MLB just killed 18 minor-league teams that got $249m in public stadium funding

MLB issued its final list yesterday of which 120 minor-league teams will get to continue as farm teams for big-league clubs, and which will be left to join a series of independent or amateur leagues or disappear altogether. While a few teams got official notice that they’d be switching levels — the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp jump from Double-A to Triple-A, the San Antonio Missions drop from Triple-A to Double-A, the Frederick Keys are bounced from Single-A to the new MLB Draft League where players will have to play for free to showcase their skills for the annual player draft, and the Fresno Grizzlies just yesterday afternoon accepted their demotion from Triple-A to Single-A once they saw what the alternative was — let’s focus on the truly SOL franchises, those that USA Today listed under the heading “No Current League” (state and former affiliation in parentheses):

  • Lowell Spinners (MA, Red Sox)
  • Hagerstown Suns (MD, Nationals)
  • Burlington Bees (IA, Angels)
  • Clinton LumberKings (IA, Marlins)
  • Kane County Cougars (IL, Diamondbacks)
  • Lexington Legends (KY, Royals)
  • Charlotte Stone Crabs (FL, Rays)
  • West Virginia Power (WV, Mariners)
  • Florida Fire Frogs (FL, Braves)
  • Salem-Keizer Volcanoes (OR, Giants)
  • Staten Island Yankees (NY, Yankees)
  • Batavia Muckdogs (NY, Marlins)
  • Auburn Doubledays (NY, Nationals)
  • Norwich Sea Unicorns (CT, Tigers)
  • Tri-City ValleyCats (NY, Astros)
  • Vermont Lake Monsters (VT, A’s)
  • Lancaster JetHawks (CA, Rockies)
  • Boise Hawks (ID, Rockies)

That is a whole lot of intercaps being thrown to the wolves, not to mention both of the minor leagues’ Burlington teams. (The Lake Monsters played in Burlington, Vermont.) And while some of these franchises may yet end up joining an existing non-affiliate league — the MLB Draft League has two spots available, according to the Washington Post, and the indy Atlantic League is currently down to just six teams and could add more — many will almost certainly follow the Staten Island Yankees into oblivion.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at how much public money was spent on stadiums for teams that have now been annihilated by MLB fiat:

  • Lowell Spinners: $11.2 million (construction, 1998)
  • Hagerstown Suns: $1.06 million (construction, 1930; renovations, 1981 and 1995)
  • Burlington Bees: $3 million (renovation, 2005)
  • Clinton LumberKings: $4.35 million (construction, 1937; renovation, 2006)
  • Kane County Cougars: $19.5 million (construction, 1991; renovations, 2008 and 2015)
  • Lexington Legends: privately funded
  • Charlotte Stone Crabs: $32.2 million (construction, 1987; renovation, 2009)
  • West Virginia Power: $25 million (construction, 2005)
  • Florida Fire Frogs: $45.9 million (construction, 2019)
  • Salem-Keizer Volcanoes: $6.8 million (construction, 1997)
  • Staten Island Yankees: $71 million (construction, 2001)
  • Batavia Muckdogs: $3 million (construction, 1996)
  • Auburn Doubledays: $3.145 million (construction, 1995)
  • Norwich Sea Unicorns: $9.3 million (construction, 1995)
  • Tri-City ValleyCats: $14 million (construction, 2002)
  • Vermont Lake Monsters: privately funded
  • Lancaster JetHawks: $14.5 million (construction, 1996)
  • Boise Hawks: privately funded

A couple of caveats: The Stone Crabs and Fire Frogs played at their big-league affiliates’ spring training sites, so those stadiums will still be in use on a lesser basis; and a couple of other stadiums get use as high school or college fields. Still, that’s $249 million in tax money down the toilet, with little hope of finding replacement teams in the future.

