It’s a tale we’ve heard many times before. A major corporation consolidates its operations in the name of ruthless efficiency, pulling out of small communities across the country altogether.
It’s why the railroad that Roanoke helped birth is now based in Atlanta, and the downtown offices that company once occupied here have long since been sold. It’s why major banks boast of their international reach but are often absent from small towns. It’s why lots of businesses have written off small cities as no longer worth the trouble.
Now comes another company — one that saw $10.3 billion in revenue last year — that wants to rid itself of its operations in 42 small cities across the country. That company is Major League Baseball.
Major League Baseball wants to sever ties with 42 minor league teams across the country, part of proposed restructuring of its “farm system” of developing players. This is a proposal that until recently has only been whispered about — part of the league’s ongoing negotiations with the players union to come up with a new collective bargaining agreement to replace the one that expires after the 2020 season.
The New York Times recently obtained — and on Sunday published — a list of the 42 teams Major League Baseball no longer wants as affiliates. (This, by the way, is just one of many reasons to value a free press.) Baseball fans in Salem, Pulaski and Lynchburg, have no fear. Those franchises are safe. The same cannot be said for other minor league teams in Southside and Southwest Virginia (or close enough to the border to draw Virginia fans). The Danville Braves. The Bristol Pirates. The Bluefield Blue Jays. One, two, three strikes — they’re out. Or would be, if this proposal goes through.
The big picture: Major League Baseball is mostly targeting the cities that host teams in the rookie leagues. Of the 10 cities in the Appalachian League, nine would get sent to the showers. Only Pulaski would remain — and presumably get promoted to a higher league. For that reprieve, Pulaski fans can surely thank team owner David Hagan, who has invested millions in upgrading the stadium and general fan experience. One city in the Carolina League — the league that Salem plays in — would get cut. That’s Frederick, Maryland.
Both The New York Times and The New York Daily News report that Major League Baseball believes it no longer needs the rookie leagues, that there are better ways to develop players. Meanwhile, the players’ union has been pushing for better pay for minor league players, the vast majority of whom aren’t paid millions. The Athletic reports that the average annual salary for players at the Class A level, the level where Salem plays, is $6,000 per year — well below the official poverty line at $12,490. Major League Baseball’s counter-offer to the player demands is simple: Fine, we’ll raise the pay but we’ll eliminate jobs. The current collective bargaining agreement guarantees 160 minor league teams; Major League Baseball wants to reduce that to 118 — or at most 120. Accounts vary on how much wiggle room there is. It’s always hard to know what’s truly negotiable and what’s not, but The Daily News says that Major League Baseball has made it clear to the players’ union that “the contraction plan is going through, no matter what.”
The economics are painfully clear: Yahoo Sports reports that “slashing the minor leagues would allow MLB, whose individual teams are responsible for the overhead of their minor league affiliates, to publicly say they improved pay while not actually costing them much money, if any at all.” Major League Baseball apparently has other thoughts in mind, too, such as rearranging the remaining minor league teams to cut down on travel times, requiring communities to upgrade their stadiums, and the like. The players’ union probably likes those parts of the proposal.
Now, on one level, this is a classic management-union labor negotiation, except for one thing: Nobody’s at the table representing those 42 communities. In a normal situation where a company wants to close a factory, the union workers are looking out for both their jobs and the community they live in. Here, though, the workers — the players — are from all over the world. The players’ union may care about their jobs in the aggregate but have no special interest in Danville or Bristol or Bluefield or wherever. But the 42 communities certainly have a stake in the outcome. Yes, there are some local jobs involved, but their big interest is this: The presence of professional baseball is a quality-of-life issue for those communities. That means it’s really an economic development issue, since the quality-of-life component increasingly plays a part in economic development pitches.
The absence of minor league baseball won’t be fatal to those communities, but it’s certainly not helpful, either — especially at a time when small cities across the country are struggling to adapt to a new economy. Take Danville, for instance, which is pitching itself as a low-cost location for high-tech start-ups priced out of North Carolina’s Research Triangle; you can bet that the Danville Braves constitute one small part of that city’s quality-of-life portfolio. This isn’t just a two-sided labor negotiation; it’s a political issue that hits 42 cities in 21 states. The vast majority of these teams are in communities that vote Republican; where is the presidential tweet on how Major League Baseball is abandoning heartland America?
Notice we haven’t said the teams will be “eliminated.” They wouldn’t be. Major League Baseball simply wants to cut its affiliation with them — the whole process of supplying players and coaches. Technically these teams could continue as part of independent leagues that sign free agents. Major League Baseball has proposed the creation of a “Dream League” of unaffiliated players and even suggested it might subsidize some expenses — just not the biggest expense, which is the players. The New York Times quotes one baseball official calling this a “death sentence” for minor league teams. Without a major league club paying for the players, the economics simply don’t work out.
Now, as a business, Major League Baseball isn’t obligated to do much of anything besides maximize the return on investment of the 30 billionaires who own its teams. Except for this: Those billionaires rely on workplaces that taxpayers have helped pay for — be it Yankee Stadium in New York or American Legion Field in Danville. Somebody needs to be speaking for them.