While baseball players were signing autographs for congressional staffers amid the soaring cor

“Remind them you have a business in their district,” Hopkins pleaded, adding, as a half-dozen speakers before him had, “We are grass-roots baseball.”

The millionaire players and the minor-league owners all came to Washington for the same purpose—to lobby Congress regarding Major League Baseball’s antitrust exemption. The players want Congress to repeal the exemption, contending that a repeal would help force owners to negotiate in good faith in the current labor impasse, perhaps prevent future ones, and, most of all, tangibly register public disgust with MLB and punish the monopolists. The players have even promised to return to work if Congress repeals the labor-related portion of the exemption.

Minor-league owners, like their major-league counterparts, regard the proposed repeal as a threat to their very existence. “I think it’s no coincidence that baseball is the only sport with the exemption and with this extensive kind of player development system,” Hopkins contends.

“We’ve built a very efficient, effective system for developing baseball talent touching all of North America over the last 70 years,” says Stan Brand, vice president of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the minor-league governing board. “At the very least, lifting the exemption would plunge our business into deep uncertainty. We’d have to spend a lot of money on litigation.”

In truth, no one knows for certain what repercussions the minor leagues would suffer if MLB lost its antitrust protection. High on the list of concerns is baseball’s draft and minor-league reserve system, which could be open to a court challenge. The reserve system ties a minor-league player to the MLB team that drafted him for six seasons, during which he is expected to sharpen his skills and graduate to the big time, in effect providing a return on the parent club’s investment. That investment could drop sharply if minor-league players were free to jump clubs.

“We’re the R&D arm of Major League Baseball,” says Pat O’Conner, chief operating officer of the National Association. “If losing the antitrust exemption affects the ability of Major League Baseball to draft and retain talent, it loses the incentive to develop players.”

The draft system is already under attack by former Georgia Tech all-American Jason Varitek. A hard-hitting catcher, Varitek was a first-round pick in both the June 1993 draft after his junior season and in last June’s draft. Under the guidance of hard-line agent Scott Boras, Varitek has turned down bonuses in the $400,000 range from his drafting teams, and, having exhausted his college eligibility, signed for 1995 with the independent Northern League for far less money. Varitek has also gone to court, claiming that the draft system prevents him from receiving his fair market value—about $800,000, based on the bonuses of players drafted around him—because it limits his options.

Without the guaranteed financial support of MLB, the minors could be in serious trouble. Although some minor-league teams are worth as much as $10 million, few could exist without the financial crutch provided by the big leagues, which spend an estimated $18 million annually on player development. That money literally creates the product minor-league teams sell to their fans: It pays the salaries of players and coaches, buys the bats and balls, even puts uniforms on the players’ backs. “If Major League Baseball cuts back on player development, those cuts come out of the hide of minor-league baseball,” O’Conner says.

The National Association estimates that of its 157 teams, only 17 could pay their own way without MLB subsidies. And of those 17, just 13 are at the Double and Triple A levels. “We’re [in Washington] for our own self-preservation,” admits Hopkins, who also heads the Class A and Rookie League Association.

The minor-leaguers’ concerns about the draft and reserve system ignore the experience of other professional sports, which have crafted workable systems without antitrust protection. Moreover, talk of the dark future ahead recalls major- league owners’ dread when their reserve clause was threatened two decades ago. Instead, free agency brought MLB unprecedented popularity and prosperity for players and owners alike.

Antitrust immunity has allowed MLB to clamp down on franchise movements, unlike other sports without the exemption. But that’s a dubious public benefit at best. Who winswhen a team stays in Pittsburgh, serving a smaller community and making less money, instead of moving to the more populous and lucrative Tampa Bay area?

Franchise movements are far more frequent at the minor- league level, where entrepreneurial owners and competing leagues provide incentives for tapping into the best markets. Ironically, MLB has accelerated such movement over the past three years by imposing new stadium requirements on the minors, fueling a Darwinian competition among communities ready to stump for new ballparks.

More than half of minor-league teams are located in cities of less than 100,000 people and counties of less than 500,000, according to O’Conner, who prefers to cast the strike in terms of its grass-roots impact. “This strike is not about billions against millions, players against owners, or anything like that,” he says. “It’s about American tradition. It’s about boyhood dreams.”

Sam Nader has logged 29 years with the Oneonta Yankees, working his way up to team president. He’s also been the mayor of one of the smallest communities in the minors, with about 10,000 year-round residents. “I don’t want to choose up sides in the strike,” he says. “But the major-league clubs have been good to me. Without them, I wouldn’t exist.”

“These guys are our partners,” Stan Brand says of the major-league owners. “I’m not embarrassed to say we’re aligned with them.” Supporting MLB owners to preserve small-town baseball is one more thing about this strike that leaves a bad taste.