Churchill: Vamos gatos, Chuck. Vamos gatos.

An open letter to U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer about the Tri-City ValleyCats and Major League Baseball. Dear Chuck Schumer, First, I hope it’s OK to call you Chuck. I’m not in the habit of writing letters to United States senators, so forgive me if I’m being improperly informal. I’m writing to you from New York’s Capital Region, which, as you surely know, just suffered a blow. Major League Baseball says our beloved little baseball team, the Tri-City ValleyCats, will lose its affiliation with the big leagues. The reason, of course, is financial. Major League Baseball, despite reaping nearly $11 billion in annual profits, has decided it no longer wants to support such an expansive network of minor league teams. The league, in its rapacious greed, has broken the hearts of fans in smaller cities and towns across the country by cutting dozens of teams loose.

Many of those fans will never make it to a Major League Baseball game, given the distance and the expense involved. It can easily cost $300 or more for a family of four to attend a game at Yankee Stadium, but that same family could enjoy professional baseball at The Joe, as we call the ValleyCats’ lovely ballpark in Troy, for $50 bucks or so. (I’m basing that estimate on personal experience.) But let me get to the point of this letter. Chuck, I am asking you and your fellow members of Congress to repeal baseball’s antitrust exemption. Yes, I want you to spank Major League Baseball for doing us wrong. I should make clear that, since I believe in free enterprise, I usually prefer that politicians not meddle in decisions made by private industries. Doing so is an especially bad idea when the meddling comes with the tinge of revenge, as would be the case in the punishment I’m hoping Congress will deliver. But as you know, the antitrust exemption gives Major League Baseball special protection from federal monopoly law. The other professional sports leagues are not similarly privileged, and neither are most industries. Baseball gets to operate with unusual impunity.

The exemption, established by the Supreme Court in 1922, has a long and complicated history — I won’t bore you with the details, Chuck — but is rooted in the idealistic view of Major League Baseball as a game and a pastime, rather than a profit-driven industry. This, of course, is bunk — as the attack on minor-league baseball makes clear. Baseball is a business like any other and doesn’t deserve special treatment. Congress has the power to strip away the privilege and has threatened to do so previously when baseball behaved badly. It should do so now. The exemption is directly relevant to the situation involving the ValleyCats, since it allows Major League Baseball to control the lower leagues and minor-league players as it chooses, without fear of real competition. It also provides legal protection. “The antitrust exemption would presumptively shield MLB from a lawsuit by displaced minor league teams, for better or worse,” Nathaniel Grow, an associate professor of business law and ethics at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, told me. In this case, a lawsuit doesn’t seem unreasonable.

The value of the ValleyCats diminished overnight, as team president and partial owner Rick Murphy acknowledged. The team is hoping to continue on independently, but it’s ability to do so is not at all assured. Hudson Valley Community College, meanwhile, may have a white elephant on its hands – a ballpark built, I’ll remind you, with $12 million in taxpayer funds. Cities and towns around the country have made similar investments to keep minor-league baseball alive in their communities. And now that Major League Baseball has punched them in the gut, the antitrust exemption leaves them with little ability to fight back. From this point of view, the hit to the Capital Region seems particularly unfair. The ValleyCats, for 18 years a short-season affiliate of the Houston Astros, have a beautiful and lively ballpark. “Vamos Gatos!” the fans yell.

Honestly, Chuck, there are few better ways to spend a summer night, which helps to explain why the fans have been so wonderfully supportive. The team played in the New York-Penn League, a slice of Americana that dates to the 1930s and includes wonderfully named teams such as the Batavia Muckdogs and the Vermont Lake Monsters. Thanks to baseball’s greed, the New York-Penn League is now defunct. Does Major League Baseball care about the fans it’s leaving behind? Does it understand the economic and emotional harm it is causing to so many smaller places? No need to answer, Chuck. All I would like from you and your colleagues is a bit of justice on behalf of Capital Region fans, and an acknowledgement that nothing about Major League Baseball makes it worthy of special protection. The league is a business like any other and deserves to be treated that way. I hope you agree. Have a good holiday season, Chuck! Vamos Gatos

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