The Final Century of Baseball

How MLB’s plan to dissolve teams and reconstitute the minor leagues could spell doom for the long-term health of the national pastime.

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They played for the Auburn Doubledays, Chattanooga Lookouts, Clinton LumberKings, Daytona Tortugas, Frederick Keys, Lowell Spinners, and Missoula PaddleHeads.

One of the signature elements of Ken Burns’s baseball series is how it sets the tone. At the beginning of several episodes, the narrator speaks the unique monikers of minor league teams in the period covered. As the innings/episodes progress, the team names become less numerous as baseball’s popularity waned and Major League Baseball grew in teams and power. Future episodes/innings of Burns’s series may have none.

Now, MLB is effectively proposing to destroy another 25 percent of all minor league teams. There is no guarantee contraction ends there.

The Background

MLB and Minor League Baseball (MiLB) are two distinct entities that operate together under a contract called the Professional Baseball Agreement. The Agreement expires after the 2020 season. Among other desires, MLB would like to reorganize the minors by ending direct affiliations between major league clubs and 42 minor league teams.

Minor league teams depend on major league clubs to supply players and pay for their labor. The minor league clubs cover expenses like the playing field, travel, equipment, and team employees. The result is that fans across the country can take their families to local baseball games for an affordable amount while seeing potential stars of tomorrow.

MLB’s Poor Justifications

Major League Baseball justifies its position by pointing to:

  1. The wear and tear travel takes on prospects,
  2. The goal to pay affiliated minor league players a higher yearly wage, and
  3. That too many players will never make big league rosters.

These are poor justifications and ignore the long-term harm MLB will do to not only the game, but itself.

Regarding travel, a workable solution is to reorganize the minor leagues geographically. To its credit, MLB is proposing such an option. Some leagues would be realigned, expanded, and shrunk for the sake of geographic concentration.

As for paying the players a liveable wage, MLB is acting as if it is not a multi-billion dollar monopoly in the richest country in the history of the planet.

Currently, many minor leaguers are paid as little as $1,100 per month. That’s less than minimum wage. Hot dog vendors at minor league games are often being paid more money than the players on the field.

Between ticket sales, television contracts, and merchandise purchases, MLB and MiLB have more than enough money to pay their players a better wage. Fans pay to see players’ labor. Sharing the profits of that labor more equitably with the players is the right thing to do.

The road to The Show can be hard and long. Players like Joe Strong, Lee Riley, Bryan LaHair, and Brandon Mann toiled in the minors for years before getting called up. Under the contraction proposal, these and other caliber players would never have the opportunity to eventually make the majors. Keeping the teams means more roster spots and chances for heartwarming stories of perseverance.

Hurting Fans Not Yet Born

Yet the best argument for scrapping this contraction plan has to do with the long-term health of the game. Generations of fans across the country developed their love of baseball not with a big league club. Love was sparked by attending a minor league game.

In wide swaths of America, minor league baseball is the only opportunity for parents to take their children to watch baseball in person. The magical experience of bonding with your parents over hot dogs, bringing a glove to catch foul balls, and viewing the players up close and live inculcates fandom for life. Without this experience, thousands of would-be players and fans might choose other sports or none at all.

Eliminating this chance to spark love of the game just to save a little money in the short-run. It threatens the long-term health of baseball generally and MLB specifically. Baseball must now compete not only with football, basketball, soccer, and hockey, but also a wide variety of entertainment options.

Nostalgia from childhood makes the pull of baseball particularly strong. Parents take their children to games because their parents took them as children to games. By removing 42 teams, hundreds of thousands will lose their chance to hook the next generation. These kids will grow up without that memory, without that love for the game.

MLB Should Abandon Its MiLB Contraction Plan

MLB would benefit from thinking more about the long-term ramifications on itself. Minor league contraction means diminished revenue for MLB in the coming decades. If love of the game is not enough, perhaps the impact on its pocketbook will persuade the MLB to abandon this foolish proposal.

If MLB cannot come to this conclusion itself, presidential hopefuls and politicians have their own plans…

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