Iowa's minor league baseball teams find themselves in the 2020 Democratic caucus fight

Key Points
  • Bernie Sanders, other Democratic presidential candidates and bipartisan members of Congress have pushed Major League Baseball not to cut its affiliation with up to 42 minor league teams.
  • Much of the political debate around minor league baseball has focused on Iowa, which could lose three teams and hosts the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses on Monday.
  • Minor league baseball advocates say losing teams would not only hurt local economies but also rid cities of tradition and affordable entertainment.
Clinton LumberKings baseball team general manager Ted Tornow in his office at NelsonCorp Field in Clinton, IA.
Jacob Pramuk | CNBC

CLINTON, Iowa — Ted Tornow's office showcases a life in baseball. Team photos line what he jokes is the "wall of shame," tracing the Clinton LumberKings general manger's 37 years working in the minor leagues from Tennessee to Alabama, to Mississippi and Montana and now eastern Iowa.

He points to an image of Bo Jackson, the multi-sport superstar who took baseball's Memphis Chicks by storm when Tornow worked for the team in 1986. He notes a photo of Ryne Sandberg and recalls how the Chicago Cubs legend "packed" Clinton's stadium when he visited as manager of the Peoria Chiefs.

Now, a threat to the LumberKings and two other Iowa professional teams has brought Tornow into the orbit of another force: Bernie Sanders. The Vermont senator and presidential candidate, shaped at a young age by the National League's Dodgers leaving his native Brooklyn for Los Angeles, has helped to lead resistance to a Major League Baseball proposal that could cut 42 minor league clubs. Burlington, Vt. — where Sanders was mayor in the 1980s — also could lose a team.

"Bernie's the perfect example," Tornow said Monday during an animated elucidation about how Americans want to protect their traditions and history like baseball teams that have played for decades — or more than a century in the case of the LumberKings. "The Dodgers ripped his heart out when they left Brooklyn. Now they want to yank his team out from when he was the mayor of Burlington."

The outside of NelsonCorp Field in Clinton, IA, where the LumberKings play their home games.
Jacob Pramuk | CNBC

The minor league teams that could lose their affiliation with a major league club after the 2020 season play all over the country. Team executives, mayors, governors and more than 100 bipartisan members of Congress have pushed the MLB to keep the teams in its system. They argue the clubs bring jobs, economic activity and affordable entertainment to communities.

The political furor against the MLB has proved the sharpest in Iowa, which sits under a microscope ahead of Monday's first-in-the-nation 2020 Democratic presidential caucuses. Three teams in the state from small cities along the Mississippi River – the LumberKings, Burlington Bees and Quad Cities River Bandits in Davenport – could lose their link to the MLB. Severing that connection dents their prospects for survival.

Democratic presidential hopefuls have decried the potential contraction of minor league baseball as they look for any edge in the tight first presidential nominating contest. Three of the U.S. House members from Iowa's four competitive districts — Democratic Reps. Cindy Axne, Abby Finkenauer and Dave Loebsack — signed on to the "Save Minor League Baseball Task Force." The group introduced a House resolution this week saying baseball should keep its current minor league structure.

Democrats go to bat

Most of the Democratic candidates near the top of Iowa caucus polling have rallied support for minor league baseball. In December, Sanders went to Burlington, which sits south of Clinton on the Mississippi, to hit balls and hold a round table with team officials from Iowa. He separately met with MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred last month.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., hits a baseball after a meeting with minor league baseball players and officials at FunCity Turf, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019, in Burlington, Iowa.
Charlie Neibergall | AP

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., went to a River Bandits game in September as she campaigned across Iowa. In December, she tweeted a photo of herself on the diamond in a River Bandits Jersey and urged the MLB to "step back and reconsider" its plans.

Amy Klobuchar tweet

Fomer South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, whose home city has a minor league baseball team, tweeted in December that "cities like mine know what a minor league baseball team can mean to an economy, a culture, and even a childhood." He called on the MLB to "do the right thing" and "save our teams."

Pete Buttigieg tweet

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., joined with her home state colleague Sen. Ed Markey to object to the MLB proposal in a December letter to Manfred. A Lowell, Mass., team could fall by the wayside at the end of the year. The senators argued the plan would "cause significant economic damage to the City of Lowell, eliminate an important piece of the community's cultural footprint and disappoint baseball fans of all ages," according to the Boston Globe.

The MLB has said the proposal will increase the efficiency of its organization and improve facilities for players trying to play their way to the majors. In a written statement last month after Manfred met with Sanders, the MLB said it "must ensure that Minor League players have safe playing facilities suitable for the development of professional baseball players, are not subjected to unreasonable travel demands, are provided with compensation and working conditions appropriate for elite athletes, and have a realistic opportunity of making it to the Major Leagues."

"We repeatedly have stated both publicly and privately to the Minor Leagues that whatever the outcome of the negotiations, MLB will offer every community that currently hosts professional baseball options to preserve baseball in a viable, fan-friendly, compelling format with the full support of MLB. We remain confident that solutions can be reached that satisfy the interests of all stakeholders," the league said in December.

Sanders sees the MLB's plans as another example of big business greed that has harmed workers and communities. He has run on a massive political and economic overhaul that will rein in massive corporations.

The senator recently told The New York Times that his views stem in part from the Dodgers' move across the country in 1957.

