As MLB’s lockout continues, MiLB is providing fans with more than enough baseball news. The good news from MiLB includes a surprise $600,000 payout and its first woman manager. The less-than-good news features its ongoing conflicts with MLB, including an antitrust lawsuit. And let’s not forget, robot umpires.

MiLB news includes surprise payout to Iowa Cubs employees.
The Iowa Cubs, a Chicago Cubs’ Triple-A affiliate, recently changed hands. Before departing, however, the longtime owners had a surprise gift for Iowa Cubs employees. (Image: Mary Willie/The Register)

MLB owners instituted a lockout in December after failing to agree on a new collective bargaining agreement. While that created a void in MLB news, MiLB has been making headlines.

MiLB News: the good

$600K employee bonus: Late last year, Endeavor Group Holdings bought 10 MiLB teams, including the Iowa Cubs. A local group, led by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Gartner, had owned the Iowa Cubs for more than two decades. After the sale, the former owners handed out $600,000 to the team’s employees. Employees received $2,000 for every year they worked for the Cubs. The employee who worked there the longest received a $70,000 bonus.

First woman affiliate manager: Earlier this month, Rachel Balkovec became the manager of the Tampa Tarpons. As such, she’s the first female manager of an affiliated team. The Tarpons are a Low-A affiliate of the New York Yankees.

Rachel Balkovec makes MiLB news as first woman affiliated manager.
Rachel Balkovec is baseball’s first female minor league manager. Balkovec will get her first test when her Tampa Tarpons go up against the Lakeland Flying Tigers on April 8. (Image: Mike Janes/AP)

The Yankees organization hired Balkovec as a full-time hitting coach in 2019. Prior to the Yankees, Balkovec was a strength and conditioning coach with the Astros and the Cardinals. Balkovec, however, won’t become the first female MLB manager. Miami Marlins general manager Kim Ng broke that barrier in 2020.

More robots: A study found that MLB umpires blew 34,294 calls in 2018. That’s one reason why MLB continues to test robot umps. In the 2022 season, Triple-A will use strike zone technology for the first time. Some of the teams testing the robots include the Round Rock Express, the Charlotte Knights, the El Paso Chihuahuas, the Sacramento River Cats, the Sugar Land Skeeters, and the Las Vegas Aviators.

In 2019, the Atlantic League — an independent professional league — started testing technology-assisted balls and strike calls. Robot umps have been moving up the MLB food chain ever since MLB umpires agreed to their use in their 2020 contract.

The bad and the ugly

While most leagues muddled through the onset of the pandemic, that wasn’t true of minor league baseball. In the league’s defense, it had no choice. MLB pulled the plug on MiLB’s 2020 season. But that wasn’t the only bad news for MiLB that year. A few months later, MLB eliminated 42 minor league teams.

MiLB sues MLB: At the end of last year, four minor league teams filed an antitrust lawsuit against MLB. The teams — the Staten Island Yankees, the Norwich Sea Unicorns, the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, and the Tri-City Valleycats — were among those cut by MLB.

On one hand, the lawsuit is a long shot. Since 1922, MLB has been exempt from the Sherman Antitrust Act, granting it one of the country’s only legal monopolies. There are a few reasons, however, why this lawsuit still has a chance.

In 1922, the Supreme Court decided that baseball games were merely local exhibitions. In the Court’s view, baseball didn’t qualify as interstate commerce and wasn’t bound by antitrust laws. But MLB isn’t the baseball of 1922. Today, it’s a multibillion-dollar business.

Also, the US Supreme Court ruled against the NCAA last year, finding its compensation restrictions for athletes violated antitrust laws. So, the plaintiffs may believe the current Supreme Court is more amenable to recognizing sports as commerce under the antitrust statutes.