Minor leagues no longer twisting in the wind

Here’s what Minor League Baseball has been the last four months. It’s been the tall, skinny, inflatable guy that gets planted in the parking lots of muffler stores and used-car lots.

It’s just been helplessly blowing in the wind.

It’s been less at the mercy of COVID-19 than it has at the mercy of the billionaire Major League Baseball owners and their millionaire players. Both of those unappealing sides have been concerned with winning the PR war. The teams have dealt with the ghastly prospect of only breaking even this season, in a climate when the rest of us are hoping our 401(k) doesn’t shrink up to the size of an owner’s heart.

What everyone in the Minor League Baseball industry has instinctively known for months was finally made official on Tuesday. There will be no Minor League Baseball this season.

That’s a tough blow to the rich-but-not-as-rich owners of MiLB teams, the kids who work on MiLB team staffs for fast-food wages, the fans and the players whose career paths to the majors has been sidetracked. They can train to their heart’s content, but what edge is lost by going 18 months without seeing a 98-mph fastball?

There was no way Minor League Baseball could do business this spring, and that’s been obvious since late March. The minors don’t have the multi-billion-dollar TV contracts that fuel the majors. They must rely on ticket sales and ad revenue. Socially distanced crowds and schedules that would have stretched into the beginning of the school year would have been counterproductive. In a majority of places, it was cheaper not to open the gates and play than it would have been to squeeze in a contracted schedule.

Major League Baseball’s disservice to the minors almost seems premeditated. Tuesday’s announcement should have come weeks ago, but the minors were kept in the wind. MLB already strong-arming the minors in negotiations for the new Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA), leaking plans that it wanted to eliminate 40 minor league teams that have facilities deemed unsuitable. Had the Huntsville Stars still been in existence at Joe Davis Stadium, they’d have been near the top of the list.

There are some sub-par facilities and the word “extortion” is probably too strong. But MLB was putting a lot of communities in a “fix-up-your-park-or-else” situation.

Yes, there probably are too many teams and MLB does draft too many players in their shotgun approach hiring process, but the toothpaste is out of that tube. It was going to be towns across the country, like Chattanooga and Jackson, Tenn., that would lose teams as a sacrifice to MLB’s poor decisions.

Then came COVID-19, and contraction of the minors became the least of the concerns. Some teams jettisoned their scouts. There was debate on whether they could keep paying minor leaguers.

There was no way Minor League Baseball could do business this spring, and that’s been obvious since late March.

Check this out: The average minor league salary is $10,000 or so, which is below the poverty line. Let’s round it up to 30 players per team for the 160 teams in the top six tiers of minor league ball and do the math. That’s $48 million — or $22 million less than the combined salaries of the Washington Nationals’ top two starting pitchers. Yet some teams were balking at paying their minor leaguers.

It hits close to home for me.

I haven’t looked forward to a minor league season with such eager anticipation since Three Dog Night last had a hit record. The Rocket City Trash Pandas have set up shop in Madison, in a nifty new stadium, bringing baseball back to an area that lost a team in 2014. The excitement around the team was incredible.

I have a vested interest. After striking up a friendship with the team owner, Ralph Nelson, it led to a book deal. “Pandamonium.” (My pal Paul Gattis even wrote about it for The Huntsville Times, and I figure soon enough it’ll merit its own story here.) It was the saga of how this franchise came to be, about Nelson’s long baseball career, some of the backstories — and to whet my own historic fascination, how this franchise came to be in context with professional baseball in the area, dating back 120 years. Also, I was going to be the back-up official scorer. Also, still in my glove box, are my opening day tickets.

But at least know I know for sure when we can update and publish the book. I know my tickets will be good for another year. I no longer feel like I’m twisting in the wind.

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