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The Problem With Cutting Minor League Baseball Teams

There’s this old, wonderful baseball field in Williamsport, Penn. Currently known as BB&T Ballpark at Historic Bowman Field, I spent a summer getting to know the place pretty well before a bank, which has since merged with another bank, cut a check to get its name plastered on signage. It was then known as Historic Bowman Field, a ballpark erected in 1926 to give Williamsport’s local New York-Pennsylvania League squad — which has existed for decades — a home.

The tiny city’s first team was known as the Williamsport Grays. Through the weirdness that is Minor League Baseball, where teams hop around in some form or fashion from city to city with different major league affiliates, the club that’s currently planted its roots in Williamsport is the Crosscutters, the short-season single-A squad belonging to the Philadelphia Phillies. Between my sophomore and junior years of college, I found myself desperate for something to do so my resume included more than “he had decent grades, and welp, see ya later.” I lived about 45 minutes away, and the team offered internships in sports, so during the summer months of 2012, I made that drive a few times a week and served as a Gameday Intern.

It was good, unpaid work, an oxymoronic phrase that is eerily familiar, particular for those in my generation. The bleachers needed to be wiped down before every game, the mascot had to be assisted around the stadium, college students and parents who did not know better had to be helped into and out of sumo suits for one of the many in-game promotions, tarps sometimes needed to be put on. The team wasn’t great, the players were a tight-knit bunch, the grounds crew made the diamond look good, and everyone who worked or interned there seemed to enjoy one another.

The Crosscutters are also an important part of the community in Williamsport, a generally baseball-crazed one by nature of being home to the Little League World Series (which, as an aside, rules and you should attend as soon as it is safe). This is why a report by J.J. Cooper of Baseball America on Tuesday stopped me in my tracks: Major League Baseball, in its quest to make The Numbers look a little better, might finally get its wish and have a handful of minor league squads shut down as part of negotiations toward a new Professional Baseball Agreement. The argument, as MLB makes it, is that despite its 17th consecutive year of increased revenue in 2019 — a cool $10.7 billion — MiLB as it currently exists just costs too dang much.

“From the perspective of MLB clubs, our principal goals are upgrading the minor league facilities that we believe have inadequate standards for potential MLB players, improving the working conditions for MiLB players, including their compensation, improving transportation and hotel accommodations, providing better geographic affiliations between major league clubs and their affiliates, as well as better geographic lineups of leagues to reduce player travel,” MLB deputy commissioner Dan Halem said back in October.

Cooper indicates that MiLB plans to signal its agreement to the measure soon, meaning…

If both sides agree, it would mean as many as 42 current minor league teams would be lopped off by eliminating short-season and Rookie ball. Two independent league teams, the St. Paul Saints and Sugar Land Skeeters, would be added to affiliated ball. The two sides are working on a potential deal to ensure the majority of those 42 markets would have still have baseball with ties to MLB in a system that has long-term viability.

An important thing to stress here is that Minor League Baseball has called these reports “largely inaccurate,” releasing a statement on its official Twitter account that I only saw because it was retweeted by the Crosscutters.

This is not a particularly reassuring development, however, as this has seemingly been on league commissioner Rob Manfred’s list of things to do in an attempt to have any sort of memorial to his time in charge of the league vandalized for the rest of eternity. A potential idea that has been bandied about is a “Dream League,” which would keep teams in these cities but instead use unaffiliated players. Minor League Baseball previously called this a “shell game,” per the New York Times. The Athletic noted that minor league owners disagree with the feasibility of a structure that has franchises exist on their own “vehemently.”

It also hit home because Williamsport was one of the teams on the chopping block back when an initial list was circulated in November. There are 14 teams in the NYPL, nine of them are on that aforementioned list.

When this list was first circulated, Vermont senator and then-presidential candidate Bernie Sanders met with the commissioner and went on a media blitz to put some heat on Manfred — Sanders’ office in Burlington is just down the road from Centennial Field, home to the Vermont Lake Monsters, another team which appears on that aforementioned list of 42 squads.

A Brooklyn native who recalled what it was like to watch his beloved Dodgers pack up their things and head to Los Angeles, Sanders is one of the several members of Congress from both parties who are against minor league contraction. Another member of the Senate, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, previously said “the antitrust exemption for Major League Baseball is at risk if they persist with this misguided, deeply unfortunate plan to cripple minor league baseball for more profits.”

