I was reading a recent article about how Major League Baseball dropped 40 affiliates, including the elimination of the New York-Penn League, which was founded in 1939, reorganizing its minor leagues in a 120-team regional alignment, according to a report by the Associated Press.
Schedules for all remaining teams will be regionalized and will include six-game series to reduce travel and cut expenses, the report said. According to the report, the inclusion of four “partner leagues” and “showcase leagues” will mean the MLB minor league system for 2021 will have 179 teams in 17 leagues in 43 states.
The question that all these sweeping changes leads me to ask is: “Will Minor League Baseball eventually disappear?”
It would have sounded ludicrous to ask that question in 2019. That was before the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), which made it impossible for people to go out to a ball game, whether it was at the minor league or major league level. No attendance meant a huge drop in revenue.
Flash forward to the plan released by Major League Baseball on February 12, 2021, the one outlined in the beginning of this column and reported on in the media. Did the lack of funding from the top on down through the minor leagues foster the consolidation? Those six-game series that are being played this year to reduce travel and cut expenses would seem to point in that direction.
While it isn’t the top problem facing us all right now, it is a shame to see such huge changes to a minor league system that existed for decades. People are nostalgic about minor league teams. In fact, that has always been a large part of the allure, a local team on a summer night, no frills, with a close connection to the players on the team, a funny mascot, good food and wacky promotions.
It all connects people to “their team.”
Last year, Sports Illustrated (which itself has contracted to once a month instead of being published weekly, so they know what it’s all about) did a cover story about the potential disaster looming for Minor League Baseball. The new report makes it clear there will be more empty stadiums in the future, and there is no way to know how many more minor league (or, quite frankly, major league) franchises could be in jeopardy. A lot of it depends on how quickly the pandemic comes to an end, how quickly people can sit in seats on a summer night again and take in a game.
Back in January of 1997, I announced a plan to build a 3,500-seat minor league ballpark in Hammonton. The name of the team was going to be the “Hammonton Blueberries” and the front of the ballpark was going to resemble Ebbets Field, the long-gone home of the Brooklyn Dodgers up in New York City.
In 1999, a group of us representing the Hammonton Blueberries baseball team went up to Montclair State University and gave a presentation to a group of all the owners of the independent Northern League, which had just consolidated with the Northeast League. They said they liked our marketing ideas, but there wasn’t enough population in Atlantic County, especially since our team would be competing with two other (now defunct) teams: the Atlantic City Surf and the Camden Riversharks, both from the independent Atlantic League. They offered us a berth in a proposed six-team developmental league, operating a level below the independent league.
The Hammonton Blueberries were a good idea, one that would have to remain a dream. (The New York Mets did build Citi Field in 2009 in Queens, New York City, and the exterior of it looks like Ebbets Field.) Looking at what is happening to the minor leagues and independent leagues in baseball now, it appears those leagues did us a favor by not accepting the Hammonton Blueberries.
I’m still rooting for the minor league and independent league franchises, who are dealing with all kinds of attacks from every side. Some people believe there isn’t even a need for a great prospect to be on a team anymore. In my opinion, you can blame all the showcases that promote the individual player instead of the team concept from when the players are young.
When this pandemic is done, I’m going to find a small ballpark and sit in the stands with my wife. We’ll sit and enjoy the Minor League Baseball.
But I’ll watch it all a little more closely now because I know it may not always exist, and it’s important to understand when something is here now, it doesn’t mean it always will be.
Gabe Donio is the publisher of The Hammonton Gazette.