Friday, April 24, 2020

America's Vanishing Game

On Tuesday there was an article on Baseball America that stated that Minor League baseball was willing to concede to MLB's proposal to cut the Major League affiliation of 42 current minor league teams, while adding two teams, the St. Paul Saints and Sugar Land Skeeters, to affiliated ball.

There was push back on this immediately, with reporting that no such deal was agreed to at all.  Negotiations are underway as the current agreement between the two parties expires after this season -  a season that seems unlikely to see traditional minor league baseball happen at all.

If you're curious about all the details of this proposal, Baseball America posted an excellent piece last October going into all of the details. I won't go into a huge amount of details, the gist is that many of the facilities of minor league clubs are aging into dangerous obsolescence, with about 1/4 of them at a level that MLB is unacceptable.  To eliminate these parks (and to save money), MLB wants to lower the amount of affiliates it supports.  This would also lower the number of players under contract.

The structure of the Mets farm system as it currently stands, not counting 2 Dominican Summer League teams, consists of  AAA Syracuse, AA Binghamton, High-A St. Lucie, Low-A Columbia, and Rookie Level teams in Brooklyn, Kingsport and at the St. Lucie complex.  Under the proposal, all of the Rookie Level teams except for the one in St. Lucie would be eliminated. Most of these cities would remain in affiliated ball in the shuffle that would ensue.  Binghamton, according to reports I read, could be one of the cities that becomes unaffiliated.

Now MLB is saying that many of the newly unaffiliated cities could become part of what they call a "Dream League".  As explained in the BA article, the "Dream League would be a joint MLB-MiLB venture, but in essence, it would be a quasi-independent league where the clubs would field teams of undrafted players."  I guess the question here would be how much actual support would MLB contribute to these Dream League clubs.

I've lived my whole life in the state of Connecticut, which has a rather rich tradition of minor league baseball.  When I was growing up there were AA teams in West Haven, Waterbury and Bristol/New Britain. I didn't get the chance to go watch these teams play when I was a kid, but that changed in 1994 when the New Haven Ravens started their first season in the AA Eastern League.

The Ravens played in Yale Field. It was a pretty park, but very old, and the seats weren't very roomy or comfortable.  If you're interested there are some nice pics of the park here and here.  I went to quite a few of those games with some friends of mine and always enjoyed them, whether the home team played well or not. There was just something about being at a minor league game on a nice summer evening. We seldom had tickets in advance, we almost always went on week nights when tickets were always available.

For a few dollars you could go to a game, have a couple of beers and something to eat, and watch a good brand of baseball.  I was quite sad when the Ravens were sold and moved to Manchester, New Hampshire following the 2003 season. They tried to replace the team with a team in the independent Can-Am League the following year, but that team disbanded after the 2007 season. Minor League ball has not returned to the New Haven area since.

Another city in my state that experimented with unaffiliated minor league ball was Bridgeport.  Bridgeport built a beautiful 5,500 seat ballpark near the water named The Ballpark at Harbor Yard (see some pics here). There is an adjacent arena that still hosts the Islander's AHL team.  It was a nice park, the seating was fairly comfortable and the sight lines were great.  A cool feature was watching periodic trains go by on the tracks just outside the OF wall.

The team, called the Bluefish, played in the independent Atlantic league for 20 years before the city decided not to renew their lease and convert that beautiful ballpark into a more lucrative concert venue. I went to a number of Bluefish games after the Ravens left New Haven. It was a much longer drive, so I didn't attend as often, but I did enjoy those games.

I've lived in Waterbury for the last few years, a west central Connecticut city that was once a vibrant blue collar factory town but has taken a turn for the worse once most of the jobs left. Waterbury has a great baseball history, with teams in the AA Eastern League for 2 decades from the mid-60s through the mid 80s. Bobby Bonds famously played there when the team was a SF Giants affiliate.

Municipal Stadium, which was built during the depression and still stands, was never a great baseball park, and over the years became pretty run down. They tried putting an independent team team there in the late 90s but it didn't last. As I said, it's not a great park, there isn't a ton of parking, and Waterbury is not a vibrant city. They would have to build a new park with more parking, and that just isn't going to happen here.

My point in the above is that minor league ball is hard. There isn't huge money to be made in the endeavor, and there aren't a lot of small and mid-size cities that can afford to build modern parks or even upgrade existing facilities. In the case of independent teams, there is less money available to run the team, pay the players, and maintain facilities.

Even where I live, with a decent population base and some large cities like New Haven and Bridgeport, independent baseball is a tough go. Bridgeport has a large population, including the surrounding area, and had a gorgeous brand new facility. The Bluefish lasted for a couple of decades, but now they're just a part of history.

So when Major League Baseball talks about this Dream League, which they promise to support in some unspecified way, I'm curious just how much support they're going to give. They want to end affiliated ball in the 42 places discussed because the facilities aren't adequate, but what's going to happen when there is less money available? I fear, like in New Haven, Bridgeport and Waterbury, independent ball isn't going to make it, and  the folks in these places will lose that thrill of attending a live ballgame.

Minor League Baseball is, unlike the increasingly pricey major league version, still accessible to folks that don't have a ton of disposable income. A parent can still bring their kids to an afternoon or evening game without taking out a bank loan. I argue that Minor League ball is much more of America's game than the Major League version because of affordability and accessibility. I hope that this doesn't get lost in the upcoming reshuffling.

There are two Minor League affiliates left in my state: the weirdly-named Yard Goats in Hartford and the also weirdly-named Sea Unicorns in Norwich. Supposedly Norwich will lose their affiliation in this upcoming changes to affiliated ball.  That would leave Hartford.

Hartford traffic is terrible, and it won't be the most fun drive from where I live for a 7pm game. Still, once life normalizes, I'm going to try to get there more often and support the one affiliated team left in my state. I'm going to try to get to Brooklyn at least once or twice a year to support that team. And even though Syracuse is a 4 hour drive from my house I'm going to try to get out there as long as they're still a Mets farm team.

If you have a chance to support Minor League baseball near where you live, do your best to take advantage of the opportunity. It may not be there forever.

Stay well, everyone. Thanks for stopping by. I'll be back tomorrow.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos

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