Logo announcing the Frontier League becoming an MLB Partner League

Independence Gives Way to a Partnership

During a recent episode of the Indy Ball Report podcast, the hosts had on the Commissioner of the Frontier League, Bill Lee. Lee has always been a respected figure in the baseball world. One of the reasons for that has been his willingness to be transparent and to not hide behind the political maneuvering that makes up a giant chunk of professional baseball. Right out the gate, Lee’s transparency made one fact abundantly clear, the Partner League distinction is meant to eradicate and destroy independent baseball in North America.

When Major League Baseball wrestled complete control of Minor League Baseball away from those owners it started instituting wholesale changes. One of which was the announcement of Partner Leagues. These leagues would remain independent from MLB and operate on their own with teams and players not affiliated with MLB franchises. The catch was that MLB would be able to use these leagues as testing grounds for rule changes they were not quite ready to unleash upon their affiliated leagues and teams. In exchange, the Partner Leagues would get to incorporate MLB branding into their marketing and would seemingly be safe from MLB steamrolling them out of existence.

The three initial Partner Leagues were the big three of North American independent baseball: the Atlantic League. American Association, and aforementioned Frontier League. MLB has since reclassified the Pioneer League as an independent Partner League as well. Liga Mexicana de Béisbol is also a sort of pseudo Partner/affiliated League, but they really are their own league that makes their own rules and has nothing to do with MLB or MiLB. LMB’s designation as an affiliated league has always been nothing more than a bit of show to hopefully stunt LMB owners and executives from trying for major league status if they ever had the inclination.

The more information that comes to the fore about these Partner Leagues the clearer it becomes that they are not meant to be independent leagues but rather affiliated leagues that will supplant independent baseball and erase the very idea of independent baseball in North America from the minds of the public. At the onset of the Lee interview, he stops himself from calling FRON an indie league. Instead, he says that they should really call these leagues Partner Leagues or partner baseball from now on. At that moment Lee’s transparency let the cat out of the bag. He gave voice to what a lot of us in the unaffiliated baseball world had suspected was going on with the Partner League distinction.

To be frank about it, because MLB will never do such a thing, the Partner Leagues are an attempt to eliminate independent baseball and bring all baseball in North America under the MLB tent. Can a league truly say it is independent if it is an official partner of MLB taking marching orders from Rob Manfred and his cronies? When Lee talks about the possibility of a championship tournament of some sort he mentions only the Partner Leagues and leaves every other independent league out of the equation. MLB’s Commissioner and the executives in charge of the Partner Leagues have left no doubt that their existence means that the actual independent unaffiliated leagues left in North America don’t matter. We should take that a step further, in deference to honesty and transparency, it’s not just that the remaining independent unaffiliated leagues in North America don’t matter, they do not exist in the eyes of MLB and their new partners.

If you think that MLB’s efforts to create a hegemony throughout the professional baseball globe are going to end here you’re being incredibly naive. The Atlantic League, Frontier League, and American Association were just the beginning. Now that MLB knows they can swing in and take over leagues as easily as they did those leagues they will set their sights on the remaining unaffiliated leagues the glove over. It may not happen tomorrow, but in the next decade expect independent baseball in North America to completely die and MLB to start targeting the professional unaffiliated leagues in Italy, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Australia, and everywhere else. 

For MLB, Partner Leagues mean nothing. It’s just one more way for them to say this is their brand of baseball while spending less money to front their attempt at creating a baseball hegemony. If any of their Partner Leagues struggle, well, that’s too bad for them MLB will say as they allow them to die and move on to another Partner League they can control. For the Partner Leagues, they have now placed their entire future in the uncaring and manipulative hands of MLB. They’ve also placed themselves in a position where they aren’t truly independent baseball anymore. 

I’m not sure what any of the above means for coverage of those leagues on this site. For now, they will still be covered, but if they aren’t really unaffiliated independent leagues they likely don’t have a seat at this site’s table long term. By no means am I egotistical enough to think that matters to them, but in the coming months and seasons it’s something I do believe those of us who cover unaffiliated leagues will have to give serious consideration. We’re closer and closer to having MLB=baseball. I’m in no hurry to help that process by giving free publicity and attention to their new lapdogs in the Partner Leagues. The unaffiliated landscape has changed, but unlike what Bill Lee thinks, it has by no means changed for the better.

Lead photo courtesy of Unknown – Unknown

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Bill Thompson
Father (human/feline/canine), husband, Paramedic, Socialist, writer Internet Baseball Writers Association of America and Off the Bench Baseball; freelance writer at various online and print publications. Member Internet Baseball Writers Association of America & Society for American Baseball Research.

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