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Utah congressmen among those urging baseball not to drop minor league teams

Ogden Raptors, Orem Owlz face elimination under MLB plan

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FILE - Orem Owlz player Darwin Perez slips past Idaho Falls catcher Juan Graterol to score the first run of the night. The Owlz won the game, 6-2.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Two Utah congressmen are among a bipartisan group of politicians urging Major League Baseball to not eliminate dozens of minor league teams across the country, including the Orem Owlz and Ogden Raptors.

Republican Reps. Rob Bishop and Chris Stewart joined 106 House members in a recent letter to baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred opposing the “radical” proposal to drop 42 teams from the minor league system.

“Reducing the number of minor league baseball clubs and overhauling a century-old system that has been consistently safeguarded by Congress is not in the best interest of the overall game of baseball, especially when Major League Baseball’s revenues are at all-time highs,” according to the Nov. 19 letter.

On Tuesday, Reps. Lori Trahan, D-Mass., David McKinley, R-W.Va., Max Rose, D-N.Y., and Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, announced the formation of the Save Minor League Baseball Task Force, saying they will advocate for communities that stand to be most harmed by the proposal. The lawmakers said they would monitor ongoing negotiations between major and minor league baseball as well as discuss potential legislation if and when it becomes necessary.

Raptors President Dave Baggott was among Minor League Baseball officials and team owners who talked strategy with the task force Tuesday in Washington.

“Most times politicians don’t like you to get involved in private matters, but since there is public money being spent, they don’t like it,” he said. “Quite frankly, neither do the 42 people that are on the list.”

Baggott said members of Congress care about their communities and the investments minor league teams have made in them as well as public funding that has gone into facilities.

“It certainly doesn’t hurt to have some of the nation’s most powerful people desire to have grassroots America intact,” he said.

The Professional Baseball Agreement between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball expires at the end of the 2020 season. MLB is looking to improve minor league stadiums and control how minor leagues are organized, including affiliations and geography.

Most of these teams are at the lowest levels affiliated with major league franchises, with 28 of the 42 clubs either in rookie level or short-season Class A ball. The proposal does not include the Salt Lake Bees, the AAA affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels.

Ogden, a Los Angeles Dodgers affiliate, and Orem, a Los Angeles Angels affiliate, have played in the rookie Pioneer League since 1994 and 2005, respectively. Baseball America last month named the Raptors one of the 15 most-accomplished minor league franchises in the country.

Owlz owner Jeff Katofsky said he appreciates members of Congress speaking out against baseball’s effort to cast off thousands of jobs, reduce affordable, family-friendly entertainment and undermine grassroots support for the game.

“With this proposal, MLB is willing to break the hearts of dozens of communities across the country,” he said in a statement. “We are going to resist this plan and are gratified that so many in Congress are willing to join with us.”

Baggott said in places like Montana and Utah, local minor league teams are fans’ only connection to major league baseball.

“To cut that off at the knees and immediately alienate millions of baseball fans around the country, just doesn’t make any sense to me,” he said. “I just don’t think baseball’s that stupid.”

Baggott said negotiations between major league and minor league officials are still in early stages and nothing has been finalized and might not be for some time. He said he fully intends to have baseball in Ogden next year and beyond.

“We just finished our 26th year in Ogden and I want to have another 26, but I want there to be value in our franchise,” he said. “I want our public, our fan base to confidently know that we intend on going nowhere.”

Although major league officials have stated publicly that their main concerns are facility standards, club travel and proximity to a big league affiliate, the Raptors currently meet baseball’s facility standards and have good travel within the Pioneer League, he said.

The Raptors said in a Facebook post: “We all know MiLB is affordable baseball that allows everyone, not just folks in big cities, to experience everything weird and/or wonderful about this great sport.”

“Baseball is America’s pastime and that pastime should not be exclusive to a select number of cities. Minor league baseball is at the heart of many small and rural cities in our country,” Simpson said in a statement. “To deprive those communities of baseball would not only deny them access to our national heritage, but it would also harm local economies that depend on minor league baseball organizations.”

Correction: An earlier version stated the Orem Owlz minor league baseball team is affiliated with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Owlz are affiliated with the Los Angeles Angels.