Street struggle to keep their doors open, Wall Street is booming. Every other day we hear about record highs from the various stock indices and businesses like Amazon have posted record profits, exceeding their entire 2019 profit in the first nine months of 2020. So many were appalled when Amazon attempted to end their frontline worker bonuses in May:

But the company also faced a labor crisis as some workers said the company’s warehouse safety measures were not adequate or consistent enough, and decried the company’s move to end bonus hourly and overtime pay at the end of May. Amazon ended up announcing another one-time bonus in June, declining to label the bonus as hazard pay, describing it instead as an appreciation for workers dealing with increased demand during an unprecedented time. An Amazon spokesperson on Thursday refused to say whether the company might reinstate the extra hourly or bonus pay even though increased orders and sales show no signs of abating for the company and its workers.

This wasn’t an accident or oversight on Amazon’s part. For years corporations have restructured their business operations to squeeze workers in order to deliver windfalls to stockholders. Forty-one days into the pandemic I wrote about this strategy of taking advantage of a crisis to ensure profits as it relates to baseball during my Diary of a Life Without Baseball series. The strategy is so well-established it has a name: Disaster Capitalism. This, in particular seems relevant:

The MiLB contraction plan fits this blueprint almost a little too perfectly:

The powers that be in baseball had a highly unpopular plan to eliminate jobs and baseball teams for those on the lowest rung of baseball’s socio-economic ladder, however they faced enormous opposition to that plan and looked like they may need to table it. Meanwhile, a society-wide disaster happened and they just quietly dusted off the plan they already had to eliminate jobs, baseball teams and opportunity from small town America under the guise of crisis management while no one has time to organize or push back on it because the non-billionaire team owners among us are all struggling to survive in a pandemic and the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression.

This is disaster capitalism at its finest and we all need to keep our eye on the ball because it will not stop at 40 minor league baseball teams.

As the MiLB restructuring plan was finalized Al and I both published articles sounding the alarm only to have many of you reply with variations of “I just can’t get worked up about this” or “What is the big deal? MiLB wasn’t that important to my fandom.” I’ll have more about MiLB and fandom later this week, but I want to start by acknowledging your indifference here. The pandemic is still raging, many of us have real crises to deal with in terms of health, finances or both. Thanksgiving has come and gone with nowhere to go and nothing to celebrate. Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year’s Day will be similarly bleak — celebrated in our bubbles, or on Zoom, if at all. It’s hard to find a shred of energy to care about the fates of the teams in 40 towns you don’t have a connection to, even though we all know this impacts hundreds of players and thousands of jobs across the country.

Your inability to care is a crucial part of the plan.

Late Thursday night we learned more about MLB’s restructuring plan for the Minors and just how far they are willing to go to ensure MLB faces zero repercussions when all of us have the energy to care again. Evan Drellich at the Athletic published this bombshell about the agreements the remaining 120 teams are being asked to sign if they’d like to maintain their MLB affiliation:

MLB sent a 56-page document to the teams it wants to partner with, outlining the substantive terms of what is to be in the actual 10-year contract, called a Professional Development License, or PDL. Teams have until Dec. 18 to decide whether they’d like to advance to the next step, which is a review of the actual PDL.

To move forward, MLB requires minor league owners to sign two things in the next week and a half: a non-disclosure agreement and an indemnification of MLB. To emphasize: Minor league owners at this point are not formally agreeing to be MLB’s partner. That comes once the actual PDL is reviewed. So the decision those teams face now, then, seems simple: if they’re considering a lawsuit against MLB, they’d be signing away those rights in order to review the full PDL.

To be clear — MLB is requiring potential MiLB partners to indemnify the league and agree to not disclose anything about the partnership as a prerequisite to even receiving the partnership agreement. Now, I am not a lawyer, but I talked to a couple of friends who are and what this basically means is that MiLB teams will lose their ability to disclose information about the partnership or challenge elements of it legally as a prerequisite to seeing the agreement.

The strong impression according to Drellich’s reporting was that failure to agree to either the NDA or indemnification of MLB would lead MLB to move on to offer that partnership to another team that just lost its MLB affiliation, as you can see here:

The commissioner’s office expected some of those reactions. Whether anything comes of that disappointment is the biggest question, and there’s not a lot of time for minor league owners to organize — which might be their only chance to achieve any change, if they choose to pursue it. MLB has not signaled a willingness to make individual adjustments to the teams. The commissioner’s office feels that holding talks with that many teams would be impractical, and believes there was plenty of time for teams to make their voices heard previously. If a team wants to turn down the offer, then, MLB will just move down its list, a person with knowledge of league thinking said. Whether that’s a hard-and-fast policy, however, might now be tested.

This reaction from one owner is on point:

“Have spoken with at least two dozen other owners this evening,” one owner said Wednesday night. “One group call, several other individual. It is universal rage towards MLB.”

I too am filled with rage.

This isn’t even the agreement. It’s the prelude to the agreement. MLB is requiring MiLB to give up their rights to sue and/or talk about why they might want to sue before they can even look at what an agreement with them for the next decade entails. The league is clearly going to do everything in their (considerable) power in 2021 to turn the screws in order to maximum profits for its owners.

And with the CBA looming at the end of 2021 I do not expect it to stop with MiLB restructuring.