It’s been 41 days without baseball and in a terrible and ironic twist it was revealed that minor league baseball will likely proceed with its plan to contract approximately 40 teams. This plan is far from new. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred first floated the idea of contracting the minor leagues a few weeks before the Winter Meetings in 2019. That decision was met with vociferous resistance from fans, towns that host minor league parks, and, surprisingly, bipartisan opposition from Congress.
In January it was a fight I was pretty sure the minor leagues would be able to win. After all, anything that can unite Republicans and Democrats these days is increasingly rare, so I was optimistic that MiLB would be in a strong position, as the Washington Post reported:
Minor League Baseball reacted with outrage to the plan, appealing to Congress and the public and trumpeting the history and romance of minor league ball, in hopes of thwarting it. The strategy appears to be working. Four House members whose districts include teams on the cut list formed the bipartisan Save Minor League Baseball Congressional Task Force and vowed to fight the proposal. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), both Democratic presidential candidates, wrote scathing letters opposing it.
“Shutting down 25 percent of Minor League Baseball teams, as you have proposed would be an absolute disaster for baseball fans, workers and communities throughout the country,” Sanders’s Nov. 25 letter read.
During a news conference at baseball’s winter meetings in San Diego last week, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred appeared to back off the plan as it was initially reported, indicating it was only an opening proposal and lamenting that details were leaked by the other side.
Enter stage left the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 which upended those negotiations just like it’s upended everything else in our daily lives. Now faced with a revenue shortfall from a baseball season that may not have any fans (read: ticket revenue) if it happens at all the minor leagues appear to be the first baseball casualty - but if history tells us anything about disasters and capitalism it certainly will not be the last. From CBS Sports earlier today (emphasis mine):
According to Cooper, if both leagues agree, it would mean as many as 42 current minor-league teams would be eliminated, with short-season and rookie ball gone. Both sides are working on a potential deal to ensure the majority of the 42 teams would still have baseball, with ties to MLB in a new system that has long-term viability, the report adds.
The coronavirus pandemic has played a part in Minor League Baseball’s apparent shift in stance on the issue, and Cooper notes that now “many MiLB teams are just trying to survive.”
This is not a new phenomonon or pattern, it’s an old playbook that is just being applied to baseball.
One of the best books I ever read was Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism,” if you’re looking for a blueprint of what comes next for baseball and beyond in the wake of the pandemic I highly recommend you check it out.
Klein defines disaster capitalism as “...the way private industries spring up to directly profit from large-scale crises.” In a recent article in Vice she continues (emphasis mine):
Disaster profiteering and war profiteering isn’t a new concept, but it really deepened under the Bush administration after 9/11, when the administration declared this sort of never-ending security crisis, and simultaneously privatized it and outsourced it—this included the domestic, privatized security state, as well as the [privatized] invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The “shock doctrine” is the political strategy of using large-scale crises to push through policies that systematically deepen inequality, enrich elites, and undercut everyone else. In moments of crisis, people tend to focus on the daily emergencies of surviving that crisis, whatever it is, and tend to put too much trust in those in power. We take our eyes off the ball a little bit in moments of crisis.
The Shock Doctrine was released over 13 years ago, since then Klein has written about these patterns as they relate to 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Maria, the wild fires in California, and more.
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.