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As Major League Baseball shakes up its minor league universe, small towns are having to adapt. 

With MLB planning to kill off a quarter of its 160 affiliated minor league teams, small markets are scrambling to build new stadiums, join independent and college leagues, and use their facilities for drive-in movies and other entertainments.

The Covid-19 pandemic, which left minor league ballparks dark around the country, has been a rehearsal for losing baseball entirely. The contraction signals a deeper shift, as pro sports follow other industries from small towns to more populated areas on the coasts and in the South. 

MiLB, as it’s known, has become the pastime of small town and rural America. From Aberdeen, Maryland, to Visalia, California, young ballplayers animate diamond greens circled by hot dog stands, credit card giveaways and bouncy castles. The entertainment: hardball spiced with monkey races, acrobats and mascot races. 

“It gives small towns a calling card, an identity,” says Bob Carlin, a banjo player from North Carolina and MiLB super fan. Carlin catches every possible game when he’s on tour, frequently wearing his favorite teams’ hats on stage. “It’s part of the fabric of rural America, and lately, many towns are using it as an anchor of redevelopment.”

Minor league teams and their owners, “are never going to be make a lot of money but it’s a way of rebuilding community and bringing talent back to towns,” says Quint Studer, a businessman who owns the Pensacola Blue Wahoos in Florida and is investing in the Beloit Snappers in Wisconsin. 

The list of around 40 teams slated for contraction includes the Snappers, but it’s heaviest on squads in small towns in the Rust Belt and Appalachia. On the chopping block are teams like the Williamsport Crosscutters, located in a north-central Pennsylvania town of 28,000; the Binghamton Rumble Ponies, located in a small metropolitan area in New York’s Southern Tier; and the Danville Braves, located in a town of 43,000 in Virginia’s Southside.

 

West Virginia alone is slated to lose four teams, including two in rural Mercer County. The home fields of the Princeton Rays and Bluefield Blue Jays are just 10 miles apart and draw from the same micropolitan market area in southern West Virginia.

The people in all those small towns add up. Attendance at minor league baseball games was 41.5 million in 2019, up 2.6% from the year before, compared to 68.5 million fans for Major League teams. In 2020, attendance was zero as Covid-19 canceled the season.

One of those fans is Beloit Snappers afficionado Tom Lindell, a 31-year-old financial planner who lives in nearby Janesville and likes to take his family to Harry C. Pohlman Field. With ice cream for kids, beer for grown-ups, and decent baseball on the field, “it’s one of the best things around here you can do as a family,” says Lindell.

Although Beloit is on the list to be cut from Major League affiliation, city officials say they hope for a good outcome thanks to a new stadium, which the Snappers’ private owners are building for $33 to $38 million. Studer, the Pensacola owner and Beloit investor who is managing the project, says brand-new stadiums are “community centers” as well as ballparks, key drawing places for small towns that can help reverse the migration toward bigger cities clustered on the coasts. 

“There’s not much you can do since Major League teams employ the player,” Studer says. “So you do the best you can with whatever team is on the field.” This year, during the pandemic, Pensacola coped by turning its stadium into an Airbnb facility, concert stage, and drive-in movie theatre.

The problem for each of Major League Baseball’s 30 clubs is that managing five or six small-town teams they don’t own has become costly and complicated, and detrimental to new fashions in player development. They’re tired of ceding control to minor league teams that are essentially private event companies employing small staffs. The event companies are contracted for a few years to host games for individual Major League teams. The Major League team hires, fires and pays players and coaches. The average minor league club makes only around $5 million a year and employs around 20 full-time employees.

In a letter to Congress last year, deputy MLB commission Dan Halem complained that “Major League Clubs pay Minor League players alone nearly $500 million in signing bonuses and salaries each year” while “Minor League teams, by contrast, pay Major League Clubs an aggregate of only $18 million per year.”

