Just over two years ago the century-long structure of Minor League Baseball was put in jeopardy by rumors of Major League Baseball wanting to overhaul the system, including the removal of 40 teams from affiliated status. It brought about threats of litigation, some of which have come to fruition including a lawsuit earlier this week from four teams - two of which have a connection to the SF Giants.
From the 1902 season through 2020, the relationships between MLB and MiLB teams were governed by the Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA), with the minors under the umbrella of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (NAPBL). The PBA set forth the rules under which MLB teams dealt with the minors, first through loaning and buying players and then the current system of MLB teams owning the rights to the players and the MiLB team providing the place to play and uniforms.
The cancellation of the 2020 minor league campaign brought an abrupt end to the affiliation of the 40 teams with MLB, as the PBA expired after the season and MLB refused to negotiate a new agreement with the NAPBL. Most of those MiLB franchises were independently owned and were dropped, according to MLB, for various reasons including distance from other teams in their leagues and sub-par facilities.
Understandably, the owners and operators of the minor league teams found the reasons dubious and thought there were different motives behind MLB's decision. The lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, accused MLB of violating the Sherman Antitrust Act, which is intended to prevent business monopolies.
Salem-Keizer, Norwich among four teams involved in lawsuit
The quartet of former MiLB franchises suing MLB includes the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, the longtime Short-Season Single-A affiliate of the Giants in the Northwest League; the Norwich Sea Unicorns, playing in the same city and stadium as a former Giants Double-A team (the Norwich Navigators and Connecticut Defenders, from 2003-2009), the Tri-City ValleyCats and the Staten Island Yankees. They allege that MLB's downsizing of the minors was "...nothing less than a naked, horizontal agreement to cement MLB's dominance over all professional baseball" and that "There is no plausible procompetitive justification for this anticompetitive agreement."
The Volcanoes, Sea Unicorns and ValleyCats all put teams on the field in 2021 - Salem-Keizer and Tri-City as independent professional teams and Norwich as a collegiate summer league. Staten Island ceased operations after losing their affiliation.
Staten Island and Tri-City have already engaged in lawsuits with their former parent clubs, the New York Yankees and Houston Astros, respectively, having to do with the decisions not to keep them as affiliates.
It remains to be seen how far the lawsuits will go and whether it will damage MLB's "One Baseball" plan.