Yes, they are still playing baseball in places like Trenton, New Jersey and Boise, Idaho and Kane County, Illinois, and throughout my home area of Northeast Tennessee. Fans still go out and root for the home team, and enjoy their nights at the ballpark. But it is not the same.
Why? Because the Commissioner of Baseball, and his band of marauders, took an axe to the minor leagues and re-made them in the name of progress.
If you and I were having a chat, I’d probably say something like “Don’t get me started.” But since I’m the one writing, I warn you I will be venting, so if this might not be your cup of tea, I invite you to look at some of my calmer blogposts, like “Riding With An All-Time Great,” or “Thank You, Whoever You Are.”
I always wanted a career in baseball, and am proud to say that I worked in the game, in various capacities, for more than a decade, starting in 1978. All were in the minor leagues, from the rookie level to Double-A. I tell you this so you know that I am biased – I love how the game is presented in the minors, and I especially love the symbiotic relationship that a minor league team has with its community.
And that is the most important point. Players come and go every year, and fans in minor league towns know this and expect this, yet they still come out and cheer for the kids wearing the uniform, knowing that some of them might only be in town for a brief period. (In 1996, when I was in Durham, NC, Andruw Jones began the year with our Class-A Bulls, went up to Double-A Greenville in mid-season, was promoted to Triple-A Richmond just a month or so later, then wound up playing centerfield for Atlanta in the World Series. Mr. Jones’ suitcase logged some serious miles that year.) But players get the experience of living in a town, hopefully playing in front of good crowds, maybe even getting to know a few of the fans personally.
Some years ago, when Tal Smith was General Manager of the Astros, he lobbied for a change to the minor leagues. He did not see a reason why so many were needed, and wanted to utilize the Florida and Arizona complexes that teams had built for spring training and instructional league and rehabbing injuries. He felt that these facilities were being under-utilized for most of the year, and felt that the rookie leagues could be dropped in favor of “complex baseball.” The idea was not adopted back then, but Mr. Manfred and the current major league club owners decided there was great merit to it, and a couple of years ago swooped in and, using numbers like swords, wiped out a couple of leagues and about forty franchises. And just like that, places like Trenton, New Jersey and Boise, Idaho and Kane County, Illinois, and Northeast Tennessee were no longer a part of the system. They did throw (most of) us a bone, giving us independent leagues composed of players who had been released or who had never signed a professional contract, and wooden-bat college leagues. We are like the not-so-popular cousin who gets a Christmas card but doesn’t get invited to Thanksgiving dinner. To me, we’re on the outside looking in.
So why did they do this? You know the answer as well as I – $MONEY$! Lopping off a couple of affiliates meant that the major league team did not have to pay all those salaries, and insurance, and hotel rooms and meals on the road. Let’s face it – every minor league squad has more than a few players who really have little chance of making it onto an American or National League roster, and the billionaires who own the thirty major league franchises saw an opportunity to save some money.
But there was another reason they were clipping coupons, one that was not talked about very much. Several former minor league players had banded together and launched a class-action lawsuit against their former employers, charging them with violating wage and overtime laws. Despite Congressional passage of the “Save America’s Pastime Act” in 2018, big-league owners still feared they would lose in court, so they negotiated a settlement. Some $185 million would be paid to approximately 24,000 minor league players, and for the first time ever, a Minor League Players Association was established. This new union then negotiated a five-year collective bargaining agreement that substantially increased the salaries of players in the minors. It also capped the number of players a big-league club could have in its farm system at 180, with the strong likelihood that this number will drop even further starting next year.
All those added expenses! My, my, how could the poor billionaires pay for them? Enter Tal Smith’s old idea; exit more than three-dozen franchises. Many of them scrambled to hook up with independent “partner leagues” that are totally outside of the major league sphere, but some were not successful. And our Appalachian League, which first saw the light of day in 1911 and had been a part of the minor league system since 1937 (with the exception of 1956), was turned into a league for fellows who had just graduated from high school or completed their freshmen year of college. Now, I am not dissing college kids, or saying they should not play baseball. I am saying, however, that there is generally a difference in the quality of play between collegiate and professional athletes, even if the athletes are the same age. If you watch even a handful of games at both levels, that ought to be apparent.
Even worse, the majors now own the minors. The agreement they signed a couple of years ago was really an unconditional surrender by the minor league, Appomattox in spikes. Threatened with being totally cast adrift by the Marauders, the little guys had the simple choice of capitulating or losing their livelihood. Despite some early bluster by a few elected officials, Manfred and the owners got their way. If you live in one of the 120 select communities granted the privilege of being a part of the big-league supply chain, don’t be fooled by what it may say in your team’s program: the club isn’t owned by Mr. So-and-So of the XYZ Company, it is owned by the majors.
Maybe this will change over time. Maybe the minor leagues will, somehow, someday, rise up and smite the despots. Or at least bring back some semblance of a partnership. Maybe money won’t be the primary thing driving the owners.
And maybe pigs will fly, and cell phones will disappear forever.