The line from Major League Baseball is that reducing the number of minor league teams is a smart fiscal move, one that helps with Viability and Nimbleness and Flexibility and all the other words that look great on PowerPoints but oftentimes ignore any sort of real-world consequences. But as Sanders mentioned to the Los Angeles Times back in December, Minor League Baseball’s role is important because it is representative of a time when a thing’s value was measured beyond a bottom line.

“Some 30 years ago, I helped bring minor league baseball — it was a double-A team affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds — to Vermont,” Sanders said. “What I saw with my own eyes is what minor league baseball does to a community. It is especially gratifying to see kids go out to the ballgames, families able to afford the relatively low price of tickets, and kids get autographs from the players. There’s just a huge amount of excitement and community spirit.”

Fast forward to Tuesday, when the report dropped that Minor League Baseball, strangled in part by the COVID-19 pandemic that is impacting billions of people worldwide, was finally willing to agree to a reduction in the number of teams. Like all of us, MiLB — which Baseball America reports was ready to engage in “a public relations and political campaign” before everything came to a stop due to the virus — is not afforded the luxury of thinking about the future at the present moment. There is only now, there is only survival, and in its quest to stay afloat in a normally cold, cruel, crushing world that is quite a bit more cold, cruel, and crushing than usual lately, it reportedly plans to relent to what The Numbers indicate is best for Longevity and Feasibility.

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This is not an uncommon thing, mind you. There is assuredly a restaurant, mom and pop store, movie theater, or some other institution near and dear to your heart has closed its doors in the last however many years, leaving you devastated as happy memories rushed back. You were probably in whatever soulless, hyper-corporate thing you settled on going to in a feeble attempt to fill that void while experiencing this. Or think of that website you loved so dearly, for whom The Numbers looked bad, so it shut down, and that person who wrote things in a way you particularly loved is looking into a Patreon while simultaneously considering whether it’s worth ditching journalism altogether to join a PR shop.

The Numbers have their place for informing major decisions, of course. Minor League Baseball’s entire appeal, though, is that it is a reminder of a time where sports were sports, not a vehicle through which you consumed ads while a game is going on in the foreground (that foreground, by the way, is sponsored by Burger King). For families that might not have much, the ones who are damned to a life of struggle due to circumstances outside of their control, taking an extra couple of dollars and buying some $10 tickets to a ballgame — everyone gets a hot dog, mom and dad get a beer — is worth exponentially more than what The Numbers might indicate. There is something particularly cruel about a multi-billion dollar organization like Major League Baseball deciding that people who already don’t have much deserve even less.

Minor League Baseball is one of the few remnants of American society that has survived our collective shift from viewing ourselves as members of communities much larger than ourselves to one of radical individualism. It serves an important function in the world of baseball, yes, but it serves a much more important function in the towns and small cities where 37th round draft picks who hit .187 and get to say they spent a year as a short-season single-A baseball player are propped up as stars — hell, as an intern, I wore a jersey with a name tag during most games, and I vividly remember a child shoving a baseball in my face with a sharpie and asking if I would sign it.

The sport is the country’s pastime, something as deeply ingrained in the American spirit as [insert whatever trivial American thing you’d like to make this simile work right here]. In MiLB, people from every single background are afforded the opportunity to experience a professional sport, or a night to remove themselves from whatever problems they’re dealing with. I think of the families that would come to games in Williamsport, or the elderly folks who have been coming to games at Bowman Field for years, because their parents brought them to games, and that’s just what they do. I didn’t always learn the names, but from June to September, those faces became recognizable, and I like to think they recognized me, too. I think of the children who joyously laughed on Sundays when they got to run the bases, or the smiles on faces during Saturday night’s postgame fireworks show, or the way that people would lose their minds when the team’s mascot, Boomer, acknowledged their existence. I think of the night where a bunch of Little League World Series teams from every corner of the world came and had the time of their lives watching one of the lowest levels of pro baseball that exists in the United States, because it was fun, and they are children, so of course they’re going to have the time of their lives.

These moments do not generate gobs of revenue, but their importance cannot be quantified. Minor League Baseball, at its core, is part of the soul of an increasingly soulless country. Taking that away from 42 communities would be a shame.