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Bernie Sanders Q&A: Inside His Fight to Protect Minor League Baseball

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is publicly battling MLB and Rob Manfred to protect the state of Minor League Baseball.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders took a brief respite from his presidential campaign in late November to address a topic outside the scope of traditional politics: Minor League Baseball contraction. 

Sen. Sanders began his fight against the potential contraction of 42 minor league teams on Nov. 25, sending a letter to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. The 78-year-old senator then met with Manfred on Dec. 2, further urging the MLB “not to eliminate any of the 42 Minor League Baseball clubs that have been put on the chopping block,” per Sanders. 

Sports Illustrated spoke with Sanders–who grew up as a Brooklyn Dodgers fan–about his battle to stop the contraction of 42 teams across the United States.

Sports Illustrated: Why did you decide to address the issue of Minor League Baseball contraction?

Sen. Sanders: When I was mayor of Burlington, Vermont in the 1980s, I helped bring minor league baseball into the city. It was a Double A team in the Eastern League, affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds. And I can tell you from firsthand experience the tremendous impact it had on my city and I’m sure the story is the same for small towns and cities all across this country. Families could come to a ballgame–tickets are seven, eight, ten bucks–you get a couple of hot dogs, you have a great evening. Kids can go out near the field, get autographs from players, it was a real boost for the community. And it is something that I think is enormously important, and I will do everything that I can to see that baseball is not shut down, not only in Burlington, but in 41 other communities.

SI: You recently met with Rob Manfred to address the potential contraction. Was that a productive conversation?

Sanders: Well the proof will be in the pudding. The commissioner indicated he is prepared to negotiate with the minor league teams, to do anything possible to maintain these 42 minor league teams. And if that is the mindset he has going into these negotiations, then that is a good, good thing.

But in my mind, here’s the major point: Major League Baseball is not just another business. It is the national pastime. It is something millions of fans and people follow. Major League Baseball made $1.2 billion last year in profit. They are doing very well financially, and most baseball teams are owned by incredibly wealthy people, many of whom are billionaires. So you’ve got billionaires owning clubs that are making huge profits, they should not be shutting down minor league baseball in 42 communities.

They have got to understand that this is not just a bottom line business. This is the national pastime, and you don’t take away the rights of families and kids to see minor league baseball in order to just make a few bucks more.

SI: Why do you think Minor League contraction is being discussed despite the teams’ profits you noted?

Sanders: This is just another example of corporate greed. This is an instance where billionaires, who make huge profits, want to make even more money. And in this case, they are prepared to sacrifice the well being of 42 small communities around America to increase their already-high level of profits.

SI: In addition to MiLB contraction, you discussed the salaries of minor league players in a recent letter to the commissioner. Do you see an issue with minor league contracts?

Sanders: I think this is an instance where young players in the lower leagues are really being exploited. And they deserve, as every working person does, to be given fair compensation. And that’s a labor issue that does concern me as someone who is doing his best to represent the rights of working people throughout this country.

SI: What issues concern you regarding Major League Baseball outside of potential MiLB contraction?

Sanders: What you have seen in recent years–and it’s not just Major League Baseball–is these organizations are making in most cases very significant profits, and the prices that they charge for tickets are increasingly unaffordable for working class families. A husband and wife, two kids want to go to a ball game, man, that is a heck of a lot of money you got to spend to go see Major League Baseball. And that does bother me, especially at a time when Major League Baseball teams are a recipient of a massive amount of corporate welfare in terms of taxpayers building much of the stadiums they’re playing in right now.

SI: Do you have a problem with publicly-funded stadiums?

Sanders: I have real concerns about it. I go to cities all over the country, where school teachers are inadequately paid, where drinking water in the schools is unhealthy for the kids, where school buildings are dilapidated, and yet somehow cities are coming up with hundreds of millions of dollars to help billionaires who own a baseball team. So on a personal level, yeah, I do have a problem with that.

SI: Is there any action Congress or a potential Sanders administration would take if these issues persist throughout MLB?

Sanders: All I’m saying is, if Major League Baseball and the billionaires who own many of these clubs can’t be responsive to the needs of the American people who are spending an enormous amount of money on baseball, then we should take a hard look at government policy toward Major League Baseball, including its exemption for antitrust.