Major League Baseball has apparently decided that there are 42 too many minor league baseball cities and, according to Commissioner Rob Manfred, after the 2020 season, that will change. There will be a new agreement between the majors and the minors signed and a lot of cities will lose their professional teams.
At a time when baseball is struggling to stay relevant -- losing fans to other sports and trying to attract new followers -- the idea of whacking 42 cities from the professional baseball map seems a little over-the-top and not all that smart.
My wife and I are followers of the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs of the Class AAA International League. The Iron Pigs are in no danger of going away. They regularly are among the minor league attendance leaders, have a state of the art stadium and are a mere car ride away from the parent Philadelphia Phillies. But one of their farm clubs, the Class A Williamsport Crosscutters is, indeed, on the chopping block. Why? Kind of hard to tell.
The Williamsport team is nestled where Little League Baseball has its world headquarters and, each year, the big leagues stage an in-season game there to celebrate the connection. The big leagues like the park (one of the reasons they say that some of the 42 cities must go) but doesn’t like the team being there.
In the late '60s I almost bought a minor league team. It was in that point in my life where I thought a management career in pro baseball might be in the cards for me. I applied for a few minor league general manager jobs (I had experience, already, in college athletics) and had a couple of interviews, and from there I would go on to an 18-year career as a college athletics director and baseball coach.
The team was the Newark (NY) Co-Pilots and I read in The Sporting News that it was for sale. Interested parties were invited to contact owner Mal Fichman. So I did. I had a nice chat with him on the phone and it sounded doable. I contacted a friend of mine, an accountant, and we figured out a way to generate the purchase price. It wasn’t very steep. The idea was that we’d spend the summer in Newark (in New York’s Finger Lakes region). He’d run the business, I’d be the on-field manager (I had just completed my first season as head baseball coach at Ursinus College).
Our wives thought we were nuts but it was a short-season league and they weren’t going to stop us. We supposed we could live there during the season and return home to our real jobs in the fall (mid-August really). Between us we had eight kids so there was a built-in work force as well (selling programs, working the snack bar, and so on).
Things were close to completion when I got a disturbing call from the sports editor of the Newark NY newspaper informing us that the guy who was selling the team didn’t really own it. In fact he worked for the owners as manager/general manager, it was a community group, but he had no rights to the franchise.
The whoosh I heard was the air going right out of the balloon. Fichman, it seemed, had done this before with a few other teams. His nickname in baseball? Malfunction. I met him a few years later at the Baseball Winter Meetings and he said “I figured I could get them to sell if I brought them a viable buyer.” He had one, they didn’t sell. And so ended that dream.
If baseball whacks 42 teams, think of the economic impact on those cities. While I agree that some might warrant closure, but not 42 of them. In rough numbers close to 1,000 players will no longer have a place to craft their profession. A large number of coaches and managers will be out of work, too. But think of the local impact. The part-timers that man the concession stands, the parking lots, work on the grounds crews, sell tickets and toil in the front office. Think of 42 empty ballparks on a summer's eve. Think of the bus drivers that will no longer transport the players, the hotels and motels that will now have empty rooms. The local economy -- restaurants, clothing stores, and the like -- that will lose all those customers.
There are currently 106 members of Congress urging baseball to rethink this massacre of the roots of baseball. Perhaps there are a dozen of those 42 cities that should lose their teams -- bad facilities, lack of fan support -- but there has to be a better way. The deep thinkers in baseball could re-align the leagues so that the cities are closer. Perhaps position farm clubs closer to the big league teams. But just wholesale destruction of long-standing traditions suggest that, as some say, baseball is driven by greed and has lost its understanding where it came from -- and how to strengthen, rather than, diminish its very base.
Pitchers and catchers report in a few weeks. Let’s hope sanity kicks in sometime soon.
Listen to Ted Taylor on WRDV FM (89.3)Tuesdays from 8 AM to Noon and Wednesdays from 10 pm – 1 am or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org