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MLB could eliminate 42 Minor League Baseball teams

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Last month, we learned that Major League Baseball proposed a radical reorganization of the minor leagues, involving slashing the number of teams by 25 percent — mostly short-season and rookie ball clubs. The New York Times has reported which teams specifically are on the chopping block, 42 in total. [Update: Bill Madden of the New York Daily News reported more details this morning. It is certainly worth a read.]

It isn’t for a lack of interest that MLB wants to hemorrhage MiLB teams. As The Athletic’s Emily Waldon notes, 2019 was the 15th consecutive season in which 40 million-plus fans attended minor league games. 2019 saw an attendance increase of 2.6 percent over the previous year. Waldon also points out that 2019 saw the ninth-highest single-season attendance total in the history of the industry.

MLB’s suggestion to shrink the minor leagues comes on the heels of increased public pressure to improve the pay and conditions of the players. MLB successfully lobbied Congress to amend language in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, classifying players as seasonal workers thus they are no longer entitled to minimum wage and overtime pay, among other protections. As a result, more players have become vocal about the lack of pay and more reporting has been done on the issue, creating a bit of a P.R. problem for the league. Slashing the minor leagues would allow MLB, whose individual teams are responsible for the overhead of their minor league affiliates, to publicly say they improved pay while not actually costing them much money, if any at all. MiLB president Pat O’Conner foreshadowed this nearly two years ago, by the way.

As FiveThirtyEight’s Travis Sawchik mentioned in September, the Astros were trendsetters, reducing their number of affiliates from nine to seven. They were confident in their ability to develop talent with a smaller pool of players but a better development and coaching staff. While many new trends in the sport have been explained with some performance-based reason, it is always about money in the end.

Beyond the very obvious effect of eliminating upwards of 1,000 minor league baseball player positions, scores of related jobs would be eliminated as well, such as those of the minor league front offices, clubhouse personnel, ticket-takers, security, concessions, memorabilia stores, umpires, and many more. Many cities would lose an integral part of their local economies and cultures.

Perhaps most importantly, if the minor leagues were to be shrunk, many fans would lose access to professional baseball. If, for instance, you are a baseball fan who lives in Billings, Montana, the three closest major league teams to you are the Seattle Mariners (west), Colorado Rockies (south), and Minnesota Twins (east). The Mariners are about a 12-hour drive, the Rockies about seven and a half hours, and the Twins about 12 hours. But Billings has a minor league team: the Mustangs, a Pioneer League rookie affiliate of the Reds. Montana has two other minor league teams on the chopping block as well: the Missoula PaddleHeads (Diamondbacks advanced rookie) and the Great Falls Voyagers (White Sox advanced rookie). The minor leagues, for fans in certain areas of the country like Montana, are one of the few local connections to the sport. Eliminating those teams would sever those connections and drastically reduce the chance to create new baseball fans in that region.

Major league attendance is down for myriad reasons: more tanking teams, stagnating wages combined with increased prices, and weather just to name a few. Another big reason is that league ownership has diversified its revenue sources. In layman’s terms: they don’t need fans coming in droves through the turnstiles anymore since they make so much money off of things like TV contracts, MLB Advanced Media, and ancillary business interests like real estate. They don’t care nearly as much about the fan experience these days. If the Braves, for example, barely give a hoot about the fans coming to see their major league team, imagine how little they care about their minor league fans.

Ultimately, this gambit is short-sighted. They’ll get their P.R. win by increasing pay for minor leaguers while drastically reducing its minor league workforce. They may even save money overall. But the ripple effect of slashing 42 minor league teams across the country will stunt the sport’s growth in the long-term. And that’s bad for everyone.

