It was all the way back before Christmas that the country became aware of what became known as “the assault on hometown baseball,” or MLB’s proposal to cut 40 teams from the minors. Unthinkable, people said. Baseball is unassailable. Cities will fight this.
Then came COVID-19, freezing everything in its tracks, from the big leagues to the little leagues. And understandably, the public lost sight of the issue. But MLB never did. Now, sources say, that 40-team cut is inevitable.
According to Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper, “The world has changed dramatically over the past six months, especially now that the coronavirus pandemic has halted sports (…and) multiple sources with knowledge of the negotiations say MiLB will indicate that it agrees to 120 affiliated teams in a new Professional Baseball Agreement.”
So what changed the landscape? What else but COVID-19, notes CBS Sports: The coronavirus pandemic has played a part in Minor League Baseball's apparent change of heart, and Cooper notes that now "many MiLB teams are just trying to survive."
For its part, however, MiLB has steadfastly refused to comment. When reports began surfacing of the cuts last week, MiLB noted only, “"Recent articles on the negotiations between MiLB and Major League Baseball (MLB) are largely inaccurate. There have been no agreements on contraction or any other issues. MiLB looks forward to continuing the good faith negotiations with MLB tomorrow as we work toward an agreement that best ensures the future of professional baseball throughout the United States and Canada."
Meetings have continued since that time.
So the question becomes this: which teams are on the chopping block? And there doesn’t appear to be a clear answer now – and likely won’t be until a new PBA is finalized.
Back in the fall, notes Baseball America, there was initially a list of 42 teams MLB proposed for elimination, “and since then there have been verifiable instances of teams moving on or off the running list (to get to MLB's desired 120 affiliated teams, for every team that moves off the list, another has to move on). The reasons for moving on and off the list have differed -- some teams have gotten facility improvements approved, others have demonstrated enough political pull to be given a second look and others simply may have proved to fit better into MLB’s goals for realigning leagues.”
The fate of ball clubs that are potentially on the chopping block weighs heavily on the minds of cities who are already staggering from the blows dealt by a lack of tourism. Last year, when the issue first came to light, officials were livid, particularly in light of the fact that many had 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 didn’t believe they would 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.”
At the time the news broke, 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.”
Five months after the news broke, the sports world has changed dramatically. Cities are engaged in, literally, the fight of their lives. Cutting MiLB teams could wreak even further havoc on 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.