The Localist Case for Minor League Baseball

Miami Marlins catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia (39) throws out New York Mets right fielder Curtis Granderson (3) on an infield ground ball during the third inning of a game at Citi Field, Apr 27, 2014 (Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports)
Whatever short-term financial sense it might make for the majors to cut loose some minor-league teams, the costs to the game will eventually be greater.

I   used to be a fan of the catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. There weren’t very many of us.

Saltalamacchia wasn’t very good, but in a way, that was part of the appeal. I liked his story. He was a hardworking kid from Florida who was selected by the Atlanta Braves in the first round of the 2003 draft. Soon after, he suffered a devastating shoulder injury that disrupted his throwing mechanics and threatened to derail his career. He battled back through the minor-league system, and was eventually traded to the Red Sox, with whom he won a world championship in 2013 as the starting catcher. He spent the twilight of his career bouncing around among a few different major league clubs as a rotational player. By 2018, Saltalamacchia was a part-time backstop for the Toledo Mud Hens, the AAA affiliate of the Detroit Tigers. If all good things come to an end, so too do mediocre things — such as Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s career — and when I realized that 2018 would likely be my last chance to watch him play, I bought a streaming package that included all minor-league baseball games.

Men and their heroes.

Paying money to stream the death throes of a washed up catcher’s career in the minor leagues doesn’t make me an expert on minor-league baseball, but it doesn’t not make me one, either. At the very least, it gives me — a devotee of semiprofessional athletics who, in the not-so-distant past, purchased a digital subscription to the since-dissolved Arena Football League — something of a vested interest in the new Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) scheduled to take effect after the 2020 season. The negotiations for the PBA are ongoing between the majors and the minors. They threaten the very existence of Minor League Baseball as we know it.

As part of the ongoing negotiations between Major League Baseball (MLB) and the 170 semi-professional clubs that bargain collectively as Minor League Baseball (MiLB), MLB has proposed severing ties with 42 of its currently incorporated minor-league teams as part of the new PBA. The league argues that in an age of analytics and improved statistical tools, there is less of a need for such a delineated system — particularly at the Single-A level, which partitions into so-called “High-A,” “Class A,” various short-season circuits, and two “rookie ball” leagues — than there was 20 years ago.

The move would be a financial no-brainer for the majors. Many of the teams that it seeks to cut are located in smaller towns and cities, a considerable distance from their competitors and from certain accommodations. Consolidating the “farm system” would increase efficiency for the big-league clubs and would allow for the herd of players to be culled earlier in the process. Also, MLB says, many of the minor-league teams that it intends to discard have stadiums that need significant upgrades to meet league standards. Instead of investing in those upgrades, it might be cheaper for the league to move out of those areas altogether.

As for the small towns and cities whose residents publicly financed the stadiums where these 42 teams once played, could take their children to a cheap ballgame, and have, in some cases, supported their team for more than a century? Tough.

“Are there no workhouses?”

The MLB has an alternative in mind, however, which it calls the “Dream League” idea. If enacted — which is unlikely to happen — it would replace some of the Single-A teams with a league that would serve as a vehicle for undrafted prospects to earn their spot on a minor-league roster. Perhaps, MLB says, some of the displaced teams can try to rebrand themselves as a team in this new experimental league. Kevin Reichard at Ballpark Digest is skeptical of this idea:

No one on either the MLB or MiLB side is taking the Dream League seriously (the running gag both on the MLB and MiLB sides: MLB is dreaming if they expect the proposed league to succeed). A more likely outcome has a set of former MiLB team owners joining together to launch yet more summer-collegiate circuits, which has no burden of payroll and a season concentrated in the best baseball months: late May-early August. Independent baseball with a very slight MLB connection, as opposed to a full affiliation, is not a very compelling economic sell in Vermont or Missoula or Elizabethton, and there’s little financial reward to buying into MLB’s offloaded player development.

Not only might MLB’s hard-nosed stance toward the minors place Major League Baseball’s coveted antitrust exemption in congressional crosshairs — Reichard correctly observes that there is “no downside for a politico on either side of the aisle to decry the loss of grassroots baseball” — it would also alienate key constituencies in smaller metros and more rural areas, where the game has long held a foothold.

MiLB president and CEO Pat O’Conner told The Athletic that he thinks the MLB’s move “is not strictly about facilities and player health and wellness. I think it’s a matter of them wanting to exert more control over the minor leagues.” That might well true, but it elides the cultural divide which the New York Times astutely characterizes as “a clash of cultures . . . between M.L.B.’s analytics-driven league office and a sprawling minor league system.” It is indicative of the broader struggle the MLB faces between the “innovators” — such as commissioner Rob Manfred, who wants to drag the game into the always proverbial, and never well-defined, “future” — and the “sprawling,” often unwieldy, localist heritage of the game of baseball.

That heritage, however, is central to the sport’s popularity. Baseball fandom is, more than any major sport, local. Fans view their teams as extensions of their communities: While online searches for the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons are relatively well-distributed over much of the South and Midwest, online searches for the Atlanta Braves are highly concentrated near Georgia and the Atlanta metro area. Having a robust minor-league presence in small towns and municipal outposts helps to inculcate a loyalty to the sport across the entire country, even in areas that often have little else to root for. Whatever short-term financial sense it might make for MLB to sever its institutional relationship with these 42 clubs, the costs to the game of baseball and the localities that support it will be greater.

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