BY DENNIS RICHARDSON
25 May 2021
ORLANDO, FL – Had Ernest Thayer been seated in the stands at Atrium Health Ballpark in Kannapolis, NC, in early May, he might have considered rewriting his classic Casey at the Bat poem.
He would have seen that indeed there was joy, however muted, among the Kannapolis faithful in watching their heroes strike out, and their Cannon Ballers lose to the Down East Wood Ducks (Kinston, NC). Because for this one day -- Opening Day of the Low-A league season -- the score of the game was secondary. The fans were delighted just to see their players on the field once again, and to hear the crack of the bat and pitches popping into the catcher’s mitt.
After a 19-month, 600-day, coronavirus-induced hiatus that wiped out the 2020 season, Minor League Baseball is back.
Similar scenes played out this month in minor-league towns and cities across the country; in places like Visalia (CA), Fort Myers (FL), Augusta (GA), Asheville (NC), Davenport (IA), Biloxi (MS), Chattanooga (TN), Erie (PA), Springfield (MO), Tulsa (OK), Las Vegas (NV), El Paso (TX), Omaha (NE), Buffalo (NY), Scranton (PA), and Salt Lake (UT). People were thrilled that baseball has returned.
As were the players. “It’s the best feeling in a long time being able to play under the lights again,” Austin Wells, catcher for the Low-A league Tampa Tarpons, told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Welcome back; we missed you.
Fans (and players) will notice, though, that there has been a seismic shift in the minor-league landscape since they’ve been gone, thanks to the coronavirus and big brother Major League Baseball. Some teams – even entire leagues – have gone up in classification. Others have gone down. Some clubs have switched leagues and affiliations. Some longstanding relationships have ended. Forty-three teams have lost their affiliations, and some have simply gone out of business altogether. Leagues have become living sports labs for rule changes that MLB is considering, such as a pitch clock, a ban on defensive shifts by infielders, and a limit to the number of times a pitcher can throw to a base with a runner on.
In addition, traditional league names have been replaced with generics. For instance, several leagues with more than 100 years of history – the International League (founded in 1884), Texas League (1902), South Atlantic League (1904), and Florida State League (1919) – now exist only in the record books. Likewise, the Pacific Coast League and New York-Penn League, both of which began in 1939, and the Midwest League (1947) no longer are in operation. In their place are the Triple-A East and West divisions; Double-A Central, Northeast, and South groupings; High-A East, Central, and West; and the Low-A East, Southeast, and West.
A Bold New Frontier
With all the changes, it’s hard to tell the teams and their status without a scorecard. One day the Fresno (CA) Grizzlies were the Washington Nationals’ Triple-A club and the next day they are the Colorado Rockies’ Low-A league team. The former Low-A Midwest League is now the High-A East, what used to be the High-A Florida State League is now the Low-A Southeast league, and the California League now is the Low-A West.
It’s a bold new frontier in the minors these days, and we’re not talking about the Frontier League.
In some cases, the realignment makes sense. Since 1998 the Iowa Cubs have played in the Pacific Coast League. The team is based in Des Moines, which is a long way from California. This season, the Cubs will compete in the new Triple-A East. Meanwhile, the former independent league St. Paul (MN) Saints, based just 11 miles from the Minnesota’s Target ballpark, have become the Twins’ Triple-A club.
Change is a way of life in the minors; teams commonly switch affiliations as the calendar flips from one year to the next, but never this many at the same time. Jeff Cook, general manager of the Charlotte Stone Crabs, formerly a Tampa Bay Rays farm team in Port Charlotte, FL, summed it up best to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune: “Minor League Baseball as we knew it doesn’t exist anymore.” Sadly, neither do the Stone Crabs.
And, technically, neither does Minor League Baseball. Now it’s called the Professional Development League.
Major League Baseball long has chafed at what it considered the inefficiency of the minor leagues and the cost of employing hundreds of players – many of whom had no real chance of reaching the majors – in order to produce a couple dozen big-league players.
So, when the Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA), which governed the relationship between the minor leagues and Major League Baseball, ended in September, MLB seized upon an opportunity to turn what it considered a muddled, out-of-date system into its version of a more efficient, modern, streamlined and centralized operation.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred’s office took full control of the minors over the winter, and promptly dissolved the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, which had presided over the minor leagues since 1902. Then, with the same ruthless and heartless manner in which 19th century railroad barons drove farmers and settlers off land coveted by the railways, MLB slashed one-quarter of the 163 affiliated minor-league teams, and sent out “invitations” to the 120 clubs (including three Independent League teams) it desired to join the new Professional Development League.
Now, each MLB team has four affiliated minor-league teams, one each at the Triple-A, Double-A, High-A, and Low-A levels, with geographical subdivisions within each league. Plus, each major-league team will field two development teams at each club’s spring training complex in Arizona or Florida, and the Dominican Republic.
What happened to those 43 teams that did not receive a coveted invitation from Major League Baseball? They had three options: become a member of one of the four Partner Leagues, join one of the two summer wood-bat leagues, or fold.
