You hear the stories and the fables. A pitcher with an amazing arm, a slugger with a keen skill to hit the ball in clutch situations, a speedy runner who can get from first base to second faster than you can say Rickey Henderson. They play in the minor leagues, they ride buses from tiny town to tiny town, they move up to larger towns, and one day they get that big call to “The Show,” that major league team in a major league stadium and a major league salary that goes with hit.
For decades, the minor leagues provided two things – a pipeline for talented baseballers to reach the big time, and an opportunity for small towns and cities to appreciate these stars “before they were famous.”
Unfortunately, it looks as if many of those minor league teams are now on the chopping block.
Major League Baseball is currently re-evaluating its minor league system, and wants to cull nearly 50 franchises – mostly those in the short-season and rookie levels – in a cost-cutting measure. The goal allegedly is to recommend that teams carry fewer players on their payrolls, as well as trim health costs and salaries.
For fans in minor league cities, this is frightening. In Binghamton, New York, for example, they’re losing their AA Eastern League team – the Rumble Ponies – as their parent club, the Mets, will now designate their AA Eastern League affiliate as the Brooklyn Cyclones, who played last year in the short-season A-level New York-Penn League. As for the NY-P League, they may lose as many as eleven of their fourteen teams through contraction, with their other three franchises leaving to move to other MiLB levels.
So what could this mean for municipalities? Well, if the taxpayers helped build brand new stadiums for those teams … there’s no tenant for those teams now. Or tax revenue. Or entertainment revenue.
There is another option for these culled franchises; there is talk of relegating them to a “Dream League,” operating as an independent baseball circuit – where the teams themselves pay salaries and health insurance, rather than receiving that money through their Major League counterparts. The thing is, independent baseball hasn’t really been a “developmental” league, per se – it’s more of a “where do I go when Major League Baseball doesn’t want me but I need to prove I still can draw fans” option.
The New York Times has a list of 42 teams that are scheduled to be removed from MiLB rosters. That list includes the Staten Island Yankees (NY-Penn League), the Chattanooga Lookouts (Southern League) and the Erie (Pa.) SeaWolves (Eastern League). And when some teams are removed from the MiLB framework, others in lower minor leagues are now expected to move up and take their places – which means that the rookie leagues and short-season leagues are essentially toast.
I get it. It’s a cost-cutting measure and it’s designed to improve the quality of play in the low minors and to reduce the number of players on salary and all that. But in all honesty, this rips at the heart of communities who supported these teams for ages. These are the communities who appreciate a good baseball game at a decent price, who can see top talent and say, “I was there when Tim Tebow played for the Binghamton Rumble Ponies.”
Although I have no idea why anybody would admit they saw Tim Tebow play for the Rumble Ponies, but hey …
This culling of minor league teams may also be systemic of a more serious problem in Major League Baseball. Could we be looking at the possibility of financial woes and belt-tightenings in other portions of the pro game? Salaries? Financial extractions for new stadiums? Heck, you’re already hearing that Tampa Bay may play half their games in Montreal in an effort to keep the lights on in their franchise, what’s to stop another hurting team – say, Oakland – from playing half their games in Mexico City to keep the lights on there?
So let’s see where this goes.
It might not be the bottom of the ninth inning … yet.