Baseball in Arizona as early as May is pure madness

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UPDATE: Major League Baseball has released the following statement in the wake of Jeff Passan’s ESPN report overnight, discussed in more detail below:

MLB has been actively considering numerous contingency plans that would allow play to commence once the public health situation has improved to the point that it is safe to do so.  While we have discussed the idea of staging games at one location as one potential option, we have not settled on that option or developed a detailed plan.  While we continue to interact regularly with governmental and public health officials, we have not sought or received approval of any plan from federal, state and local officials, or the Players Association.  The health and safety of our employees, players, fans and the public at large are paramount, and we are not ready at this time to endorse any particular format for staging games in light of the rapidly changing public health situation caused by the coronavirus.

9:04 AM: Overnight Jeff Passan on ESPN followed up on the Associated Press’ report of preliminary talks between Major League Baseball and the MLBPA about the potential resumption of the baseball season. The plan, which is nothing short of radical — and nothing short of highly-fraught — would potentially have baseball resume as early as next month. June at the latest.

The talks are highly preliminary at the moment, but Passan describes the following topics that are at least on the table:

  • All 30 teams would play games at stadiums with no fans in the Phoenix area, including at the Diamondbacks’ Chase Field and various spring training facilities;
  • “Players, coaching staffs and other essential personnel would be sequestered at local hotels, where they would live in relative isolation and travel only to and from the stadium;”
  • Teams would carry significantly expanded rosters to (a) allow for players who get sick or who test positive for COVID-19 to be easily replaced; and (b) to allow for ample rest give that games would be played in the triple-digit heat of the Arizona desert;
  • There would be an electronic strike zone to allow the umpires to keep their distance;
  • There would be no mound visits;
  • There would be seven-inning doubleheaders to allow them to schedule as many games as possible;
  • On-field microphones would be used by players, “as an added bonus for TV viewers;”
  • Players and team personnel would sit in the empty stands 6 feet apart instead of in a dugout to ensure proper social distancing.

There’s a lot to chew on there, but I want to hold off a moment on that chewing. I want to resist the urge to do what we usually do when some radical new idea about sports comes up such as a rules change, the implementation of a new technology, divisional realignment or playoff expansion, or something to that effect. I’ll get to that stuff in a moment, but for now I want to take several steps back and leave the specifics of those things aside and ask a question:

What in the hell are we doing here?

Don’t get me wrong: I miss baseball. Everyone misses baseball. Setting aside the financial incentives at play for the moment, MLB exists to put on baseball games and they want baseball games. Players live to play baseball and they want to play. If we could snap our fingers and make that happen, God, it would be wonderful. If we could play baseball or any other pro sport right now, it would definitely be a pick-me-up for a large part of the nation.

This plan, however, is patently absurd. Less in form than in its very conception and existence.

How, in light of all that is going on at the moment, is this at all justifiable?  How is the level of necessary logistical support to pull this off — the transportation, the isolation, and the prioritization of a few thousand baseball people for testing and attendant medical care if someone gets sick — close to rational?

Just yesterday a member of New York’s city council announced that they will be burying the city’s many dead in temporary mass graves in public parks, ten to a row, and that prison inmates will be offered $6/hour to dig the graves. The governor of Illinois said last night that states are bidding against one another to try to obtain desperately needed medical supplies to treat the national surge in the sick and the dying. Is that what everyone is going through right now? No, of course not. Most of us are bored at home. But that — the tens of thousands of dead and counting and the overarching fear and anxiety which is affecting the populace — provides the national backdrop against which these negotiations are occurring. To call it “incongruous” to be talking about a far-sooner-than-expected return of baseball is a monumental understatement.

Yes, sports have, traditionally, served as a rallying point for the nation. But this is not a war. This is not a natural disaster. This is not a situation where our defiant assertion of normality will help pull us through. We do not need a Winston Churchill figure and, in fact, attempting to be a Churchill figure, we have unfortunately learned, is precisely the opposite of sensible. This is not a situation where keeping calm, carrying on, and acting resolute in the face of peril will help us prevail. A viral pandemic is not impressed with our composure, our resolve or our symbolic gestures such as playing baseball in the face of what can only be described as horror. The only thing we can do in the face of this horror is to take sensible precautions. To collectively sacrifice. To collectively appreciate the risks, stay at home, ride it out, and provide every possible bit of support available to the sick, to those who treat the sick, and to the millions of people displaced, economically and psychologically, by the crisis.

