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Robert Gehrke: Even when Mike Lee is right (like he is about pro baseball), it’s for the wrong reasons

Major League Baseball’s antitrust exemption is questionable, but Lee’s effort may hurt Utah’s minor league teams more than MLB.

(Jim Watson | Pool via AP) Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, has joined Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley in challenging Major League Baseball's antitrust exemption in the wake of MLB's decision to pull the All Star Game out of Georgia over its new voting laws.

There’s nothing more American than baseball, apple pie and voter suppression.

All three have a rich and storied past in this country. Yet by taking a stand against voter suppression, baseball has incurred the wrath of Utah Sen. Mike Lee. (Apple pie, thus far, has been unscathed.)

Last month, Georgia enacted a series of election changes that, under any rational reading, will make it harder for residents in that state to vote.

It limits mail-in voting, reduces the number of ballot drop boxes, limits the window to return absentee ballots, requires voter identification, expands the ability to challenge votes, shortens the period for early and mail-in voting before run-off elections, and makes other changes.

In response, Major League Baseball pulled the July All-Star game from Atlanta, moving it instead to Colorado.

“Major League Baseball fundamentally supports voting rights for all Americans and opposes restrictions to the ballot box,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said.

Now, Lee and Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, are looking to punish baseball by stripping the league of a unique antitrust exemption it has had for nearly a century. It’s a punitive move against what Cruz called “the rise of the woke corporation.”

And the thing is, getting rid of the antitrust exemption is not a bad idea. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders wanted to get rid of it for a few years.

But somehow, Lee and The Gaslight Gang manage to be so petty and vindictive in their motives that even if there’s merit in their arguments, you still want to buzz them with a fastball under the chin.

Baseball’s antitrust exemption stems from a 1922 Supreme Court decision in which the justices ruled — somehow — that because games are played within a distinct state, the sport isn’t engaged in interstate commerce and is not subject to the Sherman Antitrust Act.

For decades it let owners treat players like property, keeping them from moving between clubs and controlling salaries. That changed starting in 1965 when players unionized, and now the relationship between owners and players is controlled by the collective bargaining agreement they negotiate.

As a result, the antitrust exemption is not nearly as sweeping today as some might think, Nathaniel Grow, a law professor at Indiana University who wrote “Baseball on Trial,” a history of the league’s antitrust exemption, told me Tuesday.

Losing the exemption would have two primary impacts, he said. First, the league would have less power to keep franchises, particularly small-market teams, from relocating — something Hawley, the Missouri senator, might want to keep in mind as it pertains to the small-market Kansas City Royals.

The second impact would be on minor league teams and those ramifications are less certain, Grow said.

Minor league players aren’t unionized and their salaries are set by the teams. The pay is miserable. The average player made $7,500 a season, according to a 2017 lawsuit by minor leaguers. The players lost that lawsuit, however, because of the antitrust exemption.

So if the exemption goes away, minor leaguers might get paid more — or the teams might fold. Remember, basketball and football aren’t exempt from the antitrust laws, and they don’t have anything close to the same developmental system seen in baseball.

You could see teams like The Salt Lake Bees — or more likely the Ogden Raptors or whatever team replaces the Orem Owlz (who moved to Canada last year) — close up shop. The players on the surviving teams could get paid more or Major League Baseball could be more reliant on college baseball, like professional football and basketball are today.

It would be a temporary turbulence, Grow said, but long-term, Major League Baseball would adjust.

“Really, the question in my mind is what Sen. Lee and others are hoping to accomplish?” Grow asked. “You could threaten to repeal the exemption to force some policy change, but at this point it seems the water is under the bridge. The All-Star Game is not going back to Atlanta.”

Of course it isn’t. And even though Lee blames MLB’s actions on “the behavior of a monopolist,” the two are unrelated.

We know that because the NBA doesn’t have any antitrust immunity, yet in 2017, the NBA yanked its All-Star Game out of North Carolina after the state passed an anti-transgender bathroom bill.

There were warnings earlier this year that the NBA might do the same for the 2023 All-Star Game if the Utah Legislature passed a bill banning transgender female athletes from competing. (Utah’s bill failed).

All of this likely doesn’t matter. Lee’s bill won’t get through Congress. That’s strike one.

Strike two is that it doesn’t solve the problem Lee thinks exists.

And then there’s the senators’ rank partisan grandstanding and peevish political payback. That’s three strikes, senator. Go sit down.

Correction: April 14, 10:29 a.m. • The story has been updated to note the Orem Owlz move to Canada.

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