Detroit Tigers’ Double-A affiliate praying it won’t go extinct as minor leagues contract

Detroit Free Press

Gabe Lacques

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The final few weeks of the most torturous year in the history of minor league baseball are proving just as gut-wrenching as the 11 months that preceded it.

Waylaid from within by Major League Baseball’s desire to gain total control of player development, and sidelined for all of 2020 by a global pandemic that cancelled its season and forced thousands of layoffs and furloughs, the owners, operators and executives of minor league baseball franchises now can only wait for an answer to a question that has roiled them all since late 2019:

Are you in, or are you out?

That answer resides almost solely with MLB, which used the September expiration of its long-running Professional Baseball Agreement with Minor League Baseball to reassess and ultimately take control of how the minors are run.

The process was kickstarted in October 2020, when a list of 42 teams MLB was targeting for contraction was obtained by Baseball America. While it was certainly just a working list, its revelation spread panic through the industry, with franchises threatened with losing their major league affiliations aiming to spit-shine facilities and put on their best public face for their new overlords, and others looking over their shoulders for fear they would join the damned as the shuffle played out.

It all pointed to an endgame now rapidly approaching: A final list of 140 teams that will retain a Professional Development License and the cachet that comes with an attachment to an MLB franchise.

A full release of affiliated clubs from MLB could come by the end of this month; some franchises have already found out whether they hold a golden ticket, with New York’s Mets and Yankees revealing affiliate changes that came as news to the losing franchises, prompting executives with the Yankees’ Staten Island and Trenton (N.J.) affiliates to lash out at the club for their lack of transparency.

Others have been informed but not publicly revealed, while others still are left in a professional purgatory, hoping that this game of musical chairs ends with them having a place to sit.

“Like all of the other teams and communities,” says Jim Jaworski, general manager of the Florida State League’s Daytona Tortugas, “we are waiting and hoping.”

The Daytona franchise, which was on the original contraction list, is one of dozens with deep ties to the game’s history – it plays its home games at Jackie Robinson Ballpark. That’s the site of Robinson’s first game against white professional players on March 17, 1946, when the Montreal Royals played the parent Brooklyn Dodgers, after racial threats forced Brooklyn GM Branch Rickey to move the Royals’ training camp from Sanford to Daytona Beach.

It is one of many inflection points in a transition that pits baseball’s lifeblood, along with an affordable and widespread access point in dozens of markets without major league franchises, against MLB’s desire for greater efficiency in player development.

“Major League Baseball continues to work with Minor League owners to grow the game by building a new player development model that will better serve fans, players and communities throughout the United States and Canada,” MLB said in a statement, “while preserving baseball in the cities and towns where it is currently being played.”

Doing both will prove challenging. Yet even if MLB reaches its goals in the long term – providing better conditions and pay for its minor leaguers, while maximizing exposure to up-and-coming stars before they reach the big leagues – it won’t come without severing numerous emotional attachments of town to team in the near term.

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Winners and losers

The franchises that ultimately remain affiliated will have survived a highly political process that drew the attention of presidential candidates and state-level lawmakers enraged that millions of dollars from municipalities were or will be funneled toward stadiums that will lose their biggest draw: The chance for fans to see a future major leaguer for the price of a venti frappuchino.

The first rules of engagement involved several factors: Relationship with or proximity to a major league franchise, level of play and geography.

A good number of minor-league clubs are owned by their parent franchises; the Atlanta Braves, for instance, own five of their affiliates and the Los Angeles Dodgers own their Class AAA team in Oklahoma City. Clubs like that were never in danger.

Attrition, instead, started with MLB’s desire to streamline player development. While the 2020 draft was a six-round affair largely because COVID-19 shut down amateur baseball almost entirely, future drafts will almost certainly shrink, likely from 40 to about 20 rounds. And fewer draftees mean fewer minor league affiliates.

Now, rookie-level ball will largely take place at major league teams’ spring training facilities in Arizona and Florida.

With that in mind, say goodbye to the short-season New York-Penn and Appalachian leagues as you knew them. The Appalachian League, MLB announced in September, will become a summer developmental league for collegiate players, in partnership with USA Baseball. The New York-Penn may serve a similar role for rising collegiate seniors, according to Baseball America.

That circuit exemplifies the capricious nature of this process. The Brooklyn and Hudson Valley (N.Y.) franchises will remain affiliated, per the preferences of the Mets and Yankees, and in fact are getting promoted to high Class A, joining a cluster of clubs for a new league in the mid-Atlantic.

Other New York-Penn franchises, from Ohio to Vermont to Pennsylvania and New England, won’t be so lucky. The Lowell (Mass.) Spinners, for one, are slated to lose their affiliation with the Boston Red Sox that dates to 1996.

Another X factor: The elevation of franchises from independent to affiliated ball. The Yankees pivoted from Trenton to the Somerset (N.J.) Patriots, late of the independent Atlantic League. A pair of higher-profile independent clubs, the St. Paul (Minn.) Saints and SugarLand (Texas) Skeeters, are also expected to earn affiliations.

So add at least three more clubs to the extinction list.

Not that those who don’t make it will exit without a fight.