MLB has also been under political and legal pressure to raise minor league wages, which are typically a little over a thousand dollars a month, which is under minimum wage for a full-time worker. By gutting teams and exerting more control over the remaining ones, MLB clubs, increasingly managed by dollar-squeezing McKinsey MBA-consultant types, can save money by employing fewer players even if they pay them more.

Baseball’s current professional apprenticeship system is a relic of the first half of the 20th century, when teams grabbed players wherever they could, from factory teams, independent leagues or schools. In a rural, disconnected America, a scout could roam the country and discover Mickey Mantle. In 1920, Branch Rickey, then general manager of the Saint Louis Cardinals, created the first minor league team as a place to stockpile talent efficiently. Other clubs followed.

By World War II, minor league teams had spread across the country. With information about amateur players scarce, each team tried to maximize its player pipeline, signing as many players as possible and relying on the cream rising to the top.

Hardball isn’t the only entertainment on minor-league fields. David “The Bullet” Smith prepares to be shot from a cannon during a Rome, Georgia, Braves game in 2017. (Photo by Bill Setliff, via Flickr)

In 2020, players in college, high school and travel clubs are graded and evaluated by radar guns and tracking technology. Prospect information is emailed everywhere and published online. The new philosophy of Major League teams is to sign fewer but more talented players, and then develop them with top-notch training techniques, high-tech analysis and proper nutrition. A new generation of analytically-trained front-office execs monitors each prospect carefully, giving clubs more incentive to control their minor league teams.

The upshot is that Major League teams “want fewer affiliates, and they want to deal with fewer minor league owners,” says Tim McLean, a Washington, D.C.-based player agent, who adds that he understands the economic reasoning even if it means fewer job opportunities for his clients. The new structure, with fewer teams “is detrimental to the growth of baseball as a sport.”

In the new worldview, a rusting Appalachian ballpark might be charming, but to a big league exec, it’s an impediment to Johnny Prospect eating an organic tuna steak while getting a Shiatsu massage and studying a computer analysis of his at-bat. In his letter, Halem, the deputy commissioner, wrote that MLB has “identified more than 40 Minor League stadiums that do not possess adequate training facilities, medical facilities, locker rooms, and, in some cases, playing fields.”

Negotiations are still ongoing, as MLB executives seek to placate politicians angry at losing their hometown teams. Over 100 members of Congress signed a letter last year saying that “overhauling a century-old system that has been consistently safeguarded by Congress is not in the best interest of the overall game of baseball, especially when Major League Baseball’s revenues are at all-time high.”

MLB’s compromise offer is to help organize independent leagues or college summer circuits. Last week, it formally announced that the 10-team Appalachian League, which dates back to 1911, would become a college summer league for rising freshmen and sophomores, at least for the next three years. Teams will receive new names that reflect their local identities.

Well-run teams can still draw fans even if they’re no longer affiliated with big clubs. “Minor league baseball owners have always said we’re in the entertainment business,” says Nola Agha, a sports economist at the University of San Francisco. But independent amateur teams can’t offer the thrill of seeing Bo Jackson or Mike Trout on his way to the bigs. “It’s a slap in the face,” says Agha. “Independent teams are a hard sell.”

MLB execs argue that summer leagues staffed by college players will be just as good. Fans, for example, will be able to see players for entire seasons, instead of just until they get called up to the next level.

Carlin says he’s been to independent league games that he enjoyed. Ballparks that aren’t affiliated with a major league team can still offer a good experience “if they have cotton shirts and fitted caps, and good sight lines.”

In Beloit, fans are praying they’ll remain affiliated. They have been asked to vote on a new name, choosing among Cheeseballs, Moo, Polka Pike, Sky Carp and Super Clubbers.

Lindell is cheering for the latter. Supper clubs, he explains, “are a Wisconsin staple and would create intriguing logo and branding options.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the reconstituted Appalachian League will be for players who are college sophomores and juniors. In fact, players will be rising college freshmen and sophomores. We’re sorry about the error.