TROY — Major League Baseball and the Houston Astros took the Tri-City ValleyCats out of the rotation, so the ValleyCats are taking MLB and the Astros to court.
The team, which had been affiliated with the Astros for 18 New York-Penn League seasons before MLB contracted and restructured minor league baseball last year, filed a lawsuit in the commercial division of New York State Supreme Court on Thursday and seeks over $15 million in actual and punitive damages.
The ValleyCats’ case claims that the defendants have committed a variety of actions that amount to an “unlawful effort to destroy the businesses of 40 minor league baseball teams, including the ValleyCats.”
Two law firms based in New York City, Berg & Androphy and Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, are representing the ValleyCats and filed similar action on behalf of the Staten Island Yankees on Dec. 3, when that team was disaffiliated by MLB and ceased to operate.
The ValleyCats announced last week that they had joined the independent Frontier League and would begin the regular season at Joseph Bruno Stadium in May.
During an announcement of that move, team president Rick Murphy said the ValleyCats face $220,000-$250,000 in extra expenses, in large part because they must now pay player and coaching salaries out of pocket, instead of having that covered by the parent Astros.
Losing the affiliation hurts the club in many other ways, too, according to the suit, such as loss of franchise value, and came after the ValleyCats made financial commitments under the assurance from MLB and the Astros that they wouldn’t be among the targets of minor league contraction.
“To make matters worse, in 2019, Defendants had publicly released a list of the teams that would remain affiliated with MLB, which included the ValleyCats, and made other public statements that the ValleyCats would be included,” the lawsuit says. “The ValleyCats materially relied on these public disclosures, which Defendants reneged on at the eleventh hour, by making substantial improvements to the Stadium, making ongoing lease payments it otherwise may not have, and continuing to fund a business which was unknowingly on the brink of decimation.”
The “public disclosure” refers to a list of teams that was outlined in a New York Times story in November of 2019.
“Indeed, for nearly 20 years, through its conduct and representations, the Astros led the ValleyCats to believe they were partners in a joint franchise. But now, to enrich themselves, the Astros have dropped the ValleyCats completely,” the lawsuit asserts.
ValleyCats general manager Matt Callahan declined to comment because of the ongoing legal process.
MLB pared 160 minor league teams down to 120 when it took over operation of the minors in December.
Four other Astros minor league teams, three owned by the parent club and one, the Asheville Tourists, owned by the family of Ohio Gov. Mike Devine, made the cut, but the ValleyCats did not, a byproduct of “bullying,” the suit says, “likely in efforts to quell the political discord that has occurred regarding MLB’s contraction efforts.”
The lawsuit also portrays what it considers betrayal by MLB as “even more egregious” in light of the long, prosperous relationship between the single-A team and MLB, which dates back to 1977.
Bill Gladstone bought it in 1992 and moved it from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to Troy in 2001.
He died at the age of 88 on April, 2020, and the lawsuit refers to an email to his son and team chairman, Doug Gladstone, in which the suit claims that MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred offered condolences, but also threatened the team against public statements on the impending contraction.
The lawsuit says: “MLB’s intimidation tactics, which it used to pit MiLB teams against each other for the ‘privilege’ of having their businesses destroyed, has gone on for years but was most vividly demonstrated by a May 2020 email in which Commissioner Rob Manfred emailed the ValleyCats’ owner condolences on the passing of his father, and then in the very same email, issued a veiled threat that any public statement about MLB’s contraction efforts would be ‘unwise.'”
The suit’s preliminary statement also asserts that “Defendants can gleefully play the bully, but established law makes them liable for this bullying conduct.”