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf sent a letter to MLB commissioner Rob Manfred in December 2019, railing against the possibility that teams in Williamsport, State College and Erie would be cast aside. All have poured municipal funds into stadium upgrades.

In Erie, a $12 million state grant had paved the way for significant upgrades to UPMC Park – an outlay that came before it was revealed the SeaWolves were on the original list of teams slated for contraction.

Now, a club that’s been affiliated with MLB since 1995 and the Class AA home of the Detroit Tigers since 2001 is hopeful it has maneuvered its way off the bubble.

“The SeaWolves have worked closely with the Tigers to understand MLB’s proposed new facility requirements,” SeaWolves president Greg Coleman said in a statement to USA TODAY Sports. “Recent renovations to UPMC Park meet the majority of the requirements.  Additional standards will be met by a clubhouse renovation, which is expected to start soon.  We are confident that these recent and forthcoming enhancements will ensure Erie continues as the Double-A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers.

“Many teams throughout MiLB will need to make significant upgrades to meet the new facility requirements.  We’re fortunate, thanks to support from Gov. Wolf, Erie Events, and our state and local representatives, that we have a head start compared to most teams in meeting the new standards.  We’re also very fortunate to have a supportive partner in the Tigers.  We have a strong, 20-year partnership, and we expect that relationship will continue for years to come.”

One of the Erie upgrades includes air-conditioned batting tunnels, a sign of the times. When the contraction process began, targeted teams were given a somewhat nebulous guideline that “facility upgrades” would largely guide who remained within MLB’s realm. Now, teams have a greater idea the specifics involved in running a minor-league franchise under MLB’s auspices. MLB has enlisted Peter Freund, a minority owner of the Yankees who also owns two minor-league teams, as a liaison between the central office and minor-league franchises.

Last month, clubs received an updated list of facility and operational guidelines they are expected to meet. According to two minor-league executives who have seen the list, they include expanded clubhouses and training facilities, lighting standards and on-site food preparation. Games played on getaway days cannot start after 4 p.m.

And any trips longer than 350 miles will require plane travel, according to the executives, who shared details of the memo on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Minor leaguers should be better taken care of 24 hours a day, and possibly better-paid. Their woefully short salaries – many in Class A make around $1,200 per month in season – have prompted class-action lawsuits and inspired MLB to lobby Congress to avoid having ballplayers classified as employees. Some franchises have taken it upon themselves to pay their own minor-leaguers more.

Meanwhile, enhanced per diems and daily amenities mean a greater burden will fall on affiliated franchises – though it still beats the alternative.

Hard to say goodbye

Beyond the loss of jobs and livelihoods, COVID-19 robbed many contraction-bound franchises of something else: A proper farewell.

From 1986 to 2019, a bevy of cult heroes and All-Stars made their way through Burlington, North Carolina – from Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez and Bartolo Colon through its days as a Cleveland Indians affiliate, to World Series MVP Salvador Perez as a Royals affiliate.

But the Appalachian League franchise was likely never going to escape the loss of affiliation – and then COVID-19 made goodbye all the more abrupt.

“The pandemic obviously couldn’t come at a worse time, for minor league and Major League Baseball,” says new Royals owner Ryan Keur. “It was bloody in this industry. COVID probably accelerated contraction talks and eliminated some of the fight some teams would have had.

“You’re fighting not just contraction but a global pandemic. Trying to survive and advance not just as a major league affiliate, but as a business.”

So Keur decided to steer into the changes. He left his post as team president of the Daytona Tortugas and took over control of the Royals from longtime owner Miles Wolff, a prominent figure in minor league baseball whose ownership of the Durham Bulls in the years before Bull Durham shone a brighter light on the industry.

Keur had a previous stint in Burlington and has seen the industry morph before his eyes.

“As we head down this path of ‘One Baseball,’” he says, referencing MLB’s desire to centralize numerous elements of the sport, “with everything handed down from the commissioner’s office, you sort of see how you fit in the puzzle.”

In Burlington, fans may actually see a larger number of future major leaguers. Yet rather than following them on their path to Kansas City or Cleveland, it will instead be a pitcher from Vanderbilt, a shortstop from UCLA, an outfielder from Florida State calling Carolina his home for a summer.

Keur also envisions greater opportunities to market these players under centralized leadership – such as a league selection show on MLB Network, or playoff games broadcast beyond a cult following watching a live stream.

“You talk about growing the game, we feel the Appalachian League is a perfect opportunity for this,” he says. “How do we grow the player’s brand before he becomes Mike Trout, before he becomes Bryce Harper? You knew Zion Williamson when he was 15 years old.

“We can think differently about how we grow the minors.”

Not without some pain, of course.

The entity of Minor League Baseball hoped to hold strong against MLB and maintain something close to its status quo. Now, there’s an acceptance – grudging or otherwise – that the game will never be the same, for better or worse.

“As 160 teams, there was a clear path to unity. But as the months went on, you could see teams, organizations work a little more in silos,” says Keur. “It really is a shame. Minor league baseball has been decimated here and hopefully can restructure the pieces and continue to provide for our local communities.

“Hopefully, we’ll look back in five years and the 160 communities, thee sport of baseball can continue to grow.”

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