Updated: Apr 19, 2020
If there’s one thing giving Minor League Baseball teams reason to be hopeful, it’s the promise of continuing negotiations.
For Andy Shea, president of the back-to-back South Atlantic League Champion Lexington Legends — Single-A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals — that is the version of reality that matters. Not the one full of worries about what could happen, or the questions about what’s been proposed, or the anger about what hasn’t been explained. The hope comes simply from the fact that this isn’t the end.
“They met [previously] in Dallas, and then they walked away with another meeting set,” Shea said by phone on Monday. “That concept in itself gave me levels of optimism.”
Today in San Diego, those discussions resume.
“Patience and positivity” has become a mantra for Shea in recent weeks as the fate of his team and 41 others hangs in the balance. Meanwhile, Major League Baseball continues to explain their own version of positivity while handling the fallout of their proposed plan to eliminate Minor League affiliates in the upcoming Professional Baseball Agreement between the leagues.
But that mantra is easier to say than to live. For both sides.
The Clinton LumberKings (Single-A, Miami Marlins) are one of three teams in the state of Iowa awaiting news from the next round of negotiations, wondering how it might impact the future of baseball in their hometowns.
“It’s puzzling, but at the worst part for me, it’s nauseating,” General Manager Ted Tornow said on Wednesday. “It makes me sick to my stomach that the people in New York and at Major League Baseball can just sit there and just arbitrarily think that this is a good idea.”
The idea, as explained by MLB, would address challenges such as facility standards, travel concerns, and player salaries. Each of those issues, both Shea and Tornow said, should be addressed in tandem with MiLB teams.
Facilities can be (and have been) improved at the request of parent clubs; travel should be considered for teams like the Legends, who don’t even play the two Single-A teams closest to their own ballpark (Dayton and Bowling Green) due to league alignment.
A plan to address those issues should be on the table in San Diego. That is what negotiations are for.
But what MLB’s contraction plan has not addressed is everything else that would disappear in the impacted markets.
Based on third-party research done in Lexington two years ago, the total economic impact of the Legends on the surrounding community nearly eclipses $50 million a year. They average more than $1 million a season in cash and in-kind donations to local charities, too.
“The tentacles and the reach we have from our organization, and I always say this — we’re the Lexington Legends, but about 50% of our fans are from outside of Lexington — this would be very, very impactful to a lot of people, a lot of communities, for a long time.”
As a result, elected officials on local and national levels have picked up the mantle on behalf of their constituents. A letter from Representatives Lori Trahan (D-MA) and David McKinley (R-WV), signed by 104 of their congressional cohorts, kicked off a series of political proclamations strongly suggesting other options be taken.
In Clinton, the mayor, members of the chamber of commerce, the city administrator, and the regional development director have all been in contact with Tornow to voice their support on the home front.
On Monday, Democratic presidential candidate — and noted baseball fan — Bernie Sanders met with baseball’s commissioner Rob Manfred to directly offer his plea, resulting in a new MLB statement that attempted to reinforce their commitment to a reasonable negotiation process.
“MLB is committed to negotiating with Minor League Baseball to find solutions that balance the competing interests of local communities, MLB Clubs, Minor League owners, and the young players who pursue their dream of becoming professional baseball players. We repeatedly have stated both publicly and privately to the Minor Leagues that whatever the outcome of the negotiations, MLB will offer every community that currently hosts professional baseball options to preserve baseball in a viable, fan-friendly, compelling format with the full support of MLB. We remain confident that solutions can be reached that satisfy the interests of all stakeholders.” - MLB Statement after Sanders meeting
The significant tonal shift from Manfred’s office did not go unnoticed, leading Tornow and others to believe that this battle is far from over.
“I told our negotiating team [they] need to find out where the big difference was between ‘We’re adamant. We’re getting rid of 42 of you,’ to now it’s, ‘Well, we want to work with you,’” Tornow said. "We should be able to say we’re staying with 160. If you want to keep pushing the issue, go right ahead. Eliminate one team and see what happens. We’ll work together with you on realignment. We’ll work together with you on facilities. But never, ever for a second underestimate the power of public opinion.”
That public opinion isn’t limited to citizens concerned with the economic damage.
At its core, baseball isn’t about business.
At its best, it’s about dreams, celebration, determination, and the romance of summer nights and super stars. The charm of Minor League baseball is that it brings those super stars to earth, makes them relatable, and lets their stories inspire new dreams. Somewhere, in the heat of the frustration and negotiation, that magic can get lost. But perhaps it shouldn’t be so easily dismissed.
“I heard this one and I’ve used it a ton — of course Minor League Baseball is player development, but it’s also fan development,” Shea said. “And that’s a huge piece of the overall game.”
In 2019, nearly four million fans walked through the gates of the teams on the contraction list. As Shea put it, “That’s not insignificant.”
It isn’t strictly ticket sales, though, that could be impacted by the elimination of these teams. While MLB officials suggest there are too many athletes signed with too few opportunities to ever reach the big leagues, there is implicit value in the very concept of hope. Hope that, Tornow suggested, would evaporate in the minds of ball players across the country if their chances get even smaller.
“You’re going to have kids who don’t play the sport because if they’re not an elite athlete by the time they’re eight or ten, and they’re not on Major League Baseball’s radar, they’re just going to give up the sport,” he said, going on to cite examples like Jeff Conine and Mike Piazza as late-round draftees who would never have had the chance under the proposed plan.
Shea offered a more recent example: former Lexington Legend José Altuve.
“His intro to baseball story has been well chronicled,” he said. “The Astros sent him away once or twice from even being at the tryout camp because he was too short. But, they did end up signing him and now it’s one of the best, most valued signings of all time. But the fact is, I have a really, really, really hard time thinking that José Altuve would have ever made it into a system that had only 150 players — and that [was] mandated to have 150 or less players.”
The PBA negotiations in 1990 were similarly contentious. In fact, that process was arguably much worse, as the two sides refused to even meet in the same city for the annual Winter Meetings. But even then, a deal was finally reached. And now, a united front from MiLB is ready to fight for their futures once again.
“Collectively, we’re 160 strong,” Tornow said. “We’re not 118 or 120. We’re 160. That’s the one thing that I think has been pounded into Major League Baseball’s head. You just can’t arbitrarily take 42 markets and wipe them off the face of the earth.”
That resolution remains the hope — for Tornow, for Shea, and for small town folks for whom MiLB is about more than ticket sales and facility upgrades.
“I ran into a guy — it’s a husband and wife who run a funnel cakes, corn dogs, chili cheese fries stand at our ballpark,” Shea said. “He was devastated when he came up to me. I almost didn’t know what to say, other than we’re working on this. I’m staying optimistic, I have reason to be optimistic, but please, 2020 will be just as it’s always been. It’s going to be awesome, we’re going to celebrate back-to-back championships, the 20th anniversary [of the Legends]. All this good stuff. But, we just got to stay patient and positive.”
Patient. Positive. Resolute. United. Hopeful.
And ready for Round Two.