Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 2, 2020

Tough Times Ahead For Baseball’s Dreamers

Someday – perhaps in a couple months, maybe this fall, or possibly not until next year – but someday, when whatever is going to pass for normalcy has been restored, stadiums and arenas will again be crowded as our games return. If the collective restart of sports happens on the nearer end of that uncertain range, there will be an initial deluge of events, as some professional leagues look to finish off interrupted seasons while others work to fit delayed schedules into a shortened calendar. There will of course be understandable euphoria among fans, a state that will ensure not much attention is paid to the cold reality that just like in the larger economy, the landscape of sports will be forever changed. That grim outcome is likely to be especially true for baseball.

Coverage of the Great Game, as with all our major sports, centers on its highest level, the thirty franchises comprising the National and American Leagues. But for fans who don’t live near a major league stadium, and even for many who do, for more than forty million paying customers a year from east coast to west, a day at the ballpark isn’t about a trip to 161st Street and River Avenue in the Bronx, or the Fenway neighborhood of Boston, or Chavez Ravine. Rather going to a game means visiting little stadiums seating a few thousand folks to watch two of the more than 260 minor league teams around the country do battle. But decisions that were already taking shape before coronavirus swept across America have been both solidified and expanded upon by the pandemic, ensuring that in many communities, live professional baseball is going to be but a memory.

Some minor league franchises, especially in the densely populated northeast, compete in fully independent leagues, but most are members of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the umbrella organization that operates under MLB’s commissioner. While affiliation contracts are often short-term, these clubs are tied to and receive varying levels of financial support from, major league franchises. The current agreement between MLB and the minor league association expires this fall, and when negotiations on a new contract began late last year, major league owners took a hard line.

Most notably, MLB proposed slashing the number of affiliated minor league clubs by forty, leaving the jettisoned franchises to join the previously slender ranks of independent teams. To reduce the workforce to match, MLB also proposed cutting the annual amateur draft from its current forty rounds to twenty-five, or even down to just twenty.

Minor league teams draw fans largely on two factors. One is the offer of inexpensive family entertainment. A trip to a game in many towns and small cities is less expensive than a night out at the multiplex just down the road. The second, and perhaps even more important allure, is the dream that the minor leagues represent. At that level the quality of play is obviously not the most polished, and the players are not instantly recognizable. But every one of them is showcasing both ability and hope in equal measure, and it is the latter that gives the minors their mystique. From the lowest rookie league up to AAA, fans come in part on the chance that they may one day be able to say, “I saw that big league All-Star, or home run king, or Cy Young winner, when he was just a kid working his way to the Show.”

Still, many clubs operate on a tiny margin or at a loss, and without a union minor league players are some of the most poorly paid members of the American workforce. Cutting the connection to big league franchises will undoubtedly spell doom for many of the unlucky teams that lose affiliations and reducing the draft will deny scores of young players the opportunity to pursue their dreams. Along the way a direct local link to the Great Game at its highest level will be lost in cities and towns across the map.

That was the position taken by the minor league clubs that were pushing back hard against MLB’s proposals, and doing so with support from a bipartisan group of more than one hundred members of Congress. Then COVID-19 came to dominate the headlines, and baseball, like all our sports, came to an abrupt halt.

The loss of part or all of the 2020 minor league season because of the pandemic will do to some clubs what MLB was trying to accomplish in the stalled negotiations. Like lots of other thinly capitalized small businesses, there will be minor league baseball franchises unable to weather the coronavirus storm. And while a near-term lifeline has been thrown to current minor league players, in the form of MLB’s decision to pay $400 weekly allowances and continue health benefits until the end of May, the agreement between the commissioner’s office and the major league players union on the eventual resumption of the current season allows MLB to shorten this year’s draft to as few as five rounds and both reduce and defer bonus payments to draftees. A new contract between MLB and the minor league association may be, like so many other things right now, on indefinite hold. But even without a new deal, the contraction of the Great Game at its most accessible level seems certain.

The elimination of some number of minor league franchises will save major league owners money. But the importance of preserving a living connection to professional baseball in as many places as possible is about more than just the bottom line. A sceptic might also ask how many later round draft picks ever get to wear a big league uniform. The answer to that question is a surprisingly large number, as six-time All-Star Paul Goldschmidt (eighth round), two-time NL Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom (ninth round), and most famously, Hall of Famer Mike Piazza (sixty-second round, the 1,390th player taken in the 1988 draft), can all attest. But apparently MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and the owners he represents are happy to promote a “Field of Dreams” game to be played near a certain Iowa cornfield to make money off the emotional hold that baseball has on so many fans, but much less willing to ensure that allure lives on.

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