Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 2, 2020

The Immeasurable Cost Of A Lost Season

We will always remember this as the year of such great loss. Lives of course, in numbers that cannot yet be fully counted; a statistic made more tragic by the knowledge that an unnecessary portion of the eventual grim total will be directly attributable to hubris. Jobs and businesses by the millions, many of which will not return for months or even years. So much loss already, and so much more to come.

It is no surprise that in such a dark year the first-ever cancellation of the minor league baseball season was second level news. Headlines these days are reserved for tales of large-scale catastrophe, either complete or unfolding, bumping the story of one more aspect of sports wiped out for an entire year to what was once called “below the fold,” back when readers’ hands became smudged with newsprint every morning. But for thousands who scratch out a living at the Great Game’s second level, and for millions of fans to whom it is a welcome summertime diversion, the loss of minor league ball is calamitous.

The announcement came on the final day of June, in any other year a date by which all 160 minor league teams affiliated with big league clubs would have been in action. But the official word was like a late arriving medical examiner at the scene of a murder – necessary for the record but merely stating the obvious. The absolute requirement for a baseball game, from a sandlot in Sandusky to the big Stadium in the Bronx, is baseball players, and the minor leagues had none. Under the contract between Major League Baseball and the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the umbrella organization representing all the MLB-affiliated minor league franchises, big league teams provide and pay for the rosters while minor league owners absorb all other costs. Once MLB told MiLB that because of the pandemic no players would be assigned to the various levels and teams of the minor league structure, and that instead major league teams would carry the equivalent of a taxi squad of reserve players for the shortened 2020 season, minor league baseball was done.

Even if the teams had been able to fill roster spots, the realities of the pandemic would have rendered play impossible. Most of the country is still weeks or months away from being able to sanely consider large group gatherings, and unlike their big league brethren, attendance is crucial for the bottom line of minor league clubs. There are no massive media contracts for the Bees in Burlington Iowa or the Barons in Birmingham Alabama. Fans who open their wallets, first to buy tickets and then to purchase hot dogs and beer and programs and tee shirts are financially every bit as essential as the players on the field. Even the sponsorship sales of advertising placards that occupy seemingly every square foot of the outfield fence at most minor league parks are frequently tied to how many sets of eyes will see them during a season.

While the news is now official the impact is only beginning to be felt. Strapped for cash, many minor league ballclubs had already furloughed employees and, like thousands of other small businesses, scrambled to apply for help through the various relief initiatives passed by Congress. But many of those programs are ending even as the realization that there will be no season at all for these clubs sinks in. Pat O’Connor, MiLB’s president, has predicted that many teams will go under. Some owners may find buyers, though this hardly seems like a time for investing in cash-strapped small businesses. But it’s virtually certain that MLB’s goal of reducing the number of affiliated minor league clubs, an unwavering position during recent negotiations over a new contract with MiLB, will be achieved not through hard bargaining but by the continuing spread of COVID-19.

Along with dramatically reducing the size of the amateur draft, shrinking the minors will save the owners of major league franchises money, but at the cost of both narrowing the path to the big leagues and decreasing opportunities to grow the game. As Kansas City Royals GM Dayton Moore said last month, “The minor league player, the players that you’ll never know about, the players that never get out of rookie ball or High-A, those players have as much impact on the growth of our game as 10-year, 15-year veteran players….because those are the individuals that go back into their communities and teach the game. They work in academies. They’re junior college coaches. They’re college coaches. They’re scouts. They coach in professional baseball. They’re growing the game constantly because they’re so passionate about it.”

Now some of that passion will be directed elsewhere, as will some of the ardor of 40 million fans who normally fill the seats at little ballparks, from the Sea Dogs’ home in the downtown of one Portland to that of the Hops in the suburbs of another. Those fans likely root for one of the thirty major league teams, but most do so without ever setting foot in a big league stadium. For them live baseball is the local squad playing at that minor league park, an affordable and fun night out, be it for a group of buddies or a growing family.

“What’s lost is lost, we can’t regain what went down in the flood.” So Bob Dylan told us very long ago. In this pandemic year today’s loss piles on top of yesterday’s before both must make way for tomorrow’s, a flood of bad news with no crest in sight. For thousands of young players, and some number that are not so young, for hundreds of baseball lifers who manage and coach them, for millions of fans who connect to the Great Game far from the bright lights of the big leagues, the loss of an entire season will be counted in games not played, innings not pitched, and at-bats not taken. But those measures miss the greatest loss of all, that of the hope that is on display every night on these real-life fields of dreams.

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