Spokesman for minors says Southern League teams in good standing
By TED CARTER
A revamp of Minor League Baseball (MiLB) that some observers are calling the most extensive shakeup in the last 100 years won’t bear on the futures of Mississippi’s two pro ball clubs – Pearl’s Mississippi Braves and Biloxi’s Shuckers.
The overhaul is expected to be far reaching across the United States, however.
The publication Baseball America says the restructuring is the “most dramatic” in a century and would mandate dramatically improved stadiums and give Major League Baseball control over how leagues are organized “as far as affiliations and the geography of leagues.”
A quarter of MiLB’s teams would disappear and the remaining leagues “would also be dramatically reworked with some leagues getting much smaller, others getting bigger, and teams switching classification levels all around the country,” Baseball America reported in an Oct. 8 article.
If it seems drastic, that’s because it is, said Dr. John Miller, a professor in the University of Southern Mississippi’s Sports Management program.
On the other hand, the sweeping changes will ease hardships on young ballplayers and give fans a better on-field product, he said in an interview. “I think it creates better conditions for the minor leaguers.”
The Braves and Shuckers have the good fortune to belong to the Double A Southern League, a fixture of the South for 55 years with well-kept ballparks in viable markets and clubs in close proximity, says Jeff Lantz, spokesman for St. Petersburg, Fla.-based MiLB.
“The teams in Pearl and Biloxi are not on Major League Baseball’s proposed list of teams to contract prior to the next” Professional Baseball Agreement, Lantz said.
“Their ballparks are both in good standing and, geographically speaking, they are perfect fits for the Southern League and we do not expect that to change moving forward.”
Today’s Southern League has nine teams and will add the Madison, Ala., Rocket City Trash Pandas in 2020. The Trash Pandas represent the Huntsville market, which the Shuckers left for Biloxi in 2015.
Except for the M-Braves. all of the Southern League teams are owned outside of the clubs with which they are affiliated. The M-Braves, which have been in metro Jackson since 2005, are owned by the parent Atlanta Braves of the National League.
The Shuckers are an affiliate of the National League’s Milwaukee Brewers.
The Braves ownership by an MLB club gives added security, according to Lantz. “Yes, you could say that as they don’t have to worry about switching affiliates or anything like that,” he said.
The overhaul of the minor leagues is part of a new agreement MiLB is in the early stages of negotiating with Major League Baseball. The pact is scheduled to go into effect in 2021.
Up to 42 of MiLB’s 160 teams affiliated with Major League clubs are said to be up for elimination from any affiliation with MiLB. These include rookie leagues and “short-season” leagues that last a couple of months and are free to spectators. This classification is represented by the New Yok-Penn League and Northwest League
The Arizona League, Gulf Coast League and Dominican Summer League make up the rookie league classifications.
A host of other teams are candidates for reclassification among MiLB’s three league classifications: Class A, Double A and Triple A.
Also, MiLB team owners fear they will lose negotiating leverage through an end to renewing Player Development Organization contracts every two years, stretching out the period in which new negotiations can occur, according to Baseball America.
The Braves and Shuckers referred all questions to MiLB, saying they’ve been ordered not to comment while talks on the new PBA are under way.
The revamp could make life easier for minor league players developing their skills in pursuit of big-league careers. They’ll have better ballparks, better equipment and training facilities, shorter rides to out-of-town games and, perhaps, larger paychecks.
Reports have put the pay raises upward of 50 percent, an increase the Toronto Blue Jays granted the players in the club’s minor league system last year.
Fewer players in the minors means more money to spread around for salaries, said Lantz.
But the new PBA could mean 1,000 or so fewer roster spots for the minors’ affiliated clubs. Contracting from 160 to 120 affiliated teams with 30 players each entails going from 4,800 players to 3,600 players.
In a gauge of how dramatic the changes are, some of the teams and leagues remaining would be shuffled between the various levels, with some moving from Class A to Triple A and vice-versa, Baseball America reported.
Lantz said MiLB is comfortable with switching things around. “Realignment is something we have done before,” he said. “It is not a foreign concept to us.”
As for the Southern League, “We can’t see anybody moving down a level or anything like that,” Lantz noted.
Still, the two MiLB teams that served as the Braves’ Double A affiliates before Pearl – Greenville, S.C., and Savannah, Ga. – today are Class A affiliates.
The readjustment should get rid of situations in which the geography makes little sense, he said, and noted, for instance, that the South Atlantic League has a team as far south as Augusta, Ga., and a 12-hour bus ride north to Lakewood, N.J.
Just cutting down on the length of the bus trips will be a huge improvement, according to Miller, the Southern Miss Sports Management professor. The goal, Miller said he understands, is to get teams that play each other within a five-hour ride.
Negotiators are “working on improving transportation and hotel accommodations for these teams,” he said. “They have to travel six to eight hours and then be ready to play at a professional level the next day.”
He said he expects some of the realignments will be designed to get high classification farm teams closer to the parent club. The thinking, Miller said, is that fans who can’t make it to see the MLB parent play, will turn out for a top affiliate’s game. “It’s the next best thing,” he said.
Likely to be absent from opening day 2021 are the 10 affiliated teams that make up the Appalachian League, a grouping of Advanced Rookie League teams in small cities such as Bluefield, W. Va.; Pulaski, Va.; and Johnson City, Tenn., Miller said.
“The Appalachian League may be totally eliminated,” he predicted.
The sports management instructor said MLB came up with its eliminations list after close looks at minor league parks across the country. “Forty-some teams were identified for possible contraction. These were the ones listed as having facilities that don’t meet the levels that Major League Baseball thinks they should.”
Fact is, he said, “There are some pretty good high school teams that have better facilities.”
Too often, the MLB inspectors found broken seats, inadequate safety netting behind home plate, substandard lighting, poorly maintained restrooms and concessions and deficient parking areas, according to Miller.
“A game is similar to inviting 1,000 of your closest friends to your house,” he said, and added: “You don’t want toilets clogging up or other problems.
“You’ve got to protect the brand as a business, Miller said. “I would say” that is Sports Management 101.
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