The long-promised contraction and reorganization of minor-league baseball began in earnest this weekend, as the New York Yankees announced they would be cutting ties with the Trenton Thunder, Staten Island Yankees, and Charleston RiverDogs, while adding affiliations with the Somerset Patriots (formerly in the independent Atlantic League) and Hudson Valley Renegades (formerly a short-season team affiliated with the Tampa Bay Rays). The Thunder and Yankees owners apparently learned the news via Twitter:
— Staten Island Yankees (@SIYanks) November 9, 2020
Yes, word from Trenton is that they were not notified and learned about it through social media. Yankees AA affiliate will be the Somerset Patriots going forward. Class organization, those Yankees.
— Jim Albright (@njjim1019) November 9, 2020
The Patriots, who play about an hour west of New York City, have long been one of the top-drawing teams in the Atlantic League, though with roughly the same number of fans per game (just over 5,000) as Trenton. Both Trenton and Staten Island have been offered spots in the Atlantic League, reports CBS Sports, but “their futures are unclear at the moment,” which is what happens when you’re suddenly cast into a league that has seen a bunch of teams fold since its 1998 opening, even after getting tens of millions of dollars each in public stadium funding.
Speaking of which, both Trenton and Staten Island got a ton of stadium subsidies as well, money that’s now at risk of going for naught thanks to the elimination of teams. Trenton’s stadium was built in 1994 at a cost of $16.2 million, paid for entirely by Mercer County. Charleston’s stadium was built by the city in 1997 for $19.5 million, with another $6 million in upgrades since to stop it from sinking into the earth. And Staten Island’s was opened in 2001 and cost a staggering $71 million, thanks to cleanup issues at the site, all of which was paid for by the citizens of New York City. It’s possible that both cities will get new indie teams — or even new affiliated teams, though that’s unlikely with the Mets already having the Brooklyn Cyclones and the Philadelphia Phillies four existing affiliates in Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey, and both of them looking to cut back on farm teams as well — but if not, we could see a renewed wave of shuttered new-ish stadiums.
That would be bad news for baseball fans and taxpayers alike, but potentially great news for MLB owners, who would simultaneously cut back on minor-league payrolls, reduce travel costs by consolidating teams near their parent clubs, and potentially get cities and minor-league teams alike into bidding wars to make sure they have chairs when the contraction music stops. We haven’t seen that yet, but you know it’s going to happen: If the Trenton Thunder, say, can’t line up a new big-league affiliation, how long do you think before its owners go back to Mercer County to claim that stadium upgrades are needed to lure away some other town’s team?
The Staten Island Yankees, meanwhile, included in their tweeted press release this line:
The Staten Island Yankees made every effort to accommodate MLB and New York Yankees requirements, including securing a commitment from New York City for ballpark upgrades
Wait, they secured what now? This was news to me, and I followed New York City ballpark spending even more closely than that on the rest of the planet; I’ve reached out for comment to the New York City Economic Development Corporation, the quasi-public agency that owns and operates the Staten Island stadium (though it’s been trying to ditch the “operates” part), and will post here when I learn anything more.
All this is certainly only the first show among many, with 29 other teams still set to announce which affiliates will be cast adrift. Just last night, in fact, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the Giants are expected to ditch the Augusta GreenJackets and likely the Richmond Flying Squirrels as well. It’s still unclear when minor-league baseball will resume, thanks to the pandemic, but whenever it does, it could look very different than it has for the last several decades.