TCN St. Louis Cardinals 2020 Top Story #5: Minor League Contraction

photo: Williams Rojas

This story is a huge matter if you care about Minor League Baseball as well as the cultivation of future fans for Major League Baseball. Instead, if you are only focused on the majors today, the impact will only be felt in immeasurable ways in the future. Out of sight, out of mind.

The related headlines actually began in the fourth quarter of 2019, started by the excellent and ongoing reporting of Baseball America. That November, the New York Times made the rumor much more real by publishing a tentative list of almost four dozen minor league teams that were on the block to lose their affiliation with Major League Baseball clubs prior to the 2021 season.

This early list included two St. Louis Cardinals affiliates – short-season clubs which ended up being among the final 43 cut, as well. They are the State College Spikes and the Johnson City Cardinals. In fact, their entire respective leagues are gone as we knew them. The short-season Class-A New York-Penn League is no more and the rookie-advanced level Appalachian League lost its professional designation.

In the interim 12 months, old-fashioned backroom horse trading led to some changes in the list that was ultimately made official, but the end result was essentially the same – 43 communities across the country lost their affiliated minor league baseball team.

Received in return was a promise for a place in new amateur college summer leagues, pushed into the space already occupied by other such leagues. Inherent with the change is the shifting of all operational expense to local owners and the player salaries eliminated. It is something rather than nothing for these towns, but a major step downward for the teams and their local fans.

Making matters even worse is that COVID-19 forced the entire 2020 minor league season to be canceled. The force of the pandemic was unknown when the contraction initiative began, but became an unexpected ally of MLB to force its way on the minor league owners, whose collective bargaining posture had been significantly weakened by the loss of their entire 2020 revenue streams.

While saber-rattling opposition to MLB’s initiative popped up both on the local levels and in the halls of Congress, they ultimately had no power to stop the changes – or at least chose not to use it.

Local fans were stripped of their chance to say one last goodbye to their professionally-affiliated teams. For up to 70 Cardinals minor league players, their jobs are being lost. Same for managers, coaches, trainers and strength coaches previously assigned to these clubs. Cardinals player development personnel also took job cuts.

As a local example, fans in Johnson City, whose team first affiliated with the Cardinals in 1938 and has been continuously aligned since 1975, had come out to support their team in ever-growing numbers. In fact, with better management and facility improvements leading to a better fan experience, the JC Cardinals set a new attendance record in each of the club’s final four seasons.

In the end, none of this mattered.

Motivations

The only sure winners are the 30 Major League Baseball teams, who rallied around a proposal first brought forward by the Houston Astros. It was primarily intended to increase efficiency and remove expense, while taking total control over what had been a semi-autonomous – and therefore problematic – Minor League Baseball organization.

MLB clubs believe their minor leaguers are better conditioned, and with modern analytics, they can do a better job of pre-determining which of their young employees have the best chance of one day reaching the big leagues. All of the other players are there to provide full teams to assist the chosen few as they continue to develop. And with more amateur positions being created, those candidates who fall through the cracks can be picked up along the way, goes the logic.

The new structure of the affiliated minor leagues going forward will be four full-season teams per organization (120 total) plus rookie league teams which play in minor league complexes in Arizona, Florida and the Dominican Republic. MiLB headquarters and its mission have been eliminated, rolled into the MLB management structure.

To remain affiliated, each of the 120 surviving teams have to sign a waiver to not sue MLB. They must also commit to facility and operational changes at their own expense. Many teams and their towns are already struggling under debt load assumed to build and/or improve their stadiums.

Long before this idea to contract entire leagues was hatched, separate initiatives had been gaining momentum in both the courts of law and in the court of public opinion to force MLB teams to pay their minor leaguers minimum wage.

For some time, MLB used legislation as their primary weapon to fight back, gaining and strengthening exemptions secured via governmental lobbying efforts. But the handwriting was on the wall that these archaic practices would eventually be struck down. So if players were to be paid more in the future, the way to recoup the expense is to have fewer players.

I want to be clear that MLB did not present their initiatives in this manner. That would have been a PR nightmare. Instead, they chose to cloak their actions as that of a benevolent dictator, concerned only about reducing the long bus rides and poor working conditions experienced by their players (while as noted, pushing the expense for these improvements onto local team owners).

Many of us could see through this façade, however, especially those who had experienced corporate “downsizing”, “right-sizing” and other consultant-generated buzzwords coined to self-justify top-down-driven elimination of expense to improve the corporate bottom line.

The end result

For the Cardinals, the four full season teams remain – the Memphis Redbirds (Triple-A), Springfield Cardinals (Double-A), Peoria Chiefs (High-A) and Palm Beach Cardinals (Class-A). The others are the Gulf Coast League Cardinals and the Dominican Summer League Red and Blue clubs. The Cardinals own outright five of the seven teams, and hold a minority stake in another (Memphis). Only the Chiefs of Peoria have independent ownership.

While there seemed little doubt that MLB and its owners would get their way, it is still sad to see them be so willing to disenfranchise millions of fans of the very game for which they are the ultimate caretakers.

From their end, MLB can and does assert that not a single community is losing baseball. In fact, they disagree with the term “contraction” for that reason. Too bad. It is what it is.

In three to five years, let’s look back and see how many of the 43 teams to have lost their affiliation are able to survive, and the level of erosion of fan support for the ones that can hang on.

The long term loss of growth to the game overall cannot be measured directly – but to assume there will be none is to ignore reality. But this is what happens when decisions are balance sheet-driven.

For those in doubt, please read my case study reviewing what the long slide from Triple-A to a college wood bat league over multiple decades has meant to baseball in Springfield, Illinois.

The Downward Slide Since Springfield, Illinois Lost Affiliated Baseball

Fangraphs is among those who have undertaken serious efforts to define the extent of possible damage to the game’s fan pipeline by the loss of the 43 teams – by trying to quantify those fans being left behind.

Even those who don’t care to read the details, just viewing the graphic should get the message across.

Fangraphs’ conclusion:

“5.2 million people across the U.S. will lose their access to close, in-person baseball. Nearly 23 million people who had minor league access will now have to go elsewhere — to different leagues, different pools of players and, perhaps, different price points…”

Even if you are not directly in these populations, if the future health of the game matters to you, you should care.

Wondering what you can do about it?

For that, I have no answer.


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Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnation.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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