Updated: Apr 19, 2020
A November 4th conference call, initially believed to be Minor League Baseball-wide, capsized the off season focus for Erie SeaWolves President Greg Coleman in an instant.
Yes, Major League Baseball had big plans for the next Professional Baseball Agreement with its Minor League counterparts, but no, no one suspected the proposal would be so drastic. Nor did Coleman have any indication the Double A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers would find a target on their backs.
“Going into that call, I was under the impression that it was a Minor League Baseball-wide call,” Coleman said by phone last week. “We had seen the [Baseball America and New York Times] report prior to that, so we knew that it was going to be addressed, but at the time, we were not aware that it was just a call amongst those teams [on the list].”
Nearly 1,500 miles away in Colorado Springs, team president and general manager Chris Phillips and the staff for the Rocky Mountain Vibes were celebrating a successful inaugural season and total rebrand after moving to the Pioneer League in 2019. Then came the same news that interrupted their preparations for a season in which they’ll play host to the 2020 All Star Game.
“Knowing that the PBA was going to be up for renewal after this season,” Phillips explained, “we’d heard that it wasn’t going to be kind of the easy, roll-over renewal that it normally is, and that Major League Baseball was going to be asking for all these concessions, and facility upgrades. And we’re like, ‘Okay, well, we’ll see what they come up with, and then we’ll deal with it. We’ll figure it out.’”
But, that option wasn’t on the table.
“I’m sure I’m not the only one worried about staff morale and people jumping ship,” Phillips said. “There’s a million different things now to take into consideration, and it kind of paralyzed everybody.”
Like the other MiLB teams that landed on “the list,” Coleman knew of facilities inspections that took place in the 2019 season, as well as a brief survey by MLB organizations ranking their own affiliates on a three-point scale. The results of those inspections, or the criteria of the survey rankings, though, were not revealed to the MiLB teams being graded on a steep and unidentified curve.
“If I had everyone on my staff complete a three-point survey and didn’t give them any criteria for what those points were,” Coleman said, “someone might rate something a ‘B,’ someone else might rate something a ‘C,’ but the person that gave it a ‘C’ might actually think it was higher than the person that gave the ‘B.’”
Meaning, without specifications to coincide with the points on the scale, every response given is relative to the individual thought process of the person responding.
“If teams’ futures are going to hang in the balance, you would certainly want there to be a lot of criteria set in place with a lot of detail to make sure that you truly have your arms around it,” Coleman concluded.
And yet, those unspecified details seemed to play a crucial part in identifying 42 clubs that their parent teams could, essentially, do without. Simple as that.
The Rocky Mountain Vibes were born out of an opportunity to refresh… and understanding of Mother Nature.
“[In] April and May, you cannot play baseball here,” Phillips said. “It is impossible.”
After the 2018 season, the Colorado Springs community said goodbye to the Triple A Sky Sox, in favor of a new, short-season team featuring what Phillips calls “the coolest mascot in the country” — Toasty. The Disney-esque marshmallow man was part of the energetic rebrand that helped Phillips and his staff convince the community to give the Milwaukee Brewers Rookie-advanced team a fair shake.
“It was a huge change with the realignment between leagues and levels, and so there was a lot of confusion in the community about what was going on” Phillips explained. “It took a lot of educating on what this league was all about, what this level was all about. I think once people got out there and word kind of spread, it wound up catching on.”
Plus, with a season that doesn’t start until June, they avoided losing eight or more games to spring weather in the Colorado cold. Just one of the many positives the Vibes found in the change.
So, with the hard part of the rebrand out of the way, Phillips, who spent six years in the front office of the State College Spikes (another team on the proposed contraction list), anticipated a winter full of planning for things like participation in the Copa de la Diversión initiative, as well as the Pioneer League vs. Northwest League All Star Game.
“I’ve done All Star Games before,” he said. “They’re fun. They’re a ton of work, and they’re a bit of a distraction because you want to make it an amazing game and experience for everybody, so it pulls away a little bit from some of the day to day operations for the normal games, but it’ll be great. We’re looking forward to it.”
Though, now, they’re looking forward through the fog of uncertainty.
In Erie, too, the excitement was high heading into the business of winter preparations.
After replacing the entire playing surface — infield, outfield, irrigation, and drainage — as well as installing new video boards that integrate directly with the TrackMan system at the ballpark in 2019, the SeaWolves have plans to continue their facility upgrades with refinished, climate-controlled batting cages, as well as additional safety precautions on and around the outfield walls and railings. Plus, fans will continue to see significant improvements throughout the ballpark, including a new suites and picnic areas, as well as renovated restrooms, a public meeting space, and a new team store.
These changes, Coleman clarified, are above and beyond the requirements given them by their parent club.
“They’re in compliance [now],” he said, “but just because they’re in compliance doesn’t mean we can’t do better.”
The challenge comes when doing better involves trying to hit a moving, invisible target.
