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The Complicated Cost of Contraction: Three Award-Winning Teams Land On "Hit List"

Updated: Apr 19, 2020

“Stunned. Astonished. Bewildered,” Dave Heller, president and CEO of Main Street Baseball, LLC., said by phone last Friday.

Pick a few more synonyms for those words, and you’ll only begin to cover the emotional gambit of Minor League front offices learning their teams were on the chopping block as part of Major League Baseball’s proposed 42-team contraction plan. For Heller, the inclusion of three of four MiLB teams he owns on the list was nothing short of preposterous.

And he’s not alone.

“I think there is an across-the-board sense of, ‘Oh my gosh, really? That’s what they want?’” he said, after gauging the reactions from other teams across the nation.

The Lowell Spinners (New York-Penn League), the Billings Mustangs (Pioneer League), and the QC River Bandits (Midwest League) all have lengthy histories as MLB affiliates.

The Red Sox-affiliated Spinners have been in Lowell, Massachusetts since 1996. Once, for a stretch of 413 home games (over an 11-season span in the 2000s), LeLacheur Park boasted sell outs, night after night. In 2016, Heller purchased the team with plans to maintain that MiLB legacy in Lowell.

The Mustangs have spent 46 years as part of the Cincinnati Reds system, and they’ve claimed the Pioneer League title 15 times (the most of any team in the short season league). In 2008, Billings debuted a new, $12.5 million facility — Dehler Park.

Modern Woodmen Park in Davenport, Ia (Photo Credit: Jeffrey Loder)

The Quad Cities (a multi-city region in Iowa and Illinois) has been home to professional baseball in some fashion since 1879. After short-term affiliations with Big League clubs from 1931 onward, the Davenport-based team began a 16-year affiliation with the Los Angeles Angels in 1962. They’d later spend time under the umbrellas of the Chicago Cubs, the Houston Astros, the Minnesota Twins, and the St. Louis Cardinals before returning to a player development contract with the Astros ahead of the 2013 season.

Now, Major League Baseball plans to eliminate their connections to that history.

Surveys sent out to all 30 MLB clubs last spring asked teams to rank their affiliates — on what conditions is unclear. After news broke in October with more details announced in November chronicling the proposed contraction plan, though, facility standards became an apparent emphasis. For many teams, including Heller’s, that particular notion feels more than a little misleading.

“‘A little misleading’ is a sign on the road that says turn here, and they really mean turn 100 yards up the street,” Heller said. “That’s 'a little misleading.' This is just complete absurdity. That anybody would say that Modern Woodmen Park in Davenport, or LeLacheur Park in Lowell, or Dehler Park in Billings are not in any way compliant with Minor League Baseball facility standards is ridiculous.”

While it may not be the case for every team on the now-dubbed “hit list,” Heller’s three affected teams have made significant upgrades in recent years. In 2013, the Quad Cities playing surface was updated with brand new irrigation systems. In 2017, the same was done in Lowell. Both teams also installed the LED stadium lights that are becoming standard across higher levels of the sport, but are still far more rare at the lower levels. In fact, Modern Woodmen Park was the third MiLB team nation-wide — at any level — to install the upgraded lighting. And, in 2019, they went a step further and installed solar panels to the roof of the stadium to power the lights.

All three teams have won Ballpark Digest awards in recent years for stadium quality, too.

In 2016, Dehler Park was voted the Best Rookie League Ballpark; in 2017, LeLacheur Park was named the Best Short-Season Park, and Modern Woodmen Park was granted the Pioneer® Athletics Fields of Excellence® Award for the quality and maintenance of their playing surface.

It appears, though, that these are not the sort of facility upgrades MLB wants. So what, then, are these ballparks missing, if facility compliance is a key to avoiding contraction?

“We have no idea,” Heller said.

Therein lies the problem. An updated mandate on facilities (clubhouse accommodations, batting cages, training rooms, etc.) isn’t an outrageous ask in the negotiation process. But, as Heller pointed out, there’s a lack of transparent communication as well as a lack of consistent application in this potential change.

“None of it stands up to scrutiny. None of it,” he said. “And really, if you think about it, when they talk about the facilities, they’re not even acting in their own self interest. If they were acting in their own self interest, here’s what you would do — you would say, ‘Ok, we want to make sure every ballpark has a 1,500 square foot weight room.’ If that’s what you want to do, wouldn’t the smart thing be to say, ‘Ok, look. Minor League Baseball, we want to negotiate new facilities standards and we want to require that every ballpark has this weight room with this specific equipment.’ You could even list it. You could even delineate every single, specific thing. And then, all 160 teams would be required to get you that. And if they didn’t do that, then you could take away their player development contract.”

Instead, Heller went on to explain, failing to identify any of the specific upgrade requirements in favor of eliminating teams inexplicably could, in fact, hurt the very premise of improved facilities overall.

“The [remaining] 120 [teams] don’t have any incentive to do anything. They’re set. The 42 don’t have any opportunity to save themselves.”

And no opportunity to save the impact of Minor League baseball on their communities, either.

The potential per-team, per-year cost savings for parent clubs in this plan is reportedly around the $600,000 mark. The River Bandits alone are responsible for more than $600,000 in charitable giving each year.

“How does a community as small and as tight-knit as ours make up $600,000 a year in charitable giving?” Heller asked, then answered: “It doesn’t.”

It also doesn’t easily make up the 200+ seasonal jobs that would be lost without the River Bandits 70 home games a year.

Nor can it recoup the unique interest generated by local fans in a community more than 175 miles from the closest Major League team.

“It seems especially crazy,” Heller said, “that Major League Baseball would spend millions and millions of dollars to build a pop-up stadium for one day in Dyersville, ostensibly to grow the game of baseball in Iowa, and then would turn around and contract potentially three teams out of five in the state.”

(The Clinton LumberKings and the Burlington Bees -- both Iowa teams -- are also on the proposed list.)

And when asked about the ever-present elephant in the room — Minor League player salaries — Heller painted a clear picture:

“So, Tara. What do you pay yourself for a salary? Let’s assume you pay yourself ‘X,’ right? Am I stopping you from paying yourself more? If you have a staff at Birds on the Black, am I stopping you from paying them more? Minor League baseball has nothing — literally nothing — to do with what Major League Baseball decides to pay its own players. Those are players that Major League Baseball scouts, Major League Baseball signs, Major League Baseball controls, and Major League Baseball pays. We have nothing — and I mean nothing — to do with that. Right? So, when they talk about Major League teams paying Minor League players, they can pay them whatever they want. They don’t need to negotiate an agreement with us. We’re not stopping them.”

But what is stopping them from erasing professional baseball from 42 separate communities?

That is what Minor League Baseball has one season to figure out.


This is only the beginning of the negotiating process between MiLB and MLB, and only the beginning of continuing coverage of this story at Birds on the Black . The owners, general managers, and communities impacted by this proposal have stories to tell, and I'll continue to tell as many of them as I can to offer information and perspective throughout this process. (Read more here... and also here.) -- Tara


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