Baseball as we know it just got hit by an IED on the road to the ballpark. The IED came in the form of a leaked proposal by Major League Baseball (MLB) that outlined a wholesale excision of the bottom rung of the Minor League Baseball’s (MiLB) farm team program. MLB calls this a contraction. The proposal is designed eliminate 42 teams from the short season Rookie League and Low A league in order to save $20 million annually. Last season, MLB took in $10 billion.
Of course that means that the Appalachian League, a division of Rookie League Baseball, is on the chopping block. All of the teams in the Appy League except Pulaski would be eliminated. Baseball in the Tri-Cities would go away. While there are lots of bloody details to this proposal, let’s stick with the main theme of MLB’s decimation of Minor League Baseball in order to improve profits.
An illustration will help us understand why this MLB proposal is wrong on many levels.
The 2011 St. Louis Cardinals were crowned World Champions after beating the Texas Rangers in the seven-game playoff. On that team were six players, including Yadier Molina, who played here in the Appalachian League before rising to the “Bigs.” (I remember reading in this newspaper that there were eight, but the roster that I checked online was incomplete, so I could only verify six.) My wife, Ann, and I saw them play ball right here at Boyce Cox Field against our (then) Bristol White Sox.
A big part of watching these guys play ball is enjoying the anticipation of catching a glimpse of their future brilliance. Each and every year, sitting in that stadium watching professional baseball on a soft summer night, I pause to soak up all the goodness that goes along with it. Munching popcorn while yelling at the ump for calling that kid out when he clearly beat the throw. Watching a slugger spank that ball over the fence for a two-run walk-off win. Giggling at the kids tripping over themselves chasing that last foul ball. This game, this baseball, is America at its best.
And now, facing the prospect of losing that, I wonder.
I wonder if any of those six men who were on the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals team in 2011 would have made it there without passing through Bristol, Johnson City, Elizabethton or Greeneville. Chances are they would not have.
I wonder if there are baseball fans like me who would have given up on pro baseball because it’s a six-hour drive to Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, D.C. or Atlanta.
I wonder if MLB recognizes the value of cultivating fans as well as players.
I wonder about those of us who really believe that a new stadium or sports complex is a viable proposition for this community to consider.
I wonder if taking baseball away from Smalltown, USA, will keep kids from pursuing the sport outside of Xbox.
It wasn’t fun wondering like that, so I called a couple of friends to hear what they had to say about it. My friend Lee Landers is the retired (two years ago) president of the Appalachian League. He nearly shouted into the phone, “I’m completely bamboozled by all this! What are they thinking?”
Mr. Landers pointed out that there would immediately be several major lawsuits against MLB brought by municipalities that are in the middle of debt structures incurred from bond issues and other financing vehicles funding the construction of stadiums built specifically for their MiLB teams. And that’s just one unintended consequence. He kept repeating, “What are they thinking?” He wondered.
Where Ann and I sit, we are surrounded by professional scouts and pitchers out of their rotation from our team and the opposing teams who are charting the games on clipboards. We always get to know them. Nowhere in professional sports are the players and league staff of the sport more approachable, more affable, more available than Rookie League Baseball. Each new season I let them know that I’m a retired fly fishing guide and if there are any fly fishers on the roster, I’ll take care of them.
And that’s how I met Mike. Mike is a professional scout for a large-market MLB team. I won’t reveal his name because it’s the owners and management of MLB teams who are proposing these changes.
Mike and I are now fishing buddies. So he was the other friend I called. We talked a good while about the proposals. He said that the proposed changes would only produce short-term gains. And he added, “It is not good stewardship of the sport that feeds us.”