Friday, May 29, 2020

The Red-Headed Stepchild

Since my return to blogging about 2-1/2 months ago, I've written several times about Minor League Baseball. I've speculated on what might be involved in developing prospects when there will likely be no Minor League season at all. I've shared my concerns over the future of the Minor Leagues, and the implications of MLB's plan to eliminate some affiliated cities. I wind up writing about the subject so often because I've come to understand the true importance of Minor League Baseball.

I didn't always feel that way. When I started watching baseball I didn't even know what the Minor Leagues were. I was ten years old, and it didn't even occur to me to question where the players came from before they appeared on my TV screen in New York Mets uniforms. Over a period of time I saw players coming to the Mets from their Triple-A affiliate in Tidewater, and slowly came to an understanding about how players were developed.

At one point in my teens I was so into baseball that I actually subscribed to The Sporting News, which was pretty much the only way to see what was happening down on the farm back in those days. I learned that there was a whole feeder system in places I never heard of, like Marion, Visalia, Wausau, Jackson and Tidewater. The paper might occasionally have a bit of info on a Mets prospect, but mostly they were just a list of names and their corresponding stat lines. No fancy analytics to be found, just old fashioned counting stats that were already a couple of weeks old by the time the magazine was delivered.

During this time period the Mets were desperately bad. I would scour the lines of stats for anyone who showed promise, at least as I understood promise. Look, this guy's batting .350! Why isn't he in New York right now? He has to be a better option than all the guys with .220 averages on the big club. Inevitably, it seemed, each new issue would show less promising numbers for that guy. I would simply jump back on the next prospect hot streak. It wasn't until I was a few years older that I got a clue over what player development really entailed.

As I advanced into my teens, my subscription to The Sporting News lapsed. Girls had replaced the Mets as the thing I spent most of my time thinking about. I still had little idea what Minor League Baseball really was. Despite the fact that there were several Minor League teams within a short drive from were I lived, excursions to ballgames were not something my family did. Even when I got my license and could take myself places, my focus was on going to Major League games, which you could still attend rather inexpensively back then.

It wasn't until I hit my early 30s that Minor League Baseball came into my life. Some old friends and I made a habit of attending New Haven Ravens games at Yale Field. That started a lifelong appreciation of Minor League ball for me. As Major League Baseball has grown more expensive and centered around corporate sponsors and selling luxury boxes, Minor League ball has replaced it as the most accessible way for families and working people to attend ballgames. As MLB's fan base keeps getting older, far more kids attend Minor League games than show up in Major League ballparks.

My friend John from Albany over at Mack's Mets sees Major League Baseball's failure to recognize the importance of minor league ball in attracting kids to the game of baseball as potentially the final nail in the coffin for MLB as a generation of kids look at baseball as a sport for old people. I agree. I foresee a day when it will be easier to get someone under 30 to actually answer a phone call than to drag them into a Major League ballpark. Major League clubs are going to have a tough time selling those luxury boxes when that generation is running corporations.

Baseball was flush with cash before this pandemic hit, but even then the Minor Leagues were treated like a red-headed stepchild by the big clubs. The vast majority of minor leaguers were forced to live on sustenance wages. It really wouldn't have cost the clubs all that much to pay their Minor Leaguers better, make sure they had good food to eat, and contribute to the upkeep and improvements of ballparks that the Major League clubs themselves see as substandard.

If I owned a big league club, I would use all my affiliate teams in their respective cities as a marketing tool to try to lure young fans in those places as fans of baseball and of the big club itself. David Wright grew up a Mets fan in Norfolk, Virginia because that's where the Triple-A club was located for so many years. Now that it's in Syracuse, the Mets have a real chance of trying to build a young fan base in an area that isn't all that far away from New York City.

As for MLB itself, they've done a lot right in enhancing the game in recent years, and the game has prospered. But they are failing in making the game popular with younger generations, and the dependence on Regional Sport Network TV contracts is going to become problematic with generations that don't consume content over cable TV lines any more. The affordability and popularity of affiliated Minor League ball is an opportunity to appeal directly to a generation of kids right where they live, but MLB seems content to watch a called strike 3 just sail by.

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A lot of Minor League players just found themselves out of work. For some of them at least, this is probably the end of the line. With MLB's desire to eliminate some affiliates and leagues, there are going to be fewer jobs to go around in 2021 - and that's if a vaccine is widely available and Minor League ball comes back next April.

I think if there was one thing that I could at least hang some hope on out of fewer teams and players in affiliated Minor League ball, it would be that MLB clubs might pay and treat the remaining players better. Improving their diet and living conditions would be a good place to start. I won't hold my breath, but it seems like something smart clubs would consider.

The system as it stands is remarkably inefficient. Most of the players on minor league rosters have little chance of making it to the bigs. They're the baseball equivalent of red-shirts on Star Trek, essentially cannon fodder - there to fill up rosters and give the relatively low number of true prospects the chance to play at a suitable competitive level.

I hope the fact that so many clubs would be losing their Major League affiliations might cause a rethinking of how to succeed without a Major League affiliation. As I documented here, at least where I live not being affiliated means that you're going to fail. There's not enough income from the turnstiles for teams to be able to put a quality product on the field and then maintain it. I'm not sure if there is an answer, but it probably would come down to how badly a municipality wanted baseball in their city.

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Dodgers pitcher David Price has committed to paying every Minor Leaguer in the Dodgers' system who aren't on the 40-man roster $1,000 for the month of June. It's a cool story, and no doubt Price can afford it, but it also shines a spotlight on some folks worth a lot more than Price who aren't doing didly.

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Joel Sherman is looking for an adult in the room and coming up empty. He believes that, by allowing this to come down to another petty argument about money, baseball is missing a real opportunity to renew its status as the national pastime by coming back when folks are looking for something to distract themselves from the oppressive day-to-day reality of this pandemic. Baseball once did itself a huge favor by the respectful way it returned after the Towers came down.

If talks break down over money, the world will still go on turning, but it's just going to be a black eye for baseball and another reason for the non-diehard fan to turn to other sports. It's hard to watch this play out, kind of like witnessing a terrible accident in progress with no way to prevent it.

I'm out of here for today. Unlike Major League Baseball, I'll be back tomorrow. Until then, please be well and stay safe.


 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos

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