Partner Leagues (PL) are independent from Major League Baseball. While major-league clubs can acquire these players, they will not supply or pay players in the PLs. The independent team rosters consist of players released from MLB teams and their affiliated clubs, and undrafted players. Meanwhile, the two summer wood-bat circuits – the MLB Draft League and the Appalachian League – are showcases for college players looking to improve their chances of being chosen in MLB’s amateur draft. The summer circuits are similar to the popular Cape Cod League.
Longtime Friends Part Ways
A number of longstanding relationships became casualties of the new Professional Development League. The Appalachian League, which dates back to 1911, now is a summer wood-bat league. The Pioneer League, formed in 1939, is one of the four independent circuits (along with the American Association, Atlantic League, and Frontier League).
And, then there are the Burlington (IA) Bees. Founded in 1889, this club has been an affiliate for 15 major-league clubs in its 131 years. Hall of Famers Paul Molitar, Larry Walker, and Billy Williams are among the many stars that have played for the Bees. Today, Burlington finds itself on the outside looking in, relegated to one of the summer wood-bat leagues.
“We are excited to unveil this new model, which not only provides a pipeline to the Majors, but continues the Minor Leagues’ tradition of entertaining millions of families in hundreds of communities,” Commissioner Manfred said when MLB announced the new structure in February, as reported by Jonathan Mayo of mlb.com. “In modernizing our Minor League system, we prioritized the qualities that make the Minor Leagues such an integral part of our game while strengthening how we develop professional athletes on and off the field. We look forward to demonstrating the best of our game throughout local communities….”
Not everyone is so enthusiastic about the new arrangement. What baseball likes to refer to as “restructuring” and “modernizing”, others use darker “downsizing” and “contraction” descriptions. Some congressmen whose districts include communities that lost affiliated clubs have suggested that maybe it’s time for a closer look at Major League Baseball’s anti-trust exemption.
Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator whose home-state Vermont Lake Monsters lost their Class-A affiliation and will play in one of the summer wood-bat leagues,
has been among the most vocal critics. “This is about greed – plain and simple,” he said in February. “Closing down Minor League teams…is a disaster for baseball fans, workers, and communities across the country.”
The congressman has a point. Most of the eliminated affiliated teams were from short-season and rookie leagues in the Appalachians, the Northeast, and the Rockies. Many of those clubs played in small towns, where elimination of professional baseball is particularly devastating.
In those communities, loss of baseball goes beyond players who saw their dreams of a major-league career dashed, and the loss of jobs among the team’s front office personnel, marketing and sales departments, grounds crews, ushers, stadium vendors, security personnel, cashiers, and other workers.
In small towns, a minor-league team is more than a collection of baseball players passing through, hopefully, on their way to bright futures in the game. The team is part of a community’s social fabric. Residents eagerly look forward to those five months of baseball season each year. It is a source of inexpensive family fun, and one of a limited number of entertainment options. Plus, many teams in small towns allow local non-profit groups to help staff concession stands to help generate revenue to fund their activities. Taking all that away leaves a hole in a community.
‘Greed’ Or Redundancy?
But, what Sanders and others view as “greed,” MLB prefers to call a more modern and efficient business model that replaces one it considered haphazard and redundant. (In 1950, there were 58 minor leagues; today there are 11.)
Under the new arrangement, affiliated teams signed Professional Development Licenses (PDL), 10-year contracts with the parent club that replaced the two-year Professional Baseball Agreement. According to Major League Baseball, the PDLs will benefit players by requiring clubs to modernize amenities and facilities, improve player living conditions (such as providing meals for players while at the ballpark), reduce travel (regionalized schedules with no more nine- or 10-hour bus rides to play games, and playing six-game series against an opponent instead of the traditional three games), and increase salaries.
The latter is the most significant. Many players, particularly those in the lower classification levels, actually were making less than minimum wage. Under the new arrangement, MLB says, salaries will increase “from 38 to 72 percent.” The weekly minimum salary for Triple-A players rises from $502 to $700, from $350 to $600 at Double-A, from $290 to $500 at Class A, and from $290 to $400 at rookie level. That’s for approximately five months out of the year; minor-leaguers are not paid during the off-season or Spring Training. (While the raises are a step in the right direction, more needs to be done to address this issue.)
Of course, there is a price to pay for that progress. If a business adds expenditures in one area, it frequently must cut from others. In baseball’s case, part of the price is the elimination of 43 teams. So, good-bye Auburn (NY) Doubledays, Norwich (CT) Sea Unicorns, Clinton (IA) LumberKings, Ogden (UT) Raptors, Missoula (MT) Paddleheads, and Williamsport (PA) Crosscutters. Thanks for playing, and good luck in independent ball or wherever you wind up.
As with most any new arrangement or “restructuring” there are losers and winners.
