“We are in dire straits,” Minor League Baseball President Pat O’Conner said on a conference call with reporters following the announcement. The future of the organization and its individual franchises, he said, is “extremely difficult for us to project, because there is no end in sight [to the crisis] in the immediate future. … I have grave concerns.”
The move has been expected for months, because the business model for minor league teams — which lack the lucrative television contracts that major league teams have — isn’t built to withstand the financial pressures created by games played without fans.
In addition, because of the national emergency, Major League Baseball suspended the agreement covering the assignment of players to minor league affiliates and decided to adopt a “taxi squad” model to supply its teams with extra players — who will train together at one location per team — during a truncated, 60-game season.
In other words, to survive, minor league teams would have had to find and pay their own players in 2020.
“It was an insurmountable list of challenges,” O’Conner said. “We were unable to find a path” to play this year.
The long-term financial implications for the industry are dire, O’Connor said, with “north of half” of all minor league franchises facing solvency issues without government assistance. Many, he said, have already been through two, three or even four rounds of furloughs of team employees.
“The coronavirus has cut into many clubs’ ability to make it,” he said. “ … We need a lifeline to get to the other side.”
While big league teams are permitted to start the 2020 season with 30-man rosters and can keep taxi squads of up to another 30 extra players in reserve, the lack of a minor league season still dooms hundreds of farmhands to a year without organized baseball. Some could latch on with independent league teams or seek winter league spots in foreign countries.
Minor league players had been receiving stipends of $400 per week through the end of June. However, while some teams, including the Washington Nationals, have said they will continue paying minor leaguers through the originally scheduled end of their season (Sept. 7), others have not made the same commitment. According to reports, three teams — the Los Angeles Angels, Arizona Diamondbacks and Cleveland Indians — will not pay their minor leaguers beyond June.
As for the minor league franchises, many have turned their ballparks into makeshift outdoor restaurants, farmers markets or outdoor movie theaters — with proper social distancing — to generate revenue. A handful of those minor league facilities will be used as headquarters for MLB’s taxi squads this season.
Tuesday’s news was only the latest blow in a tumultuous, eight-month stretch for Minor League Baseball, which was confronted last fall by MLB’s plans to eliminate the affiliations of as many as 42 of its 160 minor league franchises beginning in 2021.
Initially, Minor League Baseball resisted the plan, enlisting members of Congress in a high-profile pressure campaign that portended a long and ugly fight with MLB. But this spring, facing a deepening economic crisis brought on by the pandemic, its leaders eventually indicated they would accept the plan.
If it is ultimately adopted, the plan would lead to the dissolution of the short-season New York-Penn League and the rookie-level Appalachian and Pioneer leagues, though some of those franchises could find their way into the remaining minor leagues. O’Conner said Tuesday that talks with MLB about the new alignment had ground to a halt because of the coronavirus.
And with the 2020 season now falling victim to the pandemic, many of the teams that fall off the baseball map will disappear without so much as a chance to say goodbye.
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