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Morning Mound Visit: MLB’s proposal to gut minor leagues more callous than anticipated

Sure would be cool if the people who ran major league baseball liked baseball.

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Minor League Baseball: Florida Fire Frogs at Charlotte Stone Crabs Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been coming for a while, but it looks like MLB’s plan to contract 40+ minor league teams will come to fruition. Baseball America reported that in negotiations for the new Professional Baseball Agreement, there would be 120 minor league teams, rookie and short-season Class-A ball would be eliminated, and MLB would take over MiLB’s merchandising, broadcast, and sponsorship rights.

ESPN ran a thorough write-up of where negotiations stand, and the Reader’s Digest version is that MLB isn’t negotiating but laying out a list of demands. One minor league owner said of MLB, “They have all the power, and they’re vindictive.” There’s a lot of appalling stuff in there, but I want to briefly touch on one argument made by an MLB official.

MLB rejects the term “contracted” as it doesn’t control whether the teams stay in business. Teams that lose affiliation will have three options: They can become independent professional teams; they can replace the MiLB players with college amateurs; or they can fold. MLB argues that the teams can still be viable because fans in towns with rookie or short-season Class A baseball go to the ballpark for the experience, not the players.

“Same schedule, same tickets, same age and quality of play,” an MLB official told ESPN. “Literally nothing changes. Instead of low-level minor league players, it’s guys that go to Vanderbilt, etc.”

Nothing changes, this official says. If teams go independent or switch to collegiate summer leagues, there will still be baseball, it just won’t be affiliated. But how long are these new indy leagues and teams going to hang around?

Just speaking anecdotally, my hometown of Chico, CA has had three different independent baseball teams in my lifetime each playing in a unique league. The longest-lived league was the Western Baseball League which operated from 1995-2002.

The other two leagues, the Golden Baseball League and Great West League lasted for five years and four years respectively. The Golden Baseball League merged with two other indy circuits to form the North American League. With the weight of three leagues behind it, the NAL lasted two seasons before folding.

Independent baseball is infamously volatile, and it’s either callous or foolish to think that baseball will survive in all 40+ communities when their team’s affiliation to MLB is severed. In the word’s of anonymous minor league owner, “The people at MLB who say that just don’t know what they’re talking about... The commissioner’s office either doesn’t understand or is trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes.”

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