Last week Baseball America broke the news that MLB is proposing a radical reconfiguration of the minor leagues, eliminating the lower levels of the minors (Short Season and down), replacing them with a quasi-independent league for undrafted players or encouraging contracted teams to reform as college summer wooden bat teams, and realigning the leagues, classifications (ie, moving teams up or down levels), and team affiliations to make the leagues more geographically compact to cut down on travel time.
MLB Deputy Commissioner Dan Halem, in a quote in the Washington Post, positions the MLB proposal as being about the 30 MLB teams’ concerns about minor league facilities: “Clubs want their players to play in stadiums with medical facilities, training facilities, locker rooms and playing fields suitable for elite professional baseball players. […] Many of the current stadiums, primarily in the lower levels, are in worse shape than the facilities players played in during college, and in some cases high school, and require significant travel by bus to stage games. This is a significant issue for MLB that we are seeking to address in these negotiations.”
Hardball Talk‘s Craig Calcaterra cuts through MLB’s spin: “But that should be read as ‘in a manner in which saves MLB owners money and makes minor league teams subsidize their overhead.’ Because the aim here seems fairly clear: MLB wants to “reduce its financial outlay in the minor leagues.”
I’m a fan of minor league baseball. I’ve been attending minor league games for nearly thirty years. I’ve regularly attended Harrisburg Senators games, ten to fifteen a year, for the past six. While I believe the Senators are not at risk from elimination in MLB’s proposal, the proposal does affect me and every single baseball fan who attends minor league baseball games.
Major League Baseball and its thirty clubs have chosen to wage a war on Minor League Baseball and its hundred-plus operators, from mom-and-pop owners of a single team to investors who own and operate portfolios of multiple teams. The MiLB owners are many, but against the MLB owners, their financial resources, and their lobbying efforts, MLB is flexing their muscles, MLB wants changes. Given the power disparity between MLB and MiLB, I am not optimistic for an outcome that resembles minor league baseball as we currently know it. Even a “magnanimous” concession on MLB’s part — “We’ll only contract 20 teams instead of 42” — would still be a significant change to minor league baseball, not to mention one that leaves open the possibility for future changes in the next negotiation between MLB and MiLB.
Without seeing MLB’s proposal, it’s difficult to say how the leagues would realign or which teams beyond those at the very lowest levels (ie., the Appalachian League) are on the chopping block. The Baseball America article mentions that the Low-A South Atlantic League would be broken apart into two leagues, which I think makes some sense. Teams could be shuffled from the Carolina League into the South Atlantic and new Mid-Atlantic League and vice versa. Some teams from the AA Eastern League could be shifted around; perhaps Richmond moves down to the High-A Carolina League and Wilmington moves up to the AA Eastern League. The Akron Rubberducks of the Eastern League could find themselves moved to the Low-A Midwest League due to geographic proximity. Hagerstown, which has an old and decrepit facility, could be eliminated entirely, while Aberdeen with its far more modern facility could be bumped up to Low-A. A place like Kinston, North Carolina, which has a long and rich minor league heritage and recently reacquired a team (the Down East Wood Ducks), could find themselves cut of of minor league baseball once more.
Replacing the eliminated teams with the proposed quasi-independent Dream League seems risky. Independent baseball incurs higher costs than the affiliated minors (indie teams pay their players, while MLB teams pay the salaries of MiLB players) and is already a financially dubious proposition (teams and leagues fold every years, and two leagues, the Frontier and the Can-Am, just announced a merger in an effort at bolstering their stability), and being unaffiliated takes away one of the selling points of affiliated minor league baseball (“see the baseball stars of tomorrow today”).
There is an enormous appetite for live, in-person baseball in the United States, and Minor League Baseball helps to sate that appetite; MiLB attendance keeps increasing year over year, with a 2.6% increase in 2019 alone. FiveThirtyEight asked recently if minor league baseball is even necessary, but it only looked at one aspect — player development — while overlooking all the other reasons why minor league baseball exists: professional baseball, outside the major metropolitan areas, has always been a part of the sport; minor baseball promotes the game in the local communities; and MiLB serves as an affordable, family-friendly way to introduce the next generation of baseball fans to the sport. MLB may believe that improving their bottom line requires decimating the minor leagues, but they risk damaging the health of the sport and baseball fandom itself in doing so.
The odds are against us and the situation is grim, as Captain James T. Kirk of the starship Enterprise once said, but with your efforts minor league baseball can be saved. If you’re a fan of minor league baseball in general or a specific minor league team, write your Congressman, say that Major League Baseball may be planning to take away your team or another community’s team, and ask the Congressman to look into the matter. Write your local newspaper. Reach out to other fans, educate them about the risk to their local team, and get them involved. Make some noise.
Minor league baseball has been an important part of American society for well over a century. Send MLB the message that the minor leagues are not an afterthought, are important to the towns and cities that are home to the teams, and are a vital part of the fabric of baseball and America itself.