USA TODAY Sports’ Bob Nightengale breaks down the market for Anthony Rendon and Gerrit Cole. USA TODAY
SAN DIEGO — Underneath impossibly blue December skies, baseball’s lovers and dreamers who comprise the guts of Minor League Baseball have once again assembled for the undercard of the sport’s winter meetings.
Yet a grim undertone has been undeniable through the coffee shops and meeting rooms of the Hilton Bayfront.
It is here that you fall in one of two camps.
A minor-league executive for a team confident in its long-term viability – or one that finds itself on The List: A group of 42 franchises that Major League Baseball has targeted for virtual extinction, by virtue of a new Professional Baseball Agreement that would reduce by nearly 25% the number of affiliated minor-league clubs. Three of the teams are in Pennsylvania, in State College, Erie and Williamsport.
In this case of big bank take little bank, MLB would pay its minor-leaguers more money and ensure them better playing conditions, yet still extract savings by ensuring there are fewer of them.
And in so doing, scrub affiliated baseball from dozens of towns from coast to coast.
So while the major league teams and its stars divide billions of dollars up Harbor Avenue at the Manchester Grand Hyatt, a group of 42 clubs down the street are asking a simple question.
“There’s been a lot of emotions we’ve experienced,” says Ryan Keur, the 31-year-old general manager of the Daytona Tortugas, the Cincinnati Reds’ entry in the Class A Florida State League. “You think a little bit about why Daytona is on the list, especially when you consider all the positives going on in Daytona Beach – typically toward the top end of league attendance, have invested a couple million dollars the last couple years in the facility, and you can’t forget about the history of the ballpark.
“We play at Jackie Robinson Ballpark, which is where Jackie broke the color barrier in 1946. For baseball, which prides itself on diversity and inclusion, to think about removing professional, affiliated minor league baseball from the place where Jackie broke the color barrier, is something tough to swallow.”
Robinson, celebrated every April as a symbol of baseball’s progressive civil rights record, first played against white players in the USA on March 17, 1946, when the Montreal Royals played the parent Brooklyn Dodgers, after racial threats forced Brooklyn GM Branch Rickey to move the Royals’ training camp from Sanford to Daytona Beach.
That history means little now, particularly when Keur’s Tortugas are one of just two FSL teams that don’t play at a spring-training stadium owned or operated by a major league team. Never mind that the Tortugas just set a single-season attendance record of 137,000 and rank third in the FSL in attendance. Or that the team and city each poured in some $2 million to upgrade the playing surface, even as MLB claims sub-standard facilities are a driving force behind its proposed franchise euthanizing.
The State College Spikes can relate.
When Scott Walker was an undergrad at Penn State University, he’d drive by an edifice rising from the central Pennsylvania mud: A ballpark that beginning in 2006 played host to the Spikes, a Class A minor-league team that launched a thousand dreams and many times that many baseball fans.
A $14 million redevelopment grant from the state made the park possible. By 2008, Walker was the club’s general manager.
Now, he finds himself fighting for its survival.
“It really comes down to the community,” says Walker. “If the Spikes weren’t to be part of it anymore, it would be devastating. The whole premise of the ballpark being built was there was going to be a professional franchise playing in that facility.
“You’re talking about ripping a community apart that has $14 million in Pennsylvania state money invested in it.”
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That has not escaped notice of politicians from the state house to those angling for the White House.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf sent a letter to MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and deputy commissioner Dan Halem, urging them to think twice about their proposal.
“Pennsylvania is proud of our place in the history of our country and with baseball,” Wolf said in a statement. “Pennsylvania’s professional baseball affiliates help provide affordable, family-friendly entertainment and improve the quality of life in each of their communities. The MLB’s antitrust exemption and exclusive control of local professional baseball operations unfortunately could make this decision life-or-death for these community teams.
“The MLB needs to do the right thing and recognize the value of these community institutions that have been part of the league’s success. I am hopeful that any decisions made on this proposal will only be made after consulting with local representatives about the effects on the local economies.”
Pennsylvania stands to lose three teams – the Spikes, the Williamsport Crosscutters and the Erie Seawolves. Erie and the state recently committed $12 million of a redevelopment fund to upgrade UPMC Park.
Meanwhile, Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) recently met with MLB to discuss the ramifications of the proposal, inspiring an MLB statement that it “understands that we have an obligation to local communities to ensure that public money spent on Minor League stadiums is done so prudently and for the benefit of all citizens.”