There nothing sensible about this nascent plan currently being floated by Major League Baseball, however. And make no mistake: it is being floated. With a purpose.

This report comes two days after President Trump held a conference call with Rob Manfred and all of the other major sports league commissioners in which he expressed his desire for sports to return as soon as possible. It is in his and his administration’s political interests for that to happen. As it would be, to be fair, in the interests of any president. There was a reason FDR pressed baseball to play on as usual during World War II. My political leanings are pretty plain to those who have read this website for any length of time, but I do not begrudge Trump this impulse, in and of itself. As a leader there are very good reasons for him to want the public to be happy and entertained and, as I said, we would all love to be happy and entertained at the moment.

President Trump, however, has been demonstrably shown to have made countless missteps in his handling of the pandemic thus far. Missteps that, in at least one case, appears to be born by personal financial interest. I simply do not trust his judgment in pressing professional sports back into service and I do not trust Rob Manfred to sensibly push back against political pressure urging him to take what would, clearly, be irresponsible steps in order to make baseball happen the way it is being described in Passan’s column.

And it is irresponsible. Let’s just play this out for 30 seconds:

  • Passan describes a scenario in which players would be isolated for more than four months. Are they supposed to not see their families during all that time? How are they supposed to function under that scenario? Even worse, what if their family members get sick? What if one of their parents die? Is their season over or do they stay in Arizona?
  • No quarantine can be perfect, so there’s a non-trivial chance that despite these efforts someone gets sick. Passan mentioned that they would be removed from their teams and put into isolation. That may be fine for a physically fit 24 year-old, but many managers, coaches, trainers and clubhouse attendants are older and, as such, at far greater risk of complications if they get sick. Some players are too. Adam Duvall is Type 1 diabetic. Kenley Jansen just had heart surgery. Carlos Carrasco and Trey Mancini are cancer patients. What about them?
  • If players are quarantined in hotels or resorts, there are hundreds if not thousands of people cooking for them, cleaning for them, doing the laundry and stuff like that. They all have to be isolated too, no? Just as a virus propagates itself exponentially, so to does the support necessary to put on Major League Baseball games, even in these radically different circumstances.

That’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure there are many other things that infectious disease experts and people who are more involved in the details of putting on games under these circumstances could imagine. Yes, I understand that the idea behind flattening the curve and slowing the spread is not to prevent every single person from becoming infected. That’s impossible. But at the same time, Major League Baseball should not be creating conditions under which a highly infectious disease has an entryway into a in environment where 26 guys and a staff x 30 teams all share close quarters as a rule.

That’s especially true when we look at the benefits of all of this. Benefits which, as Passan freely notes in his article, are primary financial. Or, as noted above, may have some broadly inspirational or symbolic significance. And that’s before you start to assess the actual quality and integrity of the baseball which would be played under these extreme circumstances.

Could they figure this all out? Maybe. Will they do it? I don’t know. It might actually happen. Nothing would surprise me at this point. But even attempting it seems profoundly incongruous to what’s happening in the real world. And profoundly misguided.

And one more thing.

To the extent this misguided plan gains traction, it will be because a lot of us — particularly people in my industry, but fans as well — approach this idea solely through the prism of sports. It will be because, when presented with the idea of a 2020 baseball season in the Arizona Bubble League, we spend more time debating electronic umpiring and whether East Coast Bias is the reason the Yankees and Red Sox get more games in air-conditioned Chase Field and that Oakland A’s have to play more games in 105 degree heat at HoHoKam Stadium in Mesa. It will because we thought of all of this as great fun or a cool intellectual and competitive exercise and judged it, as we judge so much else in sports, only on those terms.

We need to think bigger than that. We need to think smarter than that. We need to set aside our laser-focus on sports as the be-all and end-all, set aside our strong and understandable desire to have sports return as soon as possible and treat the current situation with the gravity it deserves.

And this plan ain’t it, jack.