BURLINGTON, Iowa (AP) — Take Bernie out to the ball game?

Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate, is aggressively opposing a Major League Baseball plan to cut 42 minor league teams across the country after 2020. Among the targeted are the Vermont Lake Monsters, the Single-A affiliate of the Oakland Athletics in his hometown, Burlington.

Defending low-profile ball clubs in far-flung places more fervently than anyone in the crowded Democratic presidential field allows Sanders to potentially win over a largely untapped 2020 constituency: baseball fans.

Sanders planned to take batting practice indoors with minor league players Sunday in Burlington, Iowa. In August, he played softball with reporters on the state’s corn field-ringed “Field of Dreams,” the set of the Hollywood hit of the same name. And he has tapped a former Yale second baseman, Faiz Shakir, to run his campaign.

Taking the diamond demonstrates physical stamina for a 78-year-old who recently had a heart attack, while also letting Sanders press a larger political point about rich owners putting profits ahead of the national pastime. But it also shows off a softer side of someone most known to supporters and detractors alike for being a democratic socialist and backing progressive policy proposals such as “Medicare for All.”

“The guys who own the teams are billionaires,” Sanders said in an interview, adding that baseball “is not an institution that is hurting financially. And you can see that by, just in the last few weeks, seeing major league teams signing star baseball players for as much (as) $324 million.”

That refers to the New York Yankees recently signing free-agent pitcher Gerrit Cole to a reported 9-year, $324 million contract.

MLB is negotiating a new agreement with the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the governing body of the minors. The initial contraction proposal primarily would impact lower-level teams in short-season leagues. Sanders met last month with Commissioner Rob Manfred to decry the plan and the senator sent him a letter Saturday, arguing that baseball “has to be considered more than just the bottom line.”

“Baseball is not just another business,” Sanders said. “There’s a reason the president of the United States throws out the first pitch of the season, why baseball is considered a national pastime.”

More than 100 members of Congress from both parties signed a separate letter to Manfred opposing shutting down minor league teams. But, so far, Sanders is alone among the Democratic presidential hopefuls loudly opposing the idea.

“He’s the only one I hear talking about it,” said J.D. Scholten, who pitched professionally in Canada and for Iowa’s independent Sioux City Explorers. Scholten challenged longtime Republican Rep. Steve King in 2018 and is trying again to unseat him.

“I think it kind of fits into his overall message of, right now, a lot of the way our lives are being shaped by wealthy people who are dictating a lot of these things at the top, and the people at the bottom are being left behind,” said Scholten, who also played basketball this past week with another White House hopeful, businessman Andrew Yang.

Scholten said he tells crowds at town halls while campaigning that he’ll answer questions about anything, including baseball.

“My baseball background gets talked about quite a lot. I’m actually kind of surprised. I haven’t played in 10 years, was a paralegal for a decade and nobody talks about that,” Scholten joked.

Sanders’ baseball ties predate his 2020 campaign. He visited with the Los Angeles Dodgers during spring training in 2018 and, as he was recovering at home following his Oct. 1 heart attack, Sanders’ campaign released video of the candidate batting balls around his backyard.

The senator grew up loving the Brooklyn Dodgers until they moved to Los Angeles when he was 16. He now roots for the Boston Red Sox, like a lot of New Englanders.

While running for the first elected office he won, mayor of Burlington in 1981, Sanders says he thinks he remembers campaigning on landing a minor league team. He says “we worked extremely hard” to accomplish just that.- bringing a Cincinnati Reds affiliate to town three years later.

“Everybody found it amusing because the name was the Vermont Reds,” Sanders, an avowed democratic socialist even then, chuckled.


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