Montana's U.S. senators are going to bat for our state's Minor League Baseball teams.
Last week, Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines each met with Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred and followed up with letters strongly opposing a plan that would eliminate 26% of minor league teams, including baseball clubs in Billings, Great Falls and Missoula.
"Due to Montana's geographical location, the closest major league team is over 500 miles away and these minor league teams are the best opportunities for Montanans to see professional baseball," Daines wrote. "Generations of Montanans have grown up watching future hall of famers such as George Brett, Trevor Hoffman, Bobby Cox, Ryne Sandberg and Pedro Martinez and I hope that future Montanans will continue to have the opportunity to see the next generation of baseball hall of famers."
Both Tester and Daines pointed out that the taxpayers of Billings invested $12.5 million in bonds for our ballpark that opened just 11 years ago. Billings voters approved construction of a beautiful ballpark that meets all professional baseball standards and will be paying off that bond debt for another nine years or so.
Great Falls and Missoula taxpayers have footed bills for baseball stadium improvements, too.
"As MLB examines ways to grow the sport and deal with the decline in younger viewers, I believe it is vital for MLB to invest in rural communities by maintaining MLB affiliates," wrote Tester, who used to listen to Canadian broadcasts of baseball games while driving his tractor on his Big Sandy farm. "When a young person in Montana can attend a local Pioneer League game and see future stars like Paul Goldschmidt play for the Missoula Osprey or Joey Votto play for the Billings Mustangs, it inspires a connection to the game that will last a lifetime. These are the kids that will eventually purchase MLB TV packages and take road trips to see their favorite players at the MLB parks."
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At a time that professional baseball is struggling to attract younger fans, cutting a quarter of the farm teams — four entire leagues spread around the nation — Manfred is proposing to reduce the audience further. Eliminating teams in 40 cities would be a terrible marketing move.
In a New York Daily News column published last month, Bill Madden speculated that MLB will be "hit with an avalanche of lawsuits from communities that have built new ballparks on taxpayers’ money, all of which would figure to threaten their long-cherished anti-trust exemption. It’s been estimated that $300 million in equity will be lost by the minor league owners whose teams are being eliminated. (Point of clarification: When a person purchases a minor league team, the only “insurance policy” on their investment is the PBA agreement that guarantees 160 teams. That agreement is expiring after this year and MLB is now intent on reducing that guarantee to 118 teams.)"
Manfred's biography on the Major League Baseball website proclaims that he "has overseen the development of closer relationships with youth baseball and softball organizations and has allocated new resources toward improving MLB's presence in the amateur ranks" and also that "under Manfred's leadership, MLB has formed core partnerships with Boys & Girls Clubs of America."
It will be hard to maintain partnerships with Boys & Girls Clubs in 40 communities if they lose their professional baseball teams.
Daines and Tester aren't the only senators teaming up to save local professional baseball. They are right to speak up and MLB should listen: If MLB wants to be America's sport, it must keep playing ball in rookie leagues.