Saturday, November 14, 2020

The Ponies Rumble Onward

Somewhat lost among all of the other news from this week's Cohen/Alderson press conference was the news of which four teams would still be New York Mets affiliates going forward. If you missed it, the ones staying on are Syracuse, Binghamton, Brooklyn and St. Lucie. This was especially good news for Binghamton, which earlier this year had been listed as a team likely to lose their affiliation. As I wrote a while back, the Mets relationship with the city in south central New York state stretches back almost 30 years.

The Mets AA franchise had been in Jackson, Mississippi in the Texas League since the mid-70s. In late 1990, the Mets purchased the Williamsport Bills in the Eastern League, then moved the club to Binghamton for the 1992 season. They've been there ever since. Alderson didn't mention what level Binghamton or Brooklyn would be, but the worst-case scenario for Binghamton now would be a drop in level to A ball, which would still be worlds better than being unaffiliated.

The news wasn't as good for Columbia, South Carolina, and Kingsport, Tennessee. Columbia has only been a Mets farm team since 2016, when their affiliate in Savanah, Georgia moved to that city. Columbia is a pretty large city with a population upwards of 130,000. Trivia buffs will note that it's the capital of that state. Columbia built a new stadium for the team, so between the size of the place and the new ballpark, perhaps another team would move an affiliate there. Right now they're in limbo.

Kingsport is a sad story, at least to me. They've been the Mets Rookie League affiliate since 1980, with only a year away in Sarasota, Florida when the ballpark was being renovated in 1983.  Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Kevin Mitchell, José Reyes, David Wright, Seth Lugo and Jeff McNeil are a few of the notable Mets who passed through the Tennessee city on the way to Flushing, Queens.

The entire Appalachian League, in which Kingsport competes, has lost its affiliation and will next exist as a collegiate summer league, where college freshmen and sophomores will attempt to prove they can hit with wooden bats. There will undoubtedly be some good players passing through, but it won't be the same. After spending most of four decades as a Mets affiliate, the people of Kingsport are on their own now. I don't know if some sort of sponsorship would be possible with the new team, but if I ran the Mets I would do something of that sort if it were allowed. There has been such a long connection between the team and the city, it would be a shame just to walk away from it.

Will Savage, a former player in both the affiliated and independent minor leagues, wrote an op-ed in The Athletic this week offering his thoughts on minor league contraction from the standpoint of someone who had some skin in the game. You should check it out, you don't need a subscription to read it. I found the following excerpt particularly moving:

So, where are these towns that will get left behind? Baseball won't be leaving people in Brooklyn, Nashville or Vancouver. It'll be leaving places like Clinton, Iowa; Ogden, Utah; and Great Falls, Mont. It'll be leaving people that powerful decision-makers tend to neglect — people who can't afford to drive all day to spend hundreds of dollars at the nearest MLB ballpark. It'll be leaving people like my former host mom, Carrie.

One of the first nights I stayed with Carrie, I woke up at 3 a.m. when I heard her starting her car in the garage. I wondered why she was going to work so early. That afternoon, we had a game at 2 p.m. As I returned to the dugout following the national anthem, I saw Carrie settling into her usual seat, just above the third base dugout.

"I haven’t missed a game in nine years," she told me later that night. "I had to go to work early to be there by first pitch!"

In the past two years, in addition to losing her job, Carrie has lost her father to cancer and her brother to a heart attack. She sends me a Christmas card each winter, filled with pictures of her family, including on-field pictures of her "host sons," whom she watches play each summer night.

Major League teams will keep building billion-dollar ballparks in major cities, so high rollers can sip champagne and dip fried calamari in sparkling luxury boxes. MLB executives won't rub elbows with somebody like Carrie in those luxury boxes, and you get the feeling they don't often think about people like her.

When those executives talk about "cleaning up some stuff around the edges," they're talking about Carrie — she’s the "stuff around the edges." But Carrie needs baseball now more than ever, just like millions of other Americans across the country. For all these people — the baseball-crazed host moms, the casual fans, the retirees who just want somewhere to be on a summer night — baseball will be the latest source of joy to skip town.

There was a time when baseball was the absolute king of American sports. That's no longer the case, with football and basketball more popular now. One of the things that has sustained baseball for so long has been the connection to all of the small towns and cities where minor league baseball is the only game in town, and folks like Carrie developed a deep connection with young ballplayers with a thought that some of them would show up on their televisions in major league uniforms at some point in the future.

