There’s no reason to trust MLB in its Spinners-killing minor-league proposal

Minor-league structure could use a revamp, but MLB's proposal feels like just more rich people pretending they're poor.

Edward A. LeLacheur Park
Edward A. LeLacheur Park has hosted the Lowell Spinners, and thus Red Sox prospects, since opening in the summer of 1998. –Lowell Spinners Photo

 COMMENTARY

How you feel about the radical, slash-heavy reorganization plan for Minor League Baseball that Major League Baseball has kicking around depends, I suspect, first on your proximity and interest in the 42 teams that the majors plan to erase after next season. (In New England, that means primarily the Red Sox-connected Lowell Spinners, but also their fellow short-season clubs in Burlington, Vt., and Norwich, Conn.) It also, however, hits on a wider question: Do you trust MLB to act first in the best interests of baseball, or simply of MLB?

Do you trust them, in other words, to stop at that red light?

Advertisement

I don’t remember when I first saw the thoughts on trust from beloved CBS curmudgeon Andy Rooney — who had the good sense to pass away before he said something that got him cancelled — but they’ve long stuck with me, and they seem pertinent now. He opened with an anecdote about coming to a crossroads with a red traffic light during a late-night drive. There were no other cars on the road, no headlights for as far as Rooney could see, but he remained stopped at the light to a level of his own personal amazement.

“I think I stopped because it’s part of a contract we all have with each other. It’s not only the law, but it’s an agreement we have, and we trust each other to honor it: We don’t go through red lights,” Rooney wrote. “It’s amazing that we ever trust each other to do the right thing, isn’t it? And we do, too. Trust is our first inclination.

“It’s a darn good thing, too, because the whole structure of our society depends on mutual trust, not distrust.  This whole thing we have going for us would fall apart if we didn’t trust each other most of the time.”

Advertisement

And thus, we turn back to “The 120 Plan,” which first got public notice a month ago via the New York Times and Baseball America, then again this past weekend when Bill Madden of the New York Daily News shredded it under the heading, “[MLB commissioner] Rob Manfred’s plan to destroy minor league baseball.” With the agreement between MLB and MiLB expiring at the end of the 2020 season, the former wants massive changes to the minor-league landscape, and has — in a plan primarily concocted by the leadership of the Houston Astros, they of current sign-stealing and general repulsiveness controversies — proposed cutting dozens of teams and thousands of jobs, via both the aforementioned contraction and a further shrinking of the MLB Draft.

Advertisement

Those team cuts include all four short-season leagues, most prominently to us in New England the New York-Penn League where the Spinners have served as a link in the Red Sox chain since their creation in 1996. (Five of the 14 NYPL teams would shift to full-season affiliated leagues, with Lowell, Burlington, Norwich, and others targeted to participate in a vaguely defined ‘Dream League’ for unsigned players.)

“This is a very real and very, very serious threat. The most serious threat the Spinners has ever faced,” owner Dave Heller told the Lowell Sun. “The people come to see the future Red Sox stars of tomorrow.”

MLB’s argument, via a statement to the Times, says this is all aimed at “improving the working conditions of minor league players, including upgrading the facilities to Major League standards, increasing player compensation, reducing travel time between affiliates for road games, improving transportation and hotel accommodations, increasing the number of off days, and providing better geographical affiliations between the M.L.B. Clubs and affiliates.”

Advertisement

Pat O’Conner, the president and CEO of Minor League Baseball, offered a rebuttal via letter.

“Although we understand that MLB projects that the 120 plan will ‘save’ the 30 Major League clubs an aggregate of about $20 million a year,” the Washington Post quoted O’Conner, “the loss to the future of the game would be exponentially greater.”

And therein lies the nut of the argument. What’s really the motivator here: A truly better minor-league system, or protecting MLB’s pocketbook as it prepares to improve on the poverty wages it has long paid minor leaguers? Both are believable, both matter, but which matters more in an industry where baseball-related revenues topped $10 billion last season, the 16th consecutive year of a record in the only thing it often feels like Manfred’s MLB cares about?