“MLB also must ensure that Minor League players have safe playing facilities suitable for the development of professional baseball players, are not subjected to unreasonable travel demands, are provided with compensation and working conditions appropriate for elite athletes and have a realistic opportunity of making it to the Major Leagues.”
To be fair, there are substandard facilities in the minors. And a 40-round draft (MLB suggests 20) and 160 affiliated clubs probably aren’t all necessary to identify and develop the greatest players to populate a 750-player league.
Counterpoint: Minor League Baseball might be the greatest ambassador for the game, given its access in almost every state, the youth and hunger of the players and the highly affordable ticket prices.
Kill off the Spikes, for instance, and folks in central Pennsylvania would face a four-hour drive in either direction to see the Phillies or Pirates. And the potential baseball deserts are all the more pronounced elsewhere in the country.
Is this the move for a sport with a notoriously aging fan base and increasingly ambivalent ticket-buying public?
“Do you know how many people come to the ballpark and tell me it’s their first time at a game, or their son or daughter’s first time at a game?” says Walker. “Do you know how many sons and daughters I see draped over the shoulders of their mom or dad walking out of the place after a fireworks show?
“You can’t change that. How are these people going to see the game of baseball at a professional level if we’re not around.”
Says the Tortugas’ Keur, whose club is 170 miles from St. Petersburg and 265 miles from Miami: “You think about minor league baseball, we are generating next-generation fans. To be able to provide opportunities for a lot of these communities – we are the only professional sports team in Volusia County (population: 540,000). There’s a sense of pride.
“Ultimately, if facilities need to be upgraded, minor league teams are willing to upgrade to meet the criteria set forth by Major League Baseball.”
And therein lies the great unknown. Manfred is a notoriously tenacious negotiator – he has an unprecedented two-match winning streak in hammering out owner-friendly Collective Bargaining Agreements with the Players’ Association – and sets aggressive starting points.
He will receive pushback from Minor League Baseball, which aims to salvage as many franchises as possible.
“We’re planning to be in Frederick for years to come, and everyone has rallied around us,” says Dave Ziedelis, general manager of the Frederick (Md.) Keys, the lone Carolina League franchise on the proposed chopping block. The franchise has seen $6 million to $7 million in improvements to its 30-year-old stadium in recent years, including a new field surface, lights, locker room space and expanded safety netting for fans.
“Many projects are directly related to the player and the (major league) team. It’s a partnership,” says Ziedelis, whose club has been a Baltimore Orioles affiliate since its 1989 inception.
While the cold shoulder from MLB has been humbling, the involved franchises have felt the love from their communities – and now hope to leverage that into a path to survival.
Walker says his club will soon launch a “Save the Spikes” program to marshal resources and ensure the franchise’s viability.
“It’s galvanized our community,” he says. “The overwhelming outpouring of support from people in our community has been amazing. No. 1, we need them to pack the ballpark next summer. We need to show the baseball world how much Happy Valley and State College loves the Spikes.
“We have to do a few things to appease the new contract.”
The fight for survival hasn’t made fighting off their industry’s existential crisis any easier. More than 41 million people attended minor league games last year, yet the future may offer fewer opportunities for those in the game – and those wanting to break in.
The hundreds of young men and women with “Job Seeker” credentials at these winter meetings may find fewer opportunities than the folks with whom they are interviewing for jobs and internships.
“I do feel like it could hurt based on the amount of teams and jobs that might go away,” says Ryan Milne, 22, a recent sports marketing graduate of Thomas College in Maine, where he pitched and played catcher on the baseball team. “By taking away teams and jobs it’s going to hurt that, I believe.”
That’s a fight that will occur many levels above Milne’s purview. A vast majority of teams polled here believe negotiations on the next PBA will fester long into the new year, making the 2020 season something of an individual referendum on every franchise.
That will cast a certain pall over the 2020 season, as teams aim to, perhaps, play their way off the proverbial bubble. If viability can’t be assured, they’ll aim for solidarity in the meantime.
“It’s a really big focus of Minor League Baseball to stay united as 160 teams,” says Keur. “There’s 41 other teams on that list, and 119 teams besides that that would be affected in some other regard.
“This changes the landscape of professional baseball forever if something like this were to go through.”