It's a pain in the ass for me to make it to a Mets game. From the time I leave my house for the 45 minute drive to the train station in Fairfield, CT, to the time I roll back into my driveway, it's usually about 10 or 11 hours later. Still, it's doable, and I'll likely be doing it again in 2021. For people in small cities and towns located far from any major league park, that's not doable. Their real connection to Major League Baseball truly is watching the young future Major Leaguers who pass through play in their local minor league ballpark. Breaking that connection is another nail in the coffin of Baseball's former status as America's pastime.

Look, I understand that the staffing so many affiliates was, in many ways, an inefficient way to develop players. The vast majority of the players in the lower levels of the minors weren't going any further up the chain. When I was doing some research on Kingsport for this post, I was clicking through the year by year rosters on BaseballCube.com. I follow the Mets prospects, and I still only recognized a few names here and there. Eliminating a couple of teams probably makes the whole operation more efficient. While there will be fewer playing opportunities, I can see teams doing things like having more players in the complex, doing the type of work they had to do this year, thanks to the virus.

If a prospect at one of your affiliates is really struggling, I could see them bringing him back in for extended work rather than just leaving him to sink or swim. Perhaps some players rotate between the complex and A-ball squads. No doubt teams like the Mets can make the new system work to their advantage. Hopefully it might even result in better pay and working conditions for minor league ballplayers, although that remains to be seen. 

According to what I've been reading, teams will be limited to 150 minor leaguers on their rosters in the states, not counting players in facilities outside of the country such as the Dominican Republic, where the Mets maintain a complex. Presumably there will be more players available to play in Independent Leagues but, as Will Savage points out in his op-ed, a lot of players just won't make that choice to keep their slim baseball hopes alive. For those that do, making any sort of viable living and playing in decent facilities is going to be dependent on how much support Major League Baseball actually comes through with.

I'm sure that the people that run MLB and it's baseball clubs aren't really worried about what happens to places like Norwich, CT, that invested a lot of money into a beautiful new facility a few years ago, only to be facing a stark reality of trying to make a go in unaffiliated ball. I wrote about how difficult that is in my area a while back. The most likely resolution, quite frankly, is that the team fails and the ballpark goes dark except for occasional local high school and college games. Savage actually played a couple of seasons in Norwich and praises what a marvelous facility it is, so no one can pretend this has anything to do with upgrading playing conditions.

I'm not sure what the playing conditions are wherever Savage's "baseball mom" Carrie lives, but I understand very well that life for her and other folks who live in small towns being abandoned by MLB will be less satisfying without the presence of the game they once cared deeply about that couldn't be bothered to return that loyalty. If I owned a MLB ballclub, at the very least I'd be investigating ways to invest a few sponsorship dollars into these newly independent minor league cities, to maintain some ties and let them know that they haven't been completely forgotten.

That will do it for me today. Please stay safe, be well and take care. Have a great day.


 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos

5 comments:

  1. Great piece. You really brought home what the minor league game means to so many small towns.

    Binghamton as well just invested a sizable chunk ( 5- 9 million or so) into the stadium. The area is very depressed and the State University, a large Hospital and Baseball are just about the only things the area has.

    Depending on the weather, I try to make the two hour drive from Albany at least once or twice a month My kids love the stadium and the staff does a great job. The good/bad thing is that I am always able to get good seats about a half hour before the game - unless the Yankees AA team is there.

    Looking forward to taking the day off in April for Opening day. Glad they are staying.

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  2. Yeah, as long as the vaccine works as promised I hope to try to make it to Binghamton and Syracuse at least once next summer.

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  3. I've been to both Columbia and Kingsport in 1995 and again in 2019 (I live in Fairfield Co., CT) and the atmosphere in both places is truly "Americana" with Kingsport being a little more rural than Columbia but both servicing their respective communities. It is a crying shame, and short-sighted on the part of major league baseball, to take away an important piece of both of those fan bases.

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  4. It is great news that the Mets will be back in Binghamton. I live in the Binghamton suburbs less than 15 miles from the stadium. Unfortunately, with a lot of other things going on, I haven't been to as many games recently as I'd like - a lot more in the early days of the B-Mets. I am definitely going to try to make more this year, assuming there will be fans. And unfortunately, social distancing is generally not an issue at that stadium anyway. If you guys are thinking of coming in for a game, let me know in the daily news post and I'll meet you there! I always like to put faces to names.

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