“We are 100% in compliance, and we have been given no information whatsoever on what the new standards potentially could be,” he said, echoing what other owners, presidents, and general managers continue to say of MLB’s ineffective communication with its MiLB counterparts. “We even proactively reached out to Minor League Baseball after finding out that we were on the list to say, ‘Hey, are there new standards?’ I think we are in a community that’s very supportive and I think we would be willing to look at any new standards and quickly move to try to meet them. So, to not even have an opportunity to understand why you’re on the list, as you can imagine, that’s pretty frustrating.”
The frustration doesn’t end in the front office — with $12 million granted to the SeaWolves by the state, there are legal ramifications to the potential erasure of the team’s big league affiliation.
“The state grant was specifically done for two reasons — one, to make sure that we would meet Double A standards for the foreseeable future, and two, to eventually host an All Star Game in Erie,” Coleman said.
Erie is one of three Pennsylvania cities grappling with the potential loss of their MLB affiliation (the State College Spikes and the Williamsport Crosscutters also made the list). Consequently, Gov. Tom Wolf and State Rep. Ryan Bizzarro (D-Erie) join the throng of elected officials directly urging Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball to pull back on their contraction plans, in large part, due to the economic influence of these teams on their respective communities.
In addition to the political and financial reach of this proposal, there’s an increasingly real personal reach.
“Erie is a blue-collar town, and the ballpark is where folks gather during the summer,” Coleman said. “We’re 10 blocks from Lake Erie. It’s a great place to be during the summer, but the place to be — especially on certain nights of the week — is UPMC Park. We are part of the fabric of the community here.”
And those people — to the tune of 3,300+ per night in 2019 — are, according to Coleman, “pretty ticked off.”
Letters, phone calls, and even suggestions to sue MLB have poured in from the Erie faithful, making the community impact as central a focus to the SeaWolves as facilities are to Rob Manfred.
“On one hand, it’s really humbling to know that your efforts, your team’s efforts are appreciated,” Coleman said. “On the other hand, we shouldn’t be running fans of the game through a ringer like this.”
Facilities standards, travel complications, pay structures, and player numbers have all been discussed as challenges facing Minor League Baseball that Major League Baseball wants to resolve.
So far, no one is suggesting that premise is altogether invalid.
“I think the travel is a concern. Scheduling is a concern. Facilities are a concern,” Coleman agreed. “They’re not universal concerns -- certain leagues have better situations than others -- but I think we all agree that you could work toward a better situation.”
Consistency, though, in the application of these concerns is sorely lacking.
In an article written by former State College Spikes President Jason Dambach (and personal friend of Phillips), the “facilities” argument crumbles, as it relates to the application of that concern across MiLB. Speaking of the Spikes facility (that they share with Penn State), Dambach wrote:
“Medlar Field not only remains in spectacular condition, but it has some of the best baseball amenities in the business. This includes ample clubhouse spaces, a spacious indoor batting facility with full-sized pitching mounds, modern training and weight rooms, and all the IT infrastructure necessary to compile the myriad of video and analytics that modern-day big league organizations rely upon heavily.
I can tell you from personal experience that, almost unanimously, Major League team executives, player development staffers, players and umpires who have visited the Spikes home ballpark over the years have been blown away by the quality and modernization of the facility.
I can also tell you from experience that many — I would estimate 75-80% — of the reported 120 “surviving” franchises play in ballparks that don’t measure up to Medlar Field’s baseball amenities.”
So, Phillips said, while facility standards are a fine point to include in PBA negotiations, the proposed contraction plan isn't a reasonable solution.
“If you want to throw that out there as a reason, fine,” he said. "But then put new standards out there and let teams figure out if they can live up to them.”
But that would require a good-faith negotiation process that, thus far, hasn’t been — pun intended — the vibe coming from the commissioner’s office. Both Phillips and Coleman emphasized, though, that this is still only the beginning of that process. While MLB flexes its financial leverage, MiLB hopes their leverage can be found in public opinion.
“I really hope that the public outcry and the things that we’re doing from a grassroots perspective in our communities start to sort of create this upswell that just makes it untenable and impossible for them to make a decision like this, just to prevent it from happening,” Phillips said.
With the negotiations set to continue in the coming days as teams and officials gather for the Winter Meetings in San Diego, the effects of that public outcry could become clearer. But, as contentious as the narrative has become, Coleman still believes in a solution that involves less debate and more understanding:
“I don’t think it has to be as complicated as it’s being made to be,” he said. “I really don’t. And if everyone just would understand that the other party has value, I think we could get a long way really quickly.”
Perhaps that’s just it -- the heart of the negotiation process: the value of Minor League Baseball hangs in the balance; the significance of the game’s humblest beginnings for both its players and its fans is up for debate. As teams from Pennsylvania to Colorado fight for their place in the professional baseball landscape, it's their value they must defend in order to save their future.
All while continuing to plan for bobblehead days and fireworks nights.