It really hasn’t been a banner off-season for Major League Baseball.
The big story of the winter thus far has been about how the Houston Astros — the team who already proved themselves to be so wildly unlikable during the playoffs with their assistant general manager’s disturbing comments directed at a female reporter and the organization’s subsequent we-don’t-really-give-a-fuck response — have been engaged in a massive technologically-driven sign-stealing controversy.
Jomboy, a Yankees vlogger/podcaster who blew up this year thanks to his excellent breakdown videos of various big moments in baseball games, posted a video last week showing how the Astros were using cameras and loud banging noises to help their batters know what pitch was coming next. With each passing day, more information is unearthed about how the eventual World Series Champions basically cheated their way to a title.
While all this is going on, MLB’s plan to kill a whole bunch of Minor League Baseball teams has kinda flown under the radar. Last month, J.J. Cooper of Baseball America put together an extensive report detailing how MLB was planning to slash Minor League Baseball from 160 to 120 teams beginning in the 2021 season.
The MLB proposal is just one idea at the start of what will likely be a lengthy negotiation, but the two sides are further apart than they have been in any PBA negotiation since 1990. At the core of the negotiations, MLB is looking to dramatically improve Minor League Baseball’s stadium facilities as well as take control over how the minor leagues are organized as far as affiliations and the geography of leagues. Those areas have been under the control of MiLB for the past 100-plus years and would lead to a dramatic restructuring of how MiLB is governed and operates. – Per Baseball America
The plan is to streamline MiLB by moving affiliations around, making some leagues bigger, some smaller, slashing a bunch of teams, particularly in short-season ball, and ultimately saving a bunch of money in the process. If Manfred has his way and this plan goes through, dozens of cities would be left without team-affiliated Minor League ball over the summer and thousands of players would be left without opportunities. According to the New York Times, the Bluefield Blue Jays of the short-season Appalachian League is on the chopping block.
“As if they aren’t squarely involved in enough transgressions against baseball, we should not be at all surprised to know … the Jeff Luhnow Houston Astros were ringleaders of the MLB plan to essentially destroy grass roots baseball and contract 42 of 160 minor league teams.” https://t.co/BryZ6kxu00
— Jay Jaffe (@jay_jaffe) November 17, 2019
Over the weekend, Bill Madden of the New York Daily News followed up Cooper’s report with a story damningly titled Rob Manfred’s plan to destroy minor league baseball. While MLB is making it appear as though the goal here is to ensure that all MiLB’s stadiums are all up to snuff and there’s enough money to pay minor leaguers an adequate wage, this really is just a Wall Street-style practice to streamline the business and make it as inexpensive as possible for owners.
The Astros, of course, are key players behind the entire plan. The logic for the Astros, who are one of baseball’s new age Moneyball leaders in maximizing efficiency, is why pay for a bunch of minor leaguers when there’s just a faint chance of those players ever making a difference at the Major League level? Instead, you can focus your resources on the players that you have that you actually vare about, saying fuck off to the rest of the organizational fodder.
At its core, this whole thing ultimately illustrates how baseball is becoming less of a pastime and more of a thought experiment. I’m not really one to suggest that new-age thinking and analytics are destroying the charm, beauty, and romanticism of the game, but this illustrates a very sad picture of where baseball is headed and what it’s prioritizing. In the name of cold, heartless efficiency, Major League Baseball is killing, well, baseball.
Who gives a shit about the random person in Bluefield, West Virginia who, every single summer, heads over to the ballpark a few times to just take in the sights and sounds, enjoy a beer and a hot dog, and watch a bunch of kids who may or may not become Toronto Blue Jays one day? Major League Baseball apparently doesn’t. MLB continues to rack up record profits year after year despite the fact viewership and attendance is going down. What purpose, then, does it serve to care about the fans?
Honestly, why even play the games? It’s too messy. There’s too much cost associated with producing new balls, paying guys to pour beer, and flying players around the country. Why not just run ten-billion simulations and determine a World Series winner each October and have a two-hour-long reveal spectacle that discusses how the season panned out? You can have Facebook and YouTube bid over the streaming rights so they can syphon millions of users’ data at the same time while we all gasp and awe at which abstract entity was the most efficient.
The money MLB could garner from streaming the whole thing in one big swoop certainly trumps the pennies earned from 40 million people showing up to minor league games.
I know this sounds quite dramatic, but as somebody who had their city lose an affiliated Triple-A club that played a key role in falling in love with the game, this whole thing hits home for me. If not for the Edmonton Trappers, I don’t know if I would be writing about baseball right now.