Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 13, 2022

Amid The Doom And Gloom, A Rae Or Two Of Light

There will be fans and pundits who will mark Thursday as a good day for the Great Game.  For the first time since the beginning of December, when MLB commissioner Rob Manfred announced the owners’ lockout of players immediately upon the expiration of the old Collective Bargaining Agreement, representatives of the two sides met to discuss what are euphemistically described as “core economic issues,” a polite and rather legalistic term for “money.” 

The parties talking after six weeks of silence is an extremely low bar for positive news, especially since when the lockout was imposed Manfred characterized it as a step that would “jumpstart the negotiations and get us to an agreement that will allow the season to start on time.”  As jumpstarts go, forty-three days between that pronouncement and the first session on the key issues separating the two sides would indicate a desperate need for a new set of jumper cables.  But then most fans knew at the time that Manfred’s words were more marketing than meaningful, just one more attempt to cast his billionaire employers as the aggrieved parties trying to avoid financial ruin and save the Great Game from the unlimited avarice of the hired help.

If the mere event was a step forward, albeit by a minimal standard, the few details we know about it, coupled with fans’ considerable knowledge about the chasm of differences between the two sides, are together a stark warning that the 2022 MLB season is increasingly unlikely to be business as usual.  Details have been slow to emerge, but reports indicate the owners’ Thursday proposal included a higher minimum salary for players under team control and a larger pool for salaries of Super Two players – a small group who, based on their accumulated service time, wind up eligible for arbitration for four seasons rather than the standard three.  Aside from those salary-related items, the owners offered some tweaks to their proposed draft lottery to discourage teams from tanking, and a plan to give an extra draft pick to teams that play a highly ranked prospect for a full season rather than holding him in the minors to manipulate his service time, but only if that player finishes in the top five of voting for one of the major year-end awards.  Those are hardly bold moves, so it’s not remotely surprising that the choice of words used to describe the players’ reaction leaned heavily toward “unimpressed” and “disappointed.”  

The scheduled date for pitchers and catchers to report to Spring Training is now almost exactly one month away.  While that’s an understandable focus for many fans, it’s not the only deadline the sport is facing.  The international signing period opens this weekend, and although franchises are free to ink minor league contracts and the amount each has available to spend was set by an agreement outside the old CBA, the date is a reminder that arranging work visas and travel for the scores of international major league players who will take part in Spring Training is a time-consuming task, especially in the midst of a pandemic surge.  It’s not one that would normally wait until the day before the deadline to report to camps. 

Of course, the critical date is March 31st, when “play ball” is scheduled to ring out at Opening Day games across the country.  That could still happen even if the start of Spring Training is delayed, but the amount of leeway is not great.  To avoid daily injury reports taking up more space in the sports pages than box scores, at least where sports pages still exist, players need at least three weeks of organized preparation.  Add to that the challenges of getting everyone to Florida or Arizona, and the very first days of March look like the point of no return for an on-time start to the regular season.  Even that may be optimistic, since it doesn’t consider the time teams need to set budgets, work through arbitration hearings with eligible players, and sign free agents.  Despite the flurry of high-profile signings just before the old CBA expired, there are still many prominent free agents in a market that has been frozen since December 1.  And for every Kershaw, Bryant, Freeman or Correa, there are many more lesser-known names who don’t yet know where they will be playing.

If all that isn’t sufficiently depressing, should MLB find itself facing a lockout-shortened regular season, the terms of that campaign will in turn be subject to negotiation, and fans surely remember how well similar talks went when baseball shut down at the onset of COVID-19 in 2020.  Perhaps then, it’s a good time to remember that while MLB is the pinnacle of the sport, it is not the entirety of the Great Game.  From Little League fields in communities throughout the land all the way up to the minor leagues, the return of baseball is not far away.  And this week, if one could look away from the stagnate CBA negotiations, minor league baseball gave fans two outstanding stories.

One was in Iowa, where Michael Gartner, the longtime owner of the Iowa Cubs, closed on the sale of the AAA affiliate of the National League team with the same name to Diamond Baseball Holdings, part of a global entertainment company that has recently purchased nine minor league clubs, including two affiliates of the Yankees and all four teams in the farm system of world champion Atlanta.  Gartner called a meeting of all twenty-three of his fulltime employees, workers he had already kept on at full pay and benefits in 2020, when the entire minor league season was scrubbed, and surprised them all with checks for $2,000 for each year they had worked for the franchise, bonuses ranging from $4,000 to $70,000.  Gartner said that sharing some of the proceeds from his sale of the team was “the right thing to do.”  Whether any of MLB’s owners heard that quote from their MiLb compatriot in Des Moines is unknown.

The second was in Tampa, where Rachel Balkovec was named the 2022 manager of the Yankee’s low-A Tampa Tarpons, thus becoming the first woman manager in affiliated professional baseball history.  Balkovec has been a hitting coach in New York’s minor league system since 2019.  After playing softball in college and getting a master’s in kinesiology, she began working in professional baseball as a strength and conditioning coach in the Cardinals’ farm system.  Named the Appalachian League’s strength coach of the year, she moved on to work for the Astros while also learning Spanish to better communicate with players from Latin America, before heading to the Netherlands for a second master’s, this one in human movement sciences.  Next came the start of her career in pinstripes, where after things settle down following her introductory virtual press conference that was attended by more than a hundred reporters, she will now play a key role in developing the Yankees’ young prospects.

The announcement of Balkovec’s promotion touched off the predictable social media storm of misogynistic complaints.  One can be certain that every single diatribe came from someone who had never before given a stray thought to the qualifications of a manager at the bottom rung of the minor leagues.  They would, however, have fit right in with any of the dozens of major league front office personnel who routinely rejected Balkovec’s resumes when she was first trying to break down the door marked “men only.”  That was until, at her sister’s suggestion, she started sending the exact same resume, but with her first name shortened to Rae. 

Whatever she calls herself, Balkovec’s hiring, about which the Yankees vice president of player development said, “everybody was on board,” was especially welcome this week.  Come what may for the Yankees and twenty-nine other big league franchises, Balkovec’s new responsibilities at New York’s minor league training complex, just a short walk down Dale Mabry Highway from the big club’s Spring Training home, start next month. 

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