Restructuring the Minor Leagues is Long Overdue

Baseball for me has always been about the stories, and one of the game’s best, archetypal story is the ballplayer out there in some dusty ballpark in some small American town, who gets discovered by some world-weary scout who takes a chance on the kid. The no-bonus baby pushes his way up the minor league ladder until finally, he bursts onto the major league scene in a blaze of glory. That story is so appealing in part because as a fan, I can give myself a little bit of credit for his success: I can say that I was one of the few people in that dusty ballpark, sweating in the heat of a July afternoon, sitting on a warped bleacher, cheering him on before you even heard of him.

Yes, I’m a baseball romantic—after all, I did write Fathers, Sons, & Holy Ghosts: Baseball as a Spiritual Experience, and I can promise you that there is no mention of oWAR on any single page nor even in a footnote. With all that said, I will also say that the proposed contraction of the minor leagues makes complete sense, and is probably long overdue, and for all the reasons already cited in the proposal first revealed in Baseball America.

Take our former hometown team, the Hagerstown Suns of the South Atlantic League. Our first-born daughter’s first game was in Municipal Stadium in Hagerstown, a game which she attended in a stroller. Eventually, she became part of the promotions crew while in high school and even threw out the first pitch one night when the Suns honored her for becoming Williamsport High School’s valedictorian. I love Municipal Stadium and cherish the memories it contains.

Even through rose-colored glasses, however, it is easy to see that Municipal Stadium is a dump.

Lovable, awful Municipal Stadium in Hagerstown. That’s Adley Rutschman at the plate for Delmarva, September, 2019.

The clubhouse is cramped and the field is rough. This past August, we went to a game there to see the Delmarva Shorebirds, and Orioles’ affiliate play the Suns, primarily because we wanted to see first-round draft pick, Adley Rutschman play. The Orioles invested $8 million in this young man only to have him play on a field that was not as good as most of the high school fields in Florida. And what good does it do Adley Rutschman or Casey Mize or Bobby Witt, Jr. to compete against teams that are comprised largely of suspects instead of prospects?

Adjustments to swings and arm slots are now being made—quite successfully—in laboratories. Independent hitting coaches armed with the latest technology certainly improved Justin Turner’s swing, and turned Cody Bellinger from a good player into a Most Valuable Player. Travis Sawchick raises this point in his September 9, 2019 piece for FiveThirtyEight in an article aptly titled, “Do We Even Need the Minor League Baseball?” Time in “the lab” is time away from meaningless games against inferior competition. Interestingly, however, by reducing the number of minor league players, more attention can be given to those players who will remain in a team’s system, resulting not only in more efficient development, and hopefully, an increase in major league-ready talent, but also higher quality of play throughout the remaining minor leagues.

As the original Baseball America story indicates, the money saved by paying fewer players would be used to increase the salaries of minor leaguers. Major league baseball should have addressed this years ago, but it seems MLB is finally realizing that it is being penny-wise and pound-foolish to invest millions in its most valuable commodity, i.e. the players, and then pay them poorly, feed them poorly, and have them play in decrepit ballparks.

The part of the new proposal that deserves far more attention than it has received is the effect it will have on college baseball, particularly the wooden bat summer leagues. I love college summer baseball, having served on the Board of Directors of the New Market Rebels of Virginia’s Valley Baseball League, and webcasted their games for four years. I wrote a book about that, too. (For the record, it is Safe at Home: A Season in the Valley.) There’s no place like Rebel Park to take in a game, unless it’s League Stadium in Huntingburg, Indiana, the home of the Dubois County Bombers. Such leagues abound with “dusty ballparks” in which some discovery may take place. Nevertheless, as much as I love the wooden bat leagues, college summer ball might be an idea whose time has passed. There are now over 60 leagues and the talent is so thin that the rosters on most teams in most leagues feature only the occasional Division I player, a few Division II players, and a great many local Division III and junior college players. The coaching is sometimes suspect and the facilities are often lacking, as is the umpiring. Teams often struggle to find host families to provide room and board for the players who come to play for their town.

Leagues keep proliferating because owners of college summer teams have one great advantage over the owners of minor league teams—their players command no salaries whatsoever, and they are not on the hook for workman’s compensation insurance. In fact, in the vast majority of leagues, the players have to pay to play. Maybe the best of these leagues, such as the Cape Cod League and the Northwoods League (where an expansion franchise will cost you a cool $1 million) will survive or become part of the Dream League, an idea which is also part of the MLB proposal. Rounding up undrafted college players and paying them, however modestly, to play in what would essentially amount to a showcase league makes eminent sense. The competition would be even and a certain coaching standard would be established. This ultimately benefits the players, which in turn, benefits their potential future employers. Critics may deride the Dream League as the Last Chance League, but that sure beats playing in the No Chance League.

And can we all agree that the current practice of holding the draft in June, before the College World Series has barely begun, is ridiculous on its face?

Today’s major league players go about their craft in vastly different ways than did the generations who proceeded them. Conditioning, strength training, diet, skill-drills, and video study have become a staple of the modern players’ training methods, and it only makes sense that Major League Baseball wants to bring such modern methods to its developing players as well. After all, hot dogs, beer, and Marlboros are no longer part of the post-game spread.

