Daines introduces bill in effort to preserve minor league baseball in Montana

BILLINGS — U.S. Sen. Steve Daines is making another push to preserve affiliated professional baseball in Montana.

Daines, a Montana Republican, introduced the “Support Baseball in Communities Act” on Thursday in Washington, D.C. The bill would deem Major League Baseball teams ineligible to participate or benefit from the Paycheck Protection Program or emergency lending programs within Title IV of the CARES Act if it moves forward with plans to reduce the number of minor league franchises across the country.

The 30-year Professional Baseball Agreement expires in September, and representatives from Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball have held off-and-on negotiations for the past several months to reach a new deal.

It’s been widely reported that MLB’s wish is for an agreement that will strip more than 40 minor league teams of their player development contracts in order to streamline and simplify the MiLB system.

The entire eight-team Rookie Advanced Pioneer League — an 81-year-old minor league circuit that includes the Billings Mustangs, Great Falls Voyagers and Missoula PaddleHeads — is on MLB’s hit list.

With his bill, Daines said his goal is to put more political pressure on Major League Baseball.

“Montana’s minor league baseball teams are an important part of our community and bring joy to families during the summers. It would be devastating if we lost them,” Daines said Wednesday in a statement provided to 406mtsports.com.

“That’s why I’m introducing a bill to help save Montana’s minor league teams and put pressure on the MLB to stop shutting down these small hometown leagues that will take away America’s pastime from Montana communities.”

The proposed bill, obtained by The Billings Gazette and 406mtsports.com on Wednesday, comes seven weeks after Daines sent a joint letter to Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred and Minor League Baseball President Pat O’Conner asking the sides to extend the current PBA for two more years to allow the coronavirus pandemic to subside before reaching another long-term deal.

 On Tuesday, MLB and its players’ union agreed to a 60-game season for 2020, which is scheduled to begin July 23 or 24. But the minor leagues remain shuttered as a result of COVID-19.

Daines’ bill states that “if Major League Baseball reduces the number of Minor League Baseball teams that are affiliated with a Major League Baseball team, no Major League Baseball team shall be eligible to receive a covered loan” under the Support Baseball in Communities Act.

It should be noted that Major League Baseball’s revenue reached a record $10.7 billion in 2019, according to a report by Forbes in December.

The bill also states that “no Major League Baseball team shall be eligible to receive assistance under any program carried out under Title IV of the CARES Act” if they move to strip minor league clubs of their MLB affiliations.

The CARES Act was signed into law in March to provide $2 trillion in financial relief to individuals and businesses hit by the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Title IV of the act includes funds used to replenish Federal Reserve emergency lending programs.

Baseball America reported in May that as many as 17 major league clubs had planned to furlough employees and/or impose some form of pay cuts during the coronavirus shutdown. It is not clear if any MLB teams have applied for or received aid.

HBO’s Real Sports reported last month that 27 teams combined between Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League declined to answer when asked if they had applied for federal assistance.

Earlier this year, Daines and fellow U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana, signed a bipartisan resolution introduced by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), which stated that the Senate “supports the preservation of Minor League Baseball clubs across the United States” and encourages their continued player-development affiliation with Major League Baseball.

 U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte of Montana signed on to a similar resolution in the House.

Daines and Tester both said in previous interviews with 406mtsports.com that Major League Baseball’s 98-year-old antitrust exemption, which decrees that baseball is not interstate commerce and is immune to allegations of — or lawsuits for — collusion or competitive imbalance, could be used as leverage against MLB and its desire to shrink the minor leagues.

Whether or not Billings, Great Falls, Missoula and the rest of the Pioneer League lose their player development affiliations with MLB, there is still the possibility for a season next year.

Missoula owner Peter Davis has always maintained that his team will compete in 2021. Last week, Billings owner Dave Heller said he has “no doubt” the Mustangs will also play.

 “The only thing I know is there will be Mustangs baseball next year at Dehler Park in some way, shape or form,” Heller said. “We just don’t know what it looks like yet.”

Though Davis told 406mtsports.com that next year could look completely different, he also said, “We’ll come back with a fabulous baseball season in 2021.”