Contraction Comes To The Minors

Change is a-coming. Maybe.

The above map shows the 42 cities MLB is considering to wipe off the face of the earth. That is, if the face of the earth constituted of affliated minor league baseball teams. (Go ahead, take a few minutes to expand the map and study it.) Some people call this a restructuring of the minors. Others call it contraction. I come from the tech world. We call this downsizing.

Read about what’s being proposed:

I’ve been thinking about this for much of the weekend. My initial reaction is to try to preserve professional baseball in all cities and towns that have it regardless of size or affiliation. I do recognize that, historically, baseball has undergone numerous transformations regarding its relationship with its farm system(s) for decades. If you look at the map, you’ll see that California is mostly safe from this downsizing, with the exception of the high-A Lancaster JetHawks, whose current stadium opened in 1996. But if you scratch the surface, you’ll see that the California League has itself undergone a great deal of restructuring, losing teams and changing affiliations at a rapid rate recently. (Remember how the A’s used to have two Cal League affiliates?) The new trends of vertical ownership (MLB teams owning choice affiliates) and minimizing lower level team affiliations is foreboding for cities in the Pioneer and Appalachian Leagues, where the cities are literally several hours from the nearest MLB stadium and long bus rides from each other. Dropping teams is a surefire way to kill baseball fandom in those places, by making it much less accessible to the average fan or family.

The thing is, I see the point of the ruthless efficiency at work here. I live in Scottsdale, within walking distance of the Giants’ Cactus League stadium and training facility. I’m 15 minutes from the A’s in Mesa. I’m practically down the road from Phoenix Muni, where the A’s used to play and ASU’s baseball program now plays its home games after the A’s left for Mesa. I can see baseball for cheap or free nine months a year, without having to pay escalating MLB prices. That is a tremendous gift to me, and an enormous convenience for the 15 teams that have Cactus League facilities. They can do regular spring training, extended spring training, summer league, fall league, and rehab all in one place. Bus rides are mercifully short. Living costs are manageable. That doesn’t mean that minor league ball is obsolete. In fact, MiLB drew over 41 million fans last season, and there continue to be new venues popping up all over the country. Prospects still need to prove themselves at different levels. Yet there is an argument for some sort of consolidation.

That said, looming over all of this is potential backlash. If MLB chooses to cut ties with dozens of cities, good luck trying to get the next smallish municipality to buy into the baseball-as-boon concept. There’s talk of lawsuits. Surely there would be many of those, though MLB’s antitrust protection only extends to major league games and the cities that host MLB teams. It’s not surprising that the idea may have originated with the already-on-the-hot-seat Houston Astros organization. Whether this is merely a trial balloon or the start of a major reform effort, minor league baseball has major issues to address, such as paying a living wage.

As much as I am a fan of an analytically driven approach to baseball, there are limits. Baseball is still a game played by human beings, in communities, not entirely on spreadsheets. Not everything about the sport should be boiled down to being a revenue or cost center, or an investment with an ROI. As we saw during the World Series, there has to be room for drama and feeling. That’s what loving baseball – or any spectator sport – is about. If you suffocate the communities, you kill the game. I hope that the Lodge, in its infinite wisdom, doesn’t forget how important that is.

7 thoughts on “Contraction Comes To The Minors

  1. Two thoughts here.

    The first is that if this goes through, to me it signifies the decline of Baseball as a whole for the US. We’ve seen that with attendance figures, yeah, but if you’re getting rid of entire leagues, that does not bode well for the future.

    The second is that this act would hasten the above. It is making baseball less accessible to areas where they do not have access to pro teams. It brings together small communities, gets them to root for the big league affiliates, and keeps people in the game.

    If milb disappears from these towns and areas, then baseball fandom itself will disappear from them as well.

  2. I just sort of* attended my first Missoula Osprey (now called Paddleheads) game this past August. What a bummer, they have a really cool park overlooking the Clark Fork River.

    *the game got cancelled because Mumford and Sons had a concert there the week before and the outfield was worse than a quagmire. So I just walked around the stadium and then got a refund.

  3. Not sure how this would work with the Cal League, since you can’t play with seven teams. There are no unused stadiums anywhere near as nice in California, and no obvious candidates in OR, AZ, or NV either.

    Lancaster is actually decently sorta-modern, certainly better in terms of revenue than Visalia or Modesto (I’m not sure how San Jose does, as their attendance is solid with high ticket prices, but without luxury seating and with a high cost of living for players and employees). Lancaster is a launching pad because of the altitude, but that’s why the Rockies’ affiliate plays there.

  4. What about the new stadium??? They are falling behind schedule in a big way….why isn’t this site updated more often????

    • The site is on a bit of a break until the draft version of the EIR is released. When that happens we’ll have plenty to discuss.

      • How about the new infrastructure plan that just came out…does that have any effect on the As infrastructure plans….more accommodation for the trucks may impact accommodation for the fans. And how does the enhanced turn basins do they overlap the plans at all…. The terminal is not just waiting for the As

      • If allowed to build at Howard Terminal, the A’s will have to make significant contributions to additional infrastructure. So far they are minimizing that impact which should raise some eyebrows. The Port and City will make the final determination.

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