The purpose of the minor leagues is not to entertain the citizens of Hagerstown or any other minor league city. It is to develop players into major leaguers. Given the fact that the players represent a team’s greatest asset and, ultimately, its greatest expense, it is only natural that teams want this talent to develop in the most profitable manner possible, which is to say efficiently and quickly. The entertainment provided to us fans of the minor leagues is a by-product of this development. The only surprising thing about this new proposal is that it hasn’t been proposed sooner.

About Austin Gisriel

You know the guy that records a baseball game from the West Coast in July and doesn't watch it until January just to see baseball in the winter? That's me. I'm a writer always in search of a good story, baseball or otherwise.
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7 Responses to Restructuring the Minor Leagues is Long Overdue

  1. Dick Snyder says:

    Once again (sadly) you have hit the nail on the head. I love minor league baseball and I love the Hagerstown Suns! Give me a warm summer night, the smell of the fresh mowed grass and the chatter of the pitchers and scouts around me behind the plate. Farewell another part of Americana!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. leonard4 says:

    I am very, very curious to see what type of structure will be implemented by MLB. (The truth about minor league salaries, of course, is that MLB ould pay everyone in the current system better without too much trouble.) I try not to say that something needs to be done a certain way just because it’s tradition, but I will miss (if this gets done) the chance to go to Hagerstown, or Frederick, or some other park while on vacation somewhere. The “Dream League” sounds interesting, too, but I surely hope that the summer leagues can continue in some form (obviously). Nice piece, Austin.

    Like

    • Thanks, John. It’s been obvious for some time that the college season is out of whack, what with the draft preceding the CWS. Furthermore, it’s one thing for U of Florida to play U of Miami March 1, a differently thing entirely for Michigan to play Minnesota on the same date.

      Like

  3. Al Smith says:

    What’s missing today in MLB is someone like you who actually knows something about baseball.

    Like

  4. Allyn says:

    I’d been wondering what your thoughts on Rob Manfred’s plans for minor league baseball were, and you don’t disappoint.

    Minor League Baseball, in its current structure, isn’t ideal. It’s long overdue for league realignment; the footprint of the South Atlantic League, for instance, is bonkers huge. If MLB started there — “Let’s realign the leagues and see what happens” — I don’t think there would be an issue.

    But when MLB adds, “Let’s close up shop on a quarter of the teams because facilities are substandard, only we won’t tell you why they were substandard or give you the opportunity to bring them up to spec,” that’s both capricious and sudden, and the criticism MLB has received is, at least in part, warranted. MLB may be right that there are too many levels and the lower rungs simply aren’t necessary, but they haven’t made that case yet. Frederick and Erie (which just had player amenities upgrades and investments made the last two years) get folded, while Kinston (ie., Down East), which is old makes the cut. Some of the teams on the chopping block, if facility is really the issue, don’t make a lot of sense.

    There’s a disconnect between the way the general public perceives minor league baseball and the way MLB perceives minor league baseball. To the general public, minor league baseball is local baseball and fun, family entertainment. To MLB, minor league baseball is all about the player development. The percentage of people who attend MiLB games who care about player development is small. The percentage of people in MLB who care about small towns and cities having live baseball is also small. MLB, as the entity that provides the players that makes MiLB possible, has all of the power here; upsetting communities like Frederick or Chattanooga simply isn’t a big deal for them, and losing the PR war doesn’t affect them any.

    I think back to the 80s, when minor league baseball was weirder, when there were truly independent teams in leagues with affiliated teams, when there were co-op teams (with prospects from multiple organizations, including Japanese teams), and personally, I’d like to see some of that weirdness return. I’ve long felt that the affiliated minor league teams should have control over five or six of the roster spots so that they can sign local fan-favorite players who hit their ceiling.

    I don’t really expect MLB to back down in this. They have all of the leverage — the 30 MLB clubs control the players that the 160 MiLB teams depend on, they know that Congress can talk about threatening the anti-trust exception but there’s no political will to actually do that. There may be some tweaks to the teams folded, but that’s about all I see happening. And teams like Frederick and Chattanooga will start their final seasons in the affiliated minors in the spring.

    My hunch is that the Atlantic League will target Frederick for an expansion club to start in 2021, replacing the Sugar Land Skeeters, whom MLB is looking at to move into AAA.

    I have wondered if Hagerstown might be viable for an expansion team in the Valley League, which would bring that league back up to 12 teams, but I don’t really know enough about that.

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    • Hi Allyn,
      The biggest problem with minor league baseball–and it’s creeping into MLB–is the idea that they’re selling an experience, but not the game. I’ve heard MiLB GMs say, “We don’t care if fans know the score of the game, as long as they leave having fun.” The problem with that, of course, is that baseball is a particular kind of fun, and if you don’t promote your main product. All of baseball should look to turn non-fans into casual fans, casual fans into hard-core fans, and hard-core fans into harder-core fans.

      In any case, I am very suspicious of the list of cities that came out, specifically because the two teams you have mentioned, Frederick and Chattanooga seem to be highly unlikely candidates for elimination. Frederick in particular is in an ideal location league-wise, and affiliation-wise.

      Your idea of holding roster spots for local favorites is an interesting one, but not likely to happen, as I’m sure you agree. Who knows? That idea, combined with the Dream League, and the elimination of teams may bring back semi-pro baseball.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments!

      Like

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