Little hope, I should say, without throwing more public money at the situation. You’ll note that a lot of those stadium construction dates above are from the 20th century — Centennial Park in Burlington, Vermont opened way back in 1906! — which is ancient in the what-have-you-built-for-us-lately world of pro sports. One of the reasons MLB gave for seeking to cut teams when it was first announced last year was to “improve Minor League Baseball’s stadium facilities,” and in fact the Boise Hawks owner specifically said he was told his team was marked for death because it was an age-defying 31 years old:

“We were told our current facility ultimately led to the decision,” [Hawks president Jeff] Eiseman said in a statement. “As we have stated since the day we purchased the Hawks, the venue is a challenge. The failure to not have replaced it in all of these prior years led to this move.”

Not having to pay as many minor-league salaries — in part by forcing minor leaguers to play as amateurs, whether in the new MLB Draft League or the conversion of the entire Appalachian League to a “college wood-bat league” — was obviously a prime reason for MLB’s restructuring of the minors, but increasing leverage for new or renovated stadiums could turn out to be the far more lucrative result. If Boise or Lexington or Batavia wants a new team, they will almost certainly be asked to upgrade their stadiums first; and if the cities that do get rewarded with teams, that will allow MLB to cast existing teams onto the scrap heap, in an endless cycle of stadium shakedowns.

Even now, the new minors structure isn’t 100% finalized: MLB and the surviving minor-league teams still need to work out a player-development contract that will determine exactly what each side will pay toward minor-league team costs; the Tacoma Rainiers owners have already released a statement that they “cannot accept the invitation until we’ve had time to review the deal that will govern our sport, and this relationship, for decades to come.” And there is still the possibility of antitrust lawsuits to fight the elimination of teams, since MLB has effectively taken control of all of its competitors for baseball fan dollars and ordered a bunch of them to shut down — recall that last year an unnamed MLB official told the New York Daily News’ Bill Madden, “My God, we’ll be sued all over the place from these cities that have built or refurbished ballparks with taxpayer money, and this will really put our anti-trust exemption in jeopardy.”

Still, a whole lot of minor-league baseball fans are about to lose their teams, and a whole lot of cities are about to see their investments in stadiums go up in smoke. And a whole lot of minor-league players are about to be, in essence, redefined as unpaid interns. Thus has it always been.

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14 comments on “MLB just killed 18 minor-league teams that got $249m in public stadium funding

    1. And now New York is talking about spending another $5 million on the Staten Island stadium so it can used for, uh, rugby or something:

      http://www.fieldofschemes.com/2020/11/23/16778/staten-island-official-endorses-spending-5m-on-empty-baseball-stadium-to-steal-rugby-team-from-brooklyn/

    2. I am tempted to give North Port/Sarasota/Florida an honourable mention for the $46m in public funding toward their $140m stadium. However, that was (I assume) mainly for Braves spring training and the FSL team that moved in – errr – planned to move in was not on anyone’s radar when the funding was approved.

      Interestingly, this one was built using donated land and actual cash (about $5m) from a private developer. In Florida!

      It would be a way better story if the beloved Fire Frogs had extorted a stadium there and then been MLB-Genie’d out of existence before even playing a game, but that isn’t actually the case.

      Still, $60m a year in economic benefits for a spring training stadium? Not likely…

    1. Yep. At last word they were looking into joining an indie league or a college wood-bat league: https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/sports/baseball/2020/12/09/clinton-lumberking-burlington-bees-minor-league-baseball-mlb-affiliates-lost/3864435001/

  1. I have been to Centennial Park in Burlington for games. I can confirm it is old and charming. It does have a long and storied history with Tris Speaker, Johnny Podres and Ken Griffey Jr. all playing there. The Park is shared by many teams and as it is on UVM campus I assumed the college owned it (I do not know). Anyway, it was upgraded with at least some public money about 8 years ago but I do not remember the details. I think it has private management who may be nominal “owners” but as it is nothing fancy it really does not matter.