The 40-plus clubs that saw their affiliations come to an end, such as those Burlington Bees, are among the losers. Aside from being part of a community’s social fabric, a team’s association with one of the 30 MLB teams has financial benefits (the parent club pays the salaries of the players, manager, and coaches), and can provide a boost at the gate (giving fans a chance to see future big-league stars, and MLB players who are going through rehab).
Whoever said life isn’t fair must have been thinking of the Charlotte Stone Crabs. In 2019, the team won the Southern Division title of the High-A Florida State League. But the Stone Crabs didn’t get a chance to play for the championship because the league canceled the playoffs due to Hurricane Dorian. Then the coronavirus wiped out the entire minor leagues’ 2020 season. In December, the Stone Crabs were among the teams that did not receive an invitation to join the new Professional Development League, despite being a spring training facility for the Tampa Rays.
So, in less than 18 months, the Stone Crabs literally went from the penthouse to out-of-the-house. This winter, while his former Florida State League brethren were preparing for their first season in the Low-A circuit, Cook was holding a going-out-of-business sale. (The Florida Fire Frogs were the only other league team to lose its affiliation. That team based in North Port, too, is going out of business.)
“We figured being a spring training facility, our proximity to Tampa (a 90-minute drive away), the fact we have great facilities, the travel’s light – a lot of things MLB was worried about, we crossed those things off. Certainly, we didn’t expect it,” Cook told the Associated Press of the Rays’ choice of Charleston (SC) as the site of their High Class-A club.
The Kane County Cougars feel Cook’s pain. This Illinois team has a history of success; in 2013 it became the first Class-A team to draw 10 million fans. And, despite ranking 37th out of 160 minor-league teams in attendance in 2019, the Cougars lost their working relationship with the Arizona Diamondbacks and will compete in an independent league.
Other clubs retained their affiliations, yet still came out on a short end. For instance, the Fresno Grizzles dropped from Triple-A to Low-A classification, and Triple-A clubs San Antonio Missions and New Orleans Baby Cakes both were demoted to Double-A status.
The National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, which oversaw minor-league baseball for some 118 years, also was among the losers. The organization met an unceremonious end when MLB took over its duties and closed its offices.
The losing side includes the approximately 1,000 players who were on the rosters of those axed clubs. Independent teams will pick up a number of those players, but their road to the major leagues – already a long shot -- just became more difficult.
Then, of course, there are the communities that woke up one cold winter morning and learned that they no longer had a professional baseball club. Baseball is a tough business; one day you’re in, the next day you’re out. These communities lost more than a team; they lost part of their soul.
While the 117 affiliated clubs are big winners, the St. Paul Saints and Sugar Land (TX) Skeeters must feel like they’ve landed a winning lottery ticket. Both teams went from an independent league in 2019 to being Triple-A teams for the Minnesota Twins and Houston Astros, respectively.
The fact that the Saints play in a fairly new (five years old), 7,000-seat ballpark only 11 miles from the Twins’ Target Field certainly factored in its receiving a coveted invitation from MLB. Proximity likely also helped the Skeeters; Sugar Land is just 24 miles from Houston.
The Somerset Patriots (Bridgewater, NJ) are the third team to be promoted from independent league to affiliated status. Somerset, only 44 miles west of New York City, now is a Double-A team of the Yankees.
Players on affiliated teams also received a (small) victory with pay raises that were desperately needed, particularly in the minors’ lower levels. But even with a bump up to $400 a week for rookie-league players, it’s hard to live on that amount.
Major League Baseball, however, may have been the biggest winner, because it got what it’s wanted for decades: a more efficient and centralized system for developing players, over which it has control.
A Brave Front
Many of the formerly affiliated clubs that were cast aside by MLB in the name of efficiency and economics are putting up a brave front, saying that regardless of the league, baseball is still baseball, even if they’re not part of the Professional Development League.
“We’re going to have baseball in Burlington,” said Bees’ general manager Kim Parker. “We are going to continue the tradition of baseball in Burlington and provide fun, affordable family entertainment for people in southeast Iowa and western Illinois.”
But, saying a college wood-bat league is the same as Triple-A because both are baseball is like saying that Community Theatre is the same as Broadway because both involve acting.
As time marches toward summer, players, teams and fans are turning their attention to the new season. Whether it’s affiliated, independent, or summer league, there is baseball to be played once again. And, that is a good thing.
“It’s a lot of fun going out there and being able to watch these guys do what they love doing,” Tampa Tarpons’ manager David Adams told the Chicago Sun-Times. “I think everyone will agree with that.”
Well, maybe not everyone. It would depend on which side of the new Professional Development League a club landed. Teams like the St. Paul Saints and Sugar Land Skeeters are thrilled. But, clubs such as the Charlotte Stone Crabs and Florida Fire Frogs that lost out altogether likely would agree with Thayer when he wrote “there truly is no joy in Mudville” for “mighty Casey has struck out”.
Yes, Minor League Baseball – excuse me, Personal Development League baseball – is back. For many, but not for all.
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.