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“Assault on Hometown Baseball” Panicking Cities

11 Dec, 2019

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
MLB Proposal Puts Cities' Recent Stadium Improvements, Economic Impact on the Line

Spring training for baseball starts soon but it’s sounding like there will be fewer players taking the field at the Minor League level in years to come, thanks (or no thanks) to a controversial proposal from Major League Baseball. The proposal puts forth a plan for 42 Minor League Baseball teams to have their affiliations cut to the MLB clubs they’ve been servicing, thereby rendering them basically irrelevant and unsupported.

And no, that figure of 42 isn’t a typo, it’s reality, and as you can imagine, it has cities nationwide alternately panicking and raging. In fact, it's being called "the assault on hometown baseball."

The proposal, announced near the end of November, would drastically alter the face of MiLB by eliminating the affiliation of many short-season and rookie ball clubs (a list of which can be found at the end of this article).

MLB, however, says it’s not only a cost containment issue but a means of providing for players. As NBC Sports notes, “MLB’s suggestion to shrink the minor leagues comes on the heels of increased public pressure to improve the pay and conditions of the players. MLB successfully lobbied Congress to amend language in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, classifying players as seasonal workers thus they are no longer entitled to minimum wage and overtime pay, among other protections. As a result, more players have become vocal about the lack of pay and more reporting has been done on the issue, creating a bit of a P.R. problem for the league.”

And yes, indeed, they have become vocal. With the assistance of social media, players have tweeted out news about making a Chipotle bowl last for more than one meal, doing landscaping work, serving food, driving for Uber  – and a whole lot more, to the embarrassment of the league.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that the proposal is here – but, as NBC Sports notes, cutbacks to its minor leagues “would allow MLB, whose individual teams are responsible for the overhead of their minor league affiliates, to publicly say they improved pay while not actually costing them much money, if any at all.”

The moves would leave Minor League Baseball with 118 guaranteed teams, down from the current lineup of 170 franchises. There would also be a realignment of existing leagues, with a new Mid-Atlantic Class-A league proposal as well as a third Triple-A league.

But cities who love their teams are rabid with anger about the proposal, particularly in light of the fact that many have made improvements to ballparks over the last few years to improve the spectator experience, create a better destination for sports events – and be appealing to their local clubs.

“I don’t see any way we can do something like this,” a major league official told [Bill Madden, in an article quoted in BallParkDigest.] “My God, we’ll be sued all over the place from these cities that have built or refurbished ballparks with taxpayer money, and this will really put our anti-trust exemption in jeopardy. It’s crazy.”

The Erie Seawolves, in Pennsylvania, were the recipients of $12 million in state money to do upgrades on UPMC Park in 2019 and 2020, including a full overhaul of the playing surface. In Syracuse, New York, a local news website noted that in Norwich, Connecticut, Mayor Peter Nystrom said he learned of the plan about a month after MLB signed off on a new 10-year lease deal between the Connecticut Tigers, Norwich’s single-A New York-Penn League team, and Norwich. The city already had upgraded the 6,000-seat stadium’s lights and heating and cooling system and has $100,000 in its annual budget for more improvements. Nystrom was angry and frustrated, noting that minor league clubs are a vital part of the fabric of towns and small cities such as Norwich and he doesn’t believe they will let contraction happen.

“I’m writing to every municipality affected by this,” he said. “These are community centers. Dodd Stadium is a community center. To me, this is a stab in the back.”

SBNation noted that three Double-A teams on the cut list released statements separately condemning the proposal, including Binghamton: “No one is stealing hometown American baseball from The Bing, or any other city in America, without a fight.”

Plenty of politicians – on all sides of the aisle – have waded into the fray as well and it’s heartening to see them come together to fight a common enemy at an incredibly divisive political time. Oddly, the proposal from MLB comes on the heels of the 15th consecutive season when 40 million-plus fans attended at least one MiLB game per season. (Not all clubs are enjoying record attendance, however, and Major League is quick to point out those it sees as underperforming.)

The cutbacks would be devastating to those sectors of cities' economies that are tied to Minor League play. In addition to eliminating a workforce of more than 1,000 players, the proposal would eliminate even more related jobs, including clubhouse staff, ticketing personnel, groundskeepers, front office employees, security, concessions, promotional personnel and others.

While the proposal is not final – and negotiations are inevitable, it’s likely that many cities will see at least some reductions. SDM will continue to follow developments on this issue. In the meantime, several upstart proposals have been suggested, such as having more collegiate summer leagues, a wood-bat summer league and a "dream league" without club affiliation that would offer opportunities to undrafted and international players. Unfortunately, some are calling these concepts the "pipe dream leagues," and are pointing out they would need to be bankrolled on something other than ticket income in order to maintain viability, since few players have the capital to bankroll a summer of travel ball without additional income. There are additional questions of insurance, accounting, hotel planning (or perhaps camping is the more likely version of accommodations) and other work that would need to be done in order to keep such organizations playing.

BallParkDigest has provided the list below regarding teams who stand to be affected, as well as the supplementary notes pertaining to additional realignment:

Eastern League (Double-A)
Binghamton Rumble Ponies
Erie SeaWolves

Southern League (Double-A)
Chattanooga Lookouts
Jackson Generals

Florida State League (High-A)
Daytona Tortugas
Florida Fire Frogs

California League (High-A)*
Lancaster JetHawks

Carolina League (High-A)
Frederick Keys

Midwest League (Low-A) @
Beloit Snappers
Burlington Bees
Clinton LumberKings

South Atlantic League (Low-A)
Hagerstown Suns
Lexington Legends
West Virginia Power

New York-Penn League (Short Season A) #
Auburn Doubledays
Batavia Muckdogs
Connecticut Tigers
Lowell Spinners
Mahoning Valley Scrappers
Williamsport Crosscutters
State College Spikes
Staten Island Yankees
Vermont Lake Monsters

Northwest League (Short Season A)
Tri-City Dust Devils
Salem-Keizer Volcanoes

Appalachian League (Rookie) ^
Bluefield Blue Jays
Bristol Pirates
Burlington Royals
Danville Braves
Elizabethton Twins
Greeneville Reds
Johnson City Cardinals
Kingsport Mets
Princeton Rays

Pioneer League (Rookie)
Billings Mustangs
Grand Junction Rockies
Great Falls Voyagers
Idaho Falls Chukars
Missoula PaddleHeads
Ogden Raptors
Orem Owlz
Rocky Mountain Vibes

* Fresno Grizzlies would shift to Cal League from Pacific Coast League, with St. Paul entering PCL. Another current PCL team would shift to Class AA to make room for a new Sugar Land team.

^ Pulaski Yankees would move to Class A; Johnson City had previously been mentioned as a candidate to move to Class A as well, but it’s not clear whether this plan is active.

# Brooklyn Cyclones would move to Eastern League; Hudson Valley Renegades, Tri-City ValleyCats, West Virginia Black Bears and Aberdeen IronBirds would move to Class A.

@ Bowling Green Hot Rods would shift leagues, possibly to Class AA. Beloit’s survival depends on finalizing funding for a new downtown ballpark. If this happens, the Quad Cities River Bandits would be a target.

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