Why Major League Baseball Needs its Minor League System… As Is

As we inch closer to the start of a new baseball season, the brass at Major League Baseball continue to negotiate a new working agreement with those in charge of Minor League Baseball.  That agreement will determine how the partnership between the two separate, but indelibly linked entities will work moving forward. Whatever deal they come to is likely to set precedent for future negotiations at the very least, if not reshape the entire concept of minor league baseball altogether.  

It’s no secret that MLB has proposed to do away with some forty-two affiliated franchises from their minor league ranks.  These teams would be rebranded or eliminated altogether. There is clearly a great deal at stake for the cities and towns that house these and all minor league baseball teams, but what is not being discussed by many in the media and certainly not the aforementioned MLB brass, is all that Major League Baseball would stand to lose if they choose to simply walk away from these minor league towns and cities.  

Perhaps first and foremost on the list… players.  Although each league in the system has its own restrictions and limitations on roster size, there are somewhere around 6,000+ minor league baseball players in a given year.  The math on this suggests that around a quarter of the players that currently have places on minor league rosters, will no longer have a place to hone their skills and become viable big league prospects.  One may suggest that most players drafted beyond the first couple of rounds of the June draft never make it to the majors anyhow. That may be true, but consider some of the many players who were late round picks who did in fact make it to the big leagues:  Keith Hernandez (round 42), Mark Buerhle (38), Raul Ibanez (36), Rob Nenn (32), Brandon Kintzler (40), Ken Griffey (29), Mark Grace (24), Eric Young (43), Jeff Conine (58), and Hall of Famers John Smoltz (22), and Mike Piazza (62).  There are hundreds of players that litter the list of late round draft picks that went on to become not just major leaguers, but Rookies of the Year, All-Stars, MVP’s, and even Hall of Famers! They were able to eventually become accomplished Major League players because they were able to work on their craft in a minor league system that guided and supported their growth and helped them to become the players they were destined to be.  By cutting back on draft picks and shrinking the overall size of the system that works to produce these players, Major League Baseball will miss out on a great deal of talent. There is no disputing that less teams means less players, and less players means there is a smaller probability of finding those diamonds in the rough that are found every year in the minor leagues.

The next thing that Major League Baseball will be missing out on if Minor League Baseball is reduced by more than one quarter of its size is the chance for talented future executives.  There are hundreds of intelligent, young people that make up Minor League Baseball front offices. This talented workforce does more to grow the game of baseball in America than perhaps any other group of people.  These executives also hone their skills in the game, the business side of the game, in the minors just like the players do. I wonder how many were able to get their start in an MiLB front office and then go on to work for a major league team?  Furthermore, I wonder how many of these young executives in the minors today are women and people of color who don’t seem to get the chance they deserve at the major league level, but can use baseball’s minor league system to show what they are made of and push for jobs in an MLB front office?  The only conclusion one can come to in this regard is that many less people will be given a shot, and Major League Baseball will be worse off for missing out on their many talents.                                  

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly Major League Baseball will be missing out on fans.  Several years ago, Major League Baseball decided it needed to do a better job of selling its product and bringing more fans to the game by opening up new markets around the globe.  Every major sports league around the United States has worked to do the same. Over the past decade or two, Major League Baseball has done what most would consider to be, an excellent job of working to expand the league as a brand and to gain new fans at home and abroad.  Commissioners Selig and Manfred should be applauded for their efforts as it pertains to this endeavor. The World Baseball Classic, and the games now being played in places like Monterey, Mexico and London, England have been wonderful ways to expand the game’s reach to new markets around the world and in turn, gain new fans.  That said, MLB’s proposal to eliminate affiliated minor league teams is in direct contrast to the core idea of expanding and growing the game overall. That alone may be the biggest mistake Major League Baseball is making. MLB’s misunderstanding or miscalculation of what Minor League Baseball provides them is without a doubt, the biggest head scratcher of this story.

Bringing baseball to new markets, sharing the game’s superstars with new fans, and building excitement for the sport by showing the world what professional  baseball has to offer can only benefit the overall health of the league. That said, it seems incredibly shortsighted not to seriously consider the ramifications that will surely exist when and if Major League Baseball takes away the largest, if not the only, lifeline tethering much of small town America to the exact product they are fighting to keep relevant and strong everywhere.  Those who watch professional sports know and understand the shortcomings that baseball currently faces as fans are constantly reminded of those shortcomings everyday on sports talk radio, ESPN, local sports shows, and even MLB Network itself.  That said, why those charged with keeping, protecting, and growing the game would want to shrink baseball’s reach and and make it any less relevant in any market, much less the markets that support it most outside of major league cities, is beyond comprehension.  Any baseball fan can fully understand and appreciate Major League Baseball wanting to spread the game to other places, but why they would choose to take it away from those that support it so steadfastly, and already have a deep-seated love for the game is truly confusing, to say the least?

Furthermore, there may be a dispute among some (very few) who want to argue about which sport is considered America’s Pastime.  But beyond that, sports overall, and baseball in particular are unquestionably American institutions. To that point, Major League Baseball’s idea of taking affiliated minor league baseball teams away from so many in small town America that love the game flies directly in the face of baseball as an American institution.  There has never been a time, or at least not recently, when America has needed its institutions more than it does right now. Sports and baseball in particular are so important to who we are as people, and baseball’s minor league system, even with its flaws is a huge part of that story and a major part of what makes baseball the institution it is.  I would make the argument that baseball, without a minor league system that resembles what it is right now, will lose far more than its charm. How many kids have been introduced to baseball through a Clinton Lumberkings baseball camp, a QC River Bandits reading program, or simply by getting their first glimpse of professional baseball not in Houston, Milwaukee, or Baltimore, but in Bluefield, Lexington, or Chattanooga?  

I am a public school teacher, and I am very familiar with how young people function.  When something is out of sight for them, it is most definitely out of mind. If MLB loses 42 markets, they have no idea what the ramifications will be to the sport as a whole, because once that connection is lost for young people, they will move to the next thing without thinking twice.  Once a baseball fan is lost, he or she will be gone forever, taking with them future generations of fans and dollars. Baseball’s minor league system is undoubtedly the largest and most successful promoter of the sport, bar-none! It would be incredibly interesting if the sabermetricians around the game could calculate the huge amount of free or at least very cheap advertising the sport gets from MiLB teams simply existing.  I live in Clinton, Iowa, home of the Lumberkings, and I know several people who, because they were introduced to baseball through our local minor league team, went to their first MLB games in places like Chicago, Kansas City, Milwaukee, and St. Louis. If their kids had not had so much fun watching minor league baseball, they would never have had any interest in pursuing the sport further.  

In the end, an excellent argument can be made that baseball needs each of its current minor league towns and cities in order to continue growing the game and keeping it a popular entertainment choice for all Americans.  If baseball wishes to stay truly relevant, it will need to hold on to every fan it currently has while at the same time, growing new ones. This can be easily done in baseball as no other sport has a deeper reach with its professional athletes into small town America than baseball, due to its current affiliated minor league system.  There are few things more exciting for a fan than turning on an MLB game and seeing one of your town’s former minor league players getting a first at bat, a first hit, a first strikeout, or a first win. If baseball would better embrace the idea that qualitative data and anecdotal evidence are just as important and telling as quantitative data, they would perhaps see their entire MiLB system as a gigantic win for the game and not a black eye that needs to be “fixed.”