"I don't want to tell you that was the sole reason that I've developed the politics that I've developed," Sanders told the newspaper. "But as a kid, I did see in that case about the greed of one particular company. And that impacted me."

Another candidate for federal office criss-crossing a large swath of Iowa this year cited the MLB proposal as an example of the wealthy having too much power. J.D. Scholten is a Democratic candidate for Congress in Iowa's 4th District. He played baseball in college and for the unaffiliated club in Sioux City, Iowa, and he said he "can't put a price tag on what baseball means to me. But the [MLB] owners seem to have."

"There's so much incentive for the wealth and wealthy and it's the little guys, it's the workers, it's the people who make this country great that are getting the shaft in a lot of this stuff. And this is just another example of it," Scholten said Tuesday. He is challenging Republican Rep. Steve King again this year after narrowly losing to him in 2018.

Bridge and rail crossings over the partially frozen Mississippi River in Clinton, IA.
Jacob Pramuk | CNBC

"I don't know what else I'd do"

In Clinton, a city of less than 30,000, losing the LumberKings could take a bite out of the local economy. The club supports 180 full-time jobs, both directly and indirectly, in Clinton County, according to a study with analysis from the Iowa Economic Development Authority and U.S. government data. That accounts for just under 1% of jobs in the county.

The Class A Midwest League team, which is affiliated with the MLB's Miami Marlins, also contributes to $4.7 million in wages in the county, according to the study. That's the equivalent of 0.2% of its GDP.

Tornow said "I don't know what else I'd do" if he could no longer work for the LumberKings after more than 20 years with the team.

"I don't know what I'm qualified for. I can pour beers and I can cook hot dogs and hamburgers and brats," he said. "Is it scary? Depends on who you ask. I don't worry about tomorrow. Today's got enough trouble of its own."

Politically, Clinton County embodies a trend seen in pockets of the country in recent years. The area has more registered Democrats than Republicans. President Barack Obama won Clinton County by more than 20 percentage points in 2012. President Donald Trump carried it by about 5 percentage points four years later.

Some 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls made a point to visit Clinton in the final run before the caucuses. Former Vice President Joe Biden and entrepreneur Andrew Yang both held events there this week.

Snow blankets the Port of Burlington, Iowa, on the Mississippi River.
Jacob Pramuk | CNBC

"I hate to see it leave"

Both candidates also stopped in Burlington, which sits just over a two-hour drive southwest of Clinton, in the last stretch before the caucuses. Des Moines County, where Burlington sits, has more registered Democrats than Republicans. It too flipped dramatically from Obama to Trump in 2016.

Burlington is where Sanders rallied with Iowa's minor league teams in December, taking swings just a couple months after suffering a heart attack. The city has its own rich baseball heritage.

The Burlington Bees, a Class A Midwest League team, were first founded in 1889. Steve Bell, a retired policeman in Burlington, said Tuesday that four generations of his family have gone to minor league games in town.

"I hate to see it leave. ... It's just kind of been a landmark in Burlington forever," he said, calling baseball games "affordable entertainment."

Bell met with a church group last week at the Beancounter Coffeehouse and Drinkery — a shop that hangs coffee cups on its walls signed by visitors like former 2020 Democratic presidential candidates Beto O'Rourke and Tim Ryan. O'Rourke stood on a countertop as he spoke to voters crowded into the store early in his presidential campaign last year.

Bell and another member of his group run through parts of the team's history. Newly chosen MLB Hall of Famer Larry Walker played for the Bees around when Bo Jackson was in Clinton. They say a carelessly tossed cigarette caused a fire that burned down the team's wooden stadium in 1971, forcing it to rebuild.

Burlington Bees baseball team general manager Kim Parker stands in the team's offices at Community Field in Burlington, IA.
Jacob Pramuk | CNBC

Bees general manager Kim Parker isn't sure if that story is true. She says it's the one locals tell, in any case.

Parker started working for the team about 20 years ago, selling 50-50 tickets and programs on game days. She worked her way to full-time staff after college and is entering her third season as general manager. Parker's father spent 17 years as the Bees general manager before her. She grew up around the sport.

"I love this organization, I love this town and I love baseball," Parker, who was named the top woman executive in minor league baseball in 2019, said Tuesday. "It's literally my heart and soul. And my husband will tell you that. He actually knew what he was getting into when he married. So he was like, 'I'm really marrying you and the organization?' And I was like, 'Absolutely.'"

Burlington has many similarities to Clinton. The small Mississippi River city has a population of about 25,000.

A study found the Bees also directly and indirectly support 180 full-time jobs in their home county of Des Moines. The wages the team supports are equivalent to about 0.2% of county GDP, the Iowa Economic Development Authority found.

Parker said she will do everything she can with Congress, local officials and the team's MLB affiliate, The Los Angeles Angels, to ensure Burlington does not lose its team. And she's trying not to think about what her life would look like without the Bees.

Parker said: "There were a few people who were like, 'Ah, you'd get a job no problem. You could walk in anywhere and get a job.' I'm like, 'I don't want that job. I already know I don't want that job. I want this job and I want to be in baseball.'"

Snow covers the outside of Community Field in Burlington, Iowa, where the Burlington Bees play their home games.
Jacob Pramuk | CNBC