  2. Well, at least the Tacoma Rainers have some huevos to push back, albeit for the moment, on this arrangement.

  3. The current grandstand at Centennial Field is was built in 1922 (there had been at least two previous incarnations on the same site). So it’s ONLY 98 years young.

  4. So, two teams from the Northwest League (A short season) are history. This is a league with which I have some vague familiarity as I have watched a few of their games over the years (both in person and on local tv).

    It is also a league where each team has only a handful of MLB prospects playing, and typically they only stay for half a season or so before moving on to a higher tier.

    I don’t know to what degree MLB funds their overall operation(s), but I can’t imagine that it would difficult or all that expensive to replace the 3-6 players that MLB allots to the teams or fund the other associated costs (all the teams are grouped into a relatively small geographic area) to go independent.

    So, while I understand the Boise owners trying to use this MLB decision to their own advantage (hey, when life gives you lemons, try to get someone else to fund your ongoing artisanal lemonade needs and delivery costs), I don’t see what the obstacle is to continuing as an independent team if they want to. There are independent leagues they could join. Or the NWL could choose to become an independent league itself.

    Granted, the NWL’s six still-affiliated owners (watch this space…) might prefer to stay as an A-ss (come on, you know I held off as long as I could to use that acronym…) league and suddenly forget they ever knew the Volcanoes or Hawks, but I would argue they do not have to do so.

    BTW, is there any reason (other than because MLB said so) why an affiliated league could not keep two suddenly non affiliated teams among their number if they wanted to?

    It would mean that two teams are not competing on a level footing as regards funding and talent supply. However, no league has an equal footing for all teams, and a single A s/s league does not get the best minor league talent available for obvious reasons.

    1. There absolutely used to be indie teams in affiliated leagues, as anyone who’s read Roger Kahn’s book about the Utica Blue Sox (Good Enough to Dream) will remember.

      Unfortunately, MLB just took control of all the minor leagues, so that ain’t happening again.

      1. Thanks. Doing a bit more reading, apparently Boise have already agreed to join the Pioneer league.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pioneer_League_(baseball)

        Given where they came from, it is as much of a lateral move as anything else in terms of competition. It should ease their travel schedule somewhat, and they will still be mid pack in terms of stadium size and attendance.

    2. MLB allots all of the players on each affiliated club, not just 3-6.

      “Just join an independent league!” is a lot easier said than done — as MLB covers all of the players’ and coaches’ salaries, among other things, costs are much higher in the independent leagues, where teams pay their own players.

      Also, none of the three legitimate independent leagues (Atlantic, American Association, Frontier) have teams anywhere near Boise — travel costs would be through the roof.

  5. A couple predictions:

    1. After the CBA decimates the majors at the end of next season, I expect another round of cuts in the minors. The High-A and Low-A leagues will become one, which would add 30 teams to the 18 listed above. Even if MLB decides upon an expansion to 32 teams, this would only mean three minor leagues per team will be added, thereby making the net loss of minor league teams to be 24.

    2. MLB will standardize upon a minimum stadium size for their minor league teams. All the shuffling has led to odd situations, where single-A and AA teams now play in stadiums with larger capacities than AAA teams. To expedite further shuffling once MLB expands, they’ll require the minor league teams to have a minimum 10,000-seat capacity, and they’ll force moves for franchises that don’t comply (or comply quickly enough).

  6. Stadium costs and longstanding tradition aside, I can understand a decision to get rid of the Short Season/Lower Class A teams and leagues.

    Functionally, these are basically just for high school-aged draftees and young foreign players with a similar quality of play. Getting young men ready to play baseball with wood bats is hardly a “pro” experience and given the absurd resourcing going into college baseball…probably largely unnecessary from a talent assessment standpoint (other than the bats).

    However, cities will do what cities do…and insist on paying big money for entertainment experiences that are largely available for free (without fancy stadiums with cup holders on the seats).

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