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Communities lose their summer ‘front porches’ with cancelled minor league season

» Fearing for publicly owned ballparks, MiLB asking Congress for recovery loans

By TED CARTER

Atop the laments over the loss of the 2020 Minor League Baseball (MiLB) season to the coronavirus pandemic are lost revenues for team owners and zero paydays for players after the end of July. 

But on the community front, the consequence that sticks out the most for MiLB’s Jeff Lantz is the loss of the summertime front porches that the games and the players represent to towns across America. “They are essentially a collection of small businesses, and most have local ownership,” Lantz, MiLB spokesman, said of the 160 teams that make up Minor League Baseball.

“That creates an atmosphere of those ballplayers being the front porch of the community in the summer,” he said.

In Pearl and Biloxi, homes of the Mississippi Braves and Biloxi Shuckers, respectively, it’s a front porch prone to rocking and rolling with late-inning rallies or happy dancing on the party deck over a hometown slugger’s shot over the centerfield wall.

But not this year. Like their counterparts around the country, the two Double A Southern League clubs are out of action until at least next spring.  “These are unprecedented times for our country and our organization as this is the first time in our history that we’ve had a summer without Minor League baseball played,” MiLB president Pat O’Conner said in a statement on July 1. “While this is a sad day for many, this announcement removes the uncertainty surrounding the 2020 season and allows our teams to begin planning for an exciting 2021 season of affordable family entertainment.”

The job ahead is to get through the financial hardships and the emotional letdowns of a lost season, Lantz said.

“We’ll do what we can to keep teams afloat and keep them in business,” he said. “We’re looking at 19 straight months with no revenue.”

The St. Petersburg, Fla.-based MiLB and its supporters are working congressional contacts in hopes of getting some targeted help from Washington. The Biloxi Shuckers and the other 122 MiLB clubs not owned by Major League Baseball teams (The Atlanta Braves own the MBraves) received payroll help from the government Paycheck Protection Program. But that money is about spent and it could be a long time before MiLB parks hear the call of “play ball.”

“We have people in D.C. lobbying Congress to get a loan program established,” Lantz said, emphasizing that many MiLB clubs are in ball parks funded by cities and counties. They’re the main tenant, and without them, money sufficient to cover bonds and loans isn’t there, he said.

Lantz called the forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans a Band-aid. With the season eliminated, MiLB now needs a tourniquet, he said.

“That money is starting to run out,” Lantz said of the PPP allocations that are switched from loans to grants for businesses that fulfill workforce retention rules.

“A lot of teams are making tough decisions with furloughs and layoffs,’ he added.

Lantz said in its request for new financial help, MiLB is committing to repaying the loans over the next few years. “We’re trying to generate a loan program to help stay afloat,” he said, “We’re certainly not looking for bailouts or grants or something like that.”

Meanwhile, the anxieties of MiLB officials and executives who run the minor league clubs reach beyond the covid-related shutdowns. The nervousness is over an expected end-of-September order from Major League Baseball to eliminate a quarter of minor league teams, a move that will leave 1,000 ballplayers out of jobs.

Some observers are calling the revamp specified in a new Professional Baseball Agreement with Major League Baseball the most extensive shakeup in professional baseball over the last 100 years. 

It 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, the publication Baseball America reported last year.

In addition to the loss of 40 or so teams, 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.

While Lantz said the M-Braves and Shuckers are not among teams to be eliminated, a list of team cuts leaked to the New York Times last fall included the Southern League’s Jackson, Tenn., Generals and Chattanooga Lookouts.

“The teams in Pearl and Biloxi are not on

Major League Baseball’s proposed list of

teams to contract prior to the next” season, Lantz said in a previous interview. “The main concern MLB has is the quality of the facilities,” he said, and noted the Mississippi teams are in good shape on that front.

The Generals and Lookouts may still avoid extinction. “The list is fluid,” Lantz said. 

Despite a greatly shortened season and a slew of other issues confronting Major League Baseball, the league is expected to make the team eliminations official on Sept. 31, according to Lantz.

“I don’t believe they have any plans to wait,” he said, but added: “There’s still time to negotiate.”

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About Ted Carter