Did the cheating scandal that just cost the manager and general manager of the Houston Astros their jobs wind up saving minor league baseball in Danville, Bristol and lots of other small cities across the country?
The answer here isn’t clear cut — if this were a play during the game, it would have to go to instant replay and would probably be ruled inconclusive. However, there’s some reason to think the answer might well be “yes.”
In any case, minor league baseball fans, in particular, ought to be cheering the abrupt and unceremonious departure of Astros GM Jeff Luhnow. Here’s why:
The particulars of the cheating scandal you can read about in more detail in the sports section. The short version for us is that the Astros were using video technology to steal signs from the other team. Now, baseball teams have been stealing signs for as long as there have been signs — all those fingers flashing and hands moving in strange ways — but the difference is those were done by eyesight alone. Using video cameras and whatnot to do it — that crossed a line. The result: Major League Baseball last week suspended Astros manager A.J. Hinch and the team’s general manager, Luhnow. About an hour later, the team fired both.
So how does that relate to Danville and Bristol and all those other places? Here’s how. Back in November, it was reported that Major League Baseball had floated a plan to cut ties with 42 minor league teams, mostly at the lowest level of the minor league system. The New York Times obtained the list of the 42 teams — they included nine of the 10 teams in the rookie-level Appalachian League. Only Pulaski would remain, presumably promoted to a higher league. But the Danville Braves? Out. The Bristol Pirates? Out. The Bluefield Blue Jays just across the border in West Virginia? Also out. Technically the teams wouldn’t be eliminated; they just wouldn’t be supported by Major League Baseball, although that’s effectively the same thing. It’s the parent clubs that supply the players — and pay them.
Both The New York Times and The New York Daily News reported that Major League Baseball believed it no longer needs the rookie leagues, that there are better ways to develop players. Meanwhile, the players’ union has been pushing for better pay for minor league players, the vast majority of whom aren’t paid millions. The Athletic reports that the average annual salary for players at the Class A level, the level where Salem plays, is $6,000 per year — well below the official poverty line at $12,490. Major League Baseball’s counter-offer to the player demands was simple: Fine, we’ll raise the pay but we’ll eliminate jobs. The current collective bargaining agreement (which expires at the end of this season) guarantees 160 minor league teams; Major League Baseball wants to reduce that to 118 — or at most 120. Accounts vary on how much wiggle room there is. It’s always hard to know what’s truly negotiable and what’s not, but The Daily News said that Major League Baseball had made it clear to the players’ union that “the contraction plan is going through, no matter what.”
Now, here’s where we connect all these dots: The contraction plan was hatched by the now-suspended-and-fired Luhnow. The Daily News reported how the plan originated: “It was Luhnow, the godfather of analytics, and the Astros who first conceived of it, and they were quickly joined by the Brewers and Orioles, whose GMs — David Stearns and Mike Elias — both worked under Luhnow with the Astros. The rest of the teams apparently just said ‘OK’ without any discussion of the ramifications of such as a drastic attack on the minor leagues and all these communities across the country.”
The contraction plan has been so identified with the Houston baseball brass that it was known internally as “The Houston Plan.” For those who follow baseball, this is completely in character with the Astros organization: Under Luhnow, the team has become known for its ruthless adherence to statistical analysis. Baseball has always generated more statistics than other sports, but now teams are relying on data-crunching in a way they never have before — bat speeds, launch angles, spin rates, you name it. Baseball managers now get hired not simply for their gut instincts, but their ability to incorporate data into their on-field decision-making. The Astros, under Luhnow, have taken that to another level — so it makes perfectly good sense to apply the same soulless technology to other decisions as well.
From a sheer business perspective, maybe Major League Baseball does have too many minor league teams — we don’t see minor league systems that extensive in any other sport. Football doesn’t have a minor league system at all (unless you count college football). But baseball has those teams now and getting rid of some of them stirs passions across the country that the number-crunchers in Houston — or New York — can’t possibly understand. For many of these communities, a minor league baseball team isn’t simply a sports team, it’s part of the local quality of life — which means it’s part of that community’s economic development pitch.
Politicians from both parties took the news that Major League Baseball might cut ties with 42 minor league teams very badly. They sent stern letters to Commissioner Rob Manfred. (Among those who did so were Ben Cline, R-Botetourt County; Morgan Griffith, R-Salem; and Denver Riggleman, R-Nelson County). And at least one of them — Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut — threw what amounted to the ultimate brush-back pitch. Blumenthal suggested that if Major League Baseball went forward with its plan, Congress might have to revisit the sports’ exemption from anti-trust laws, an exemption that allows it to operate with more legal latitude than other sports do. Those teams slated for contraction are in 21 states, which account for 42 senators — not a majority but close enough to put things in play. And, gosh, what do you know? A day after Blumenthal said that, Major League Baseball put out a statement saying: “It is not Major League Baseball’s goal to eliminate any club in these negotiations, and MLB currently has a plan for every club to continue operations with some level of support.” Can that be believed? Or is it simply a diversion to make the politicians back off a while? Who knows?
But now we know this much: The architect of that so-called Houston Plan is gone. With any luck, the contraction plan will go with him.