We have now lost over a month of the baseball season to COVID-19. The curve is flattening, slightly. There is discussion about beginning the 2020 season, at least for Major League Baseball. For the minor leagues, however, that seems almost an impossible dream.
While the majors can afford to set up “baseball sanctuary cities” in Arizona and Florida, it is unlikely their minor league affiliates will be invited to do so as well. ESPN’s Jeff Passan stated that there will probably not be a MiLB season this year:
“There is nothing official, no announcement, probably not one until MLB finalizes its plan, but the difficulty in wrangling it, and where it stands on the priority list, simply doesn’t compute.“
Instead, cities such as Reading and Clearwater where the Phillies have their Double-A and High-A minor league affiliates are waiting with hope for the “all clear” signal to begin their respective seasons. Whether that means playing to an empty ballpark or with fans set apart and masked remains to be seen.
The effect is already devastating. These franchises are not affluent. They depend on their actual fans. They need to sell tickets, concessions, and merchandise.
Most of the ballplayers do not have huge contracts like their major league counterparts. Their salaries average below minimum wage. Many live with host families during the season to save money. The clubs are not rich, either. In fact, the teams take buses to all of their games, not private jets. And if they don’t play ball, the players don’t get a chance to be called up to the majors.
Some of the players who are further along in their developmental process and who showed well during the abbreviated spring training last month could benefit. If the major leagues do play, there will be vastly expanded rosters. Initially, 26-man rosters were planned to start the season. Earlier this month, Ken Rosenthal at The Athletic reported that a 50-man roster was being discussed:
“The union and MLB are discussing the expansion of rosters to as many as 50 players to ensure the easy availability of substitutes, giving teams additional flexibility not only if players became ill, but also for what likely would be a compressed schedule.“
Wow. It’s a good thing the stands will be empty. These players will have to spread out somewhere!
And again, those enlarged big-league rosters would trim the players available to minor league affiliates to a bare minimum.
Such an expanded MLB scanario would likely give Phillies fans a look at Spencer Howard, Alec Bohm, and Mickey Moniak. Players such as these wouldn’t completely lose “development time” due to cancellations in the minors, but instead would become part of those expanded MLB rosters. Joe Girardi surely did not bargain for this kind of managerial challenge.
This pandemic couldn’t have come at a worse time. The current Professional Baseball Agreement between MLB and MiLB expires on September 15, 2020. MLB is pushing to eliminate 42 minor league teams in short-season or Rookie ball leagues, such as the Phillies short-season Williamsport Crosscutters. Fans in these cities won’t even get to see their teams one last time and say goodbye before they disappear.
There is a proposal that these teams on the elimination list could become part of an independent league or ‘Dream League‘, as it has been called in early discussions. Even with substantial financial backing from MLB, will that be enough to keep fans interested in independent ball?
Many MiLB owners are hurting already because of this year’s lost games. Thousands of players and workers are impacted. Although MLB teams pay the players’ salaries, the owners cover the rest of the organizational costs. Those owners originally were unwilling to cut teams. But with the dramatic changes suddenly brought about by COVID-19, some owners are already preparing to close operations for good. The new PBA will be discussed at the Winter Meetings scheduled for later this year and the entire structure of the minor leagues will likely change in 2021.
Fewer teams will mean less opportunity for many players to dream the big-league dream. Some will lose their chance because they no longer will be on teams affiliated with a Major League Baseball organization. The pandemic-driven hiccup in this year’s schedule will likely cause some players to regress as well, resulting in their remaining in the minors even longer than they normally would. Who knows what the combined domino effect of coronavirus/restructure will be?
Ultimately, those minor leaguers who remain would likely benefit from improved facilities and slightly higher salaries. The fan base in cities that remain with teams will be anxious to see live baseball again. If you’ve never seen a minor league game, it’s a lot of fun. The ballparks are intimate, the players always give out autographs and talk to the fans, and the prices are cheap.
I hope there’s a team near you next year. If so, get yourself out to a minor league baseball game. And I hope we can all enjoy seeing baseball again sometime soon.