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:
- Baseball America (J.J. Cooper)
- New York Times (Dan Barry)
- NY Daily News (Bill Madden)
- ESPN+ (Keith Law)
- List of at-risk teams (NY Times)
- List of current minor league teams by affiliation (MiLB)
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.