I have, frankly, far less problem with the idea of reimagining the minors than most. It could use a refresh after half a century.

After all, we have watched similar changes affect minor-league hockey. Both Worcester and Manchester, N.H., lost American Hockey League affiliates after the 2014-15 season, their California-based parent clubs wanting their top taxi squad closer than 3,000 miles away. Painful locally, but entirely sensible. (The Bruins would much prefer the Baby B’s in Providence than Portland, Oregon.) When Lowell joined the AHL in 1998, it had 19 teams, almost all in New England, New York, Pennsylvania, or eastern Canada. This year, through merger and expansion, it has 31 nationwide, more in California than are left in New England.

Among the proposed MLB cuts are Arizona’s Double A affiliate, which plays in Jackson, Tenn., and drew fewer than 1,800 fans/game last season. (For comparison, Hartford’s Double A Yard Goats drew almost 6,200 nightly to a new downtown ballpark. The Sox-affiliated Portland Sea Dogs got close to 5,700.) The three cuts in the Low A Midwest League all drew fewer than 2,000, with one playing in a stadium Milwaukee declared substandard 15 years ago. I weep not for them.

And one of the great truisms of sports is how few minor leaguers make it the majors. In 2011, the last year before MLB cut its draft from 50 rounds to 40, the Red Sox signed 29 of their 53 picks. Just eight made the majors, all from the first nine rounds. Their 201314 classes produced nine combined major leaguers out of 59 signees. Heck, by the time you get to the third round of an MLB Draft, more than half the players taken won’t play even a day in The Show. By the 10th? The best player Boston took in the 10th or later and signed in the last 30 years, a group of literally hundreds of potential MLB players, is Josh Reddick.

Josh Reddick is an 11-year major leaguer. Seven trips to the postseason, a career OPS+ of 105 — 100 is league average. A perfect cromulent career. If hundreds of the annual MLB draftees who never come within a whisker of becoming Josh Reddick are simple excised from the minors before they get there, in the name of paying the rest a reasonable wage in a better working environment, I’m all for it.

MLB doesn’t have to do that to pay them, though, and I don’t trust they even will. I don’t trust them to stop at Andy Rooney’s red light. These are the same people who couldn’t figure what was up with their baseballs (until the playoffs), won’t clean up the replay system, can’t (or won’t) fix pace of play, might actually be colluding, ignore tanking … but they’re doing the right thing here?

This feels like a power grab. A money grab. Another way for the rich to cry poor because they know they can, and extract from those who should know better than to give them stadium subsidies and tax breaks and so much more, but never do. Until it’s on paper, that these cuts will directly result in minor league pay increases, there’s every reason to doubt that’ll happen.

We live in a time of rampant shaming, but also short attention spans, where low-level bad behavior like continuing to shortchange guys getting paid to play a child’s game will likely slip off the radar if you just wait long enough.

And for every sensible change, there are multiple genuine head-scratchers in the early proposal. The stadium in Williamsport, Penn., is good enough to host the annual Little League Classic, for which the Red Sox and Baltimore are scheduled in August, but the NYPL Crosscutters — within 250 miles of eight MLB clubs — are on the chopping block. So too is the entire rookie-level Pioneer League, spread across Montana, Idaho, Utah, and Colorado. Scarcely served by MLB at all, its attendance rose by 18 percent last year while attendance at the top level is down 14 percent from its record high 12 years ago.

Quoting Madden in the Daily News, “when Manfred presented this plan to the owners a few months ago, the vote was unanimous 30-0 to move forward. … Since then, a number of major league officials have privately expressed their concerns about the plan and how it could possibly be implemented in the face of so many conflicts and potential lawsuits.” It will certainly be a topic of discussion at next month’s Winter Meetings.

It should be. Because Major League Baseball of the last 20 years at least has seemed perfectly content to mortgage its future in the name of enriching its present, and we’ve got no reason to trust this hack job is anything but more of that.