Do The Minor Leagues Matter?

ALSO: STEVE COHEN'S CASH COULD SPARK CRAZY SALARY SPIRAL

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Pregame Pepper

Did you know ...

Though less than half the age of new (and old) White Sox pilot Tony La Russa, Ethan Katz will be Chicago’s pitching coach, succeeding Don Cooper. Katz, 37, has a long relationship with Sox star Lucas Giolito, who pitched a no-hitter last year. Most recently assistant pitching coach with the San Francisco Giants, Katz was Giolito’s pitching coach at Harvard-Westlake High School, the Los Angeles school where his teammates included Max Fried and Jack Flaherty . . .

Pete Rose passed Ty Cobb as the career hits leader on the 57th anniversary of Cobb’s last game in the majors . . .

Barry Bonds and Reggie Jackson are cousins . . .

Greg Maddux allowed the fewest home runs per nine innings pitched in eight different seasons . .

Sad Sam Jones walked nine while pitching a no-hitter – a dubious feat later duplicated by A.J. Burnett.

Leading Off

No Minor Matter

by Bill Pruden

Do the Minor Leagues matter? In early 2018, when Major League Baseball (MLB) put out a call for help, it certainly thought so.

In the shadow of reports and rumors that MLB might have to pay overtime and the federal minimum wage to minor league players, officials sought help from the minor leagues in an effort to secure passage of legislation that would protect MLB from this added and possibly onerous burden.

The minor leagues responded in fine fashion, with numerous owners walking the halls of the Congressional office buildings, button-holing legislators and helping ultimately to secure the legislation that MLB sought, while seemingly maintaining the status quo for Minor League Baseball as well.

But then, in the fall of 2019, minor-league teams got their “thank you,” as MLB announced plans to contract the affiliated minor leagues -- a plan that called for reducing from 160 to 120 the number of teams that would continue to have a formal affiliation with major-league clubs. It was a plan that left many thinking, "With friends like these, who needs enemies?”

Well, in fact, the minor leagues found that they had some real friends—many of whom worked in the same office building that they had visited not long before. Indeed, in the aftermath of the announcement of the contraction plan, MLB’s Rob Manfred & Co. quickly found themselves in the crosshairs as a bipartisan group of members of Congress, led perhaps ironically by a woman, Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.), jumped into the fray.

As one of the co-chairs along with West Virginia’s David McKinley (R) of the Save Minor League Baseball task force, a group that included dozens of members from both parties, Trahan, a former college volleyball player has spoken movingly and persuasively about the value of the minors.

She has highlighted the distinctive, human role that Minor League Baseball in general, and the Red Sox-affiliated Spinners specifically, play in the community and life of the citizens of Lowell, a once-thriving mill town in her Massachusetts district north of Boston and south of the New Hampshire line.

The Task Force quickly got to work and in March of 2020, before the pandemic had erased the upcoming season, the group secured unanimous passage of a resolution that called on the Government Accountability Office to study the financial impact of minor-league baseball in their respective communities.

But, as Congressman McKinley noted in his remarks supporting the resolution, beyond their financial impact, the minor leagues provide affordable family entertainment while also helping create the next generation of baseball fans.

Indeed, while recognizing the obvious financial aspects of both the plan and the league’s existence, one of the things that has emerged from the discussion surrounding the contraction plan are questions about the basic role of minor league baseball in the baseball world and in the American landscape. Do the minors matter? And if so, how?

For MLB, there is little doubt that it is all about money. And from that perspective, it was no surprise that in the aftermath of the announcement of the contraction plan, many experienced baseball people acknowledged that there were too many minor-league teams. But such an analysis still reflected the one-dimensional lens through which MLB clearly views the minors.

Admittedly, the Task Force Resolution recognized that reality.

But their financial focus was based less in corporation-based high finance than in concerns about the many who hold the often low-wage, but personally important--both financially and psychologically--jobs that are a part of any minor league team’s operation.

They were concerned about the jobs that have often been held by the same people year after year, season after season, but which, under the proposed contraction would, in many cases, simply disappear. There is also the impact on the economies in the small towns in which the teams are located. Such financial concerns are simply further evidence of the fact that at their core, the minor leagues—on so many levels--are about people.

One of those levels is the people who go to the games themselves. With attendance at an average of about 4,000 fans per game, over 40 million fans—a greater total than either the NFL or NBA can boast—enjoy minor league baseball in a typical, non-pandemic year. It is, as Congressman McKinley observed, an affordable family-oriented entertainment option, one that was lovingly and colorfully chronicled by John and Vicki Hoppin in their book series Ballpark2Ballpark: Journey Through the Minor Leagues.

Those books, veritable travelogues of the minor-league landscape, make clear the humanity that is minor-league baseball, as well as the sense of community they embody and foster. In a time when politics has left us distressingly divided, when "community" is an often spoken, but all-too- seldom honored term, Minor League Baseball stands as a clear example of a place where it still exists.

At their best, in countless communities across the country, minor-league teams serve as a non-partisan entity around which local communities can unite while also being a source of civic pride.

From the countless community service hours that minor-league staff volunteers have performed, to the many charitable and community programs that teams underwrite, to the support of youth baseball and veterans’ programs that are a hallmark of their community, to the millions of dollars contributed to local educational program and schools, minor-league baseball teams serve as a consistent, people-based part of the civic fabric in countless communities from coast to coast.

Minor League Baseball is also a place where youthful dreams can still be seen and where they are nourished and nurtured. Maybe it is the teacher in me, but there is something very special about seeing young ballplayers pursuing the dreams they have held since they first smelled the freshly- cut grass, slid into a base, or crossed the plate with the winning run.

With every swing of the bat and every pitch that is thrown, these young players are advancing in the direction of their dreams, following in the path previously traveled by the likes of Mickey Mantle and Jackie Robinson, Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw, and the countless other heroes who toiled in the minors on their way to immortality. To witness that process, to be in the room where it happens, makes for a feeling that while defying description is central to what makes the minor leagues matter.

As 2020 comes to an end, the future of Minor League Baseball remains muddled. Specific changes come with each passing day.

What is clear is that the minor-league system that returns will not be the one that left us at the conclusion of 2019. Uncertainty reigns.

Happily, the most recent plans offer some evidence that MLB has heard, if not fully understood, the concerns of the people for whom the game is more than a business. But as final decisions are made, will those concerns, as well as the deep historical connection of the minors to the Majors, be ignored?

In the midst of it all, our original question remains. “Do the Minors matter?” To communities across the country, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” But to Major League Baseball, the answer is far less clear. And in its own way, that may say it all. We shall see.

Bill Pruden is a high school history teacher who has been a baseball fan since the late 1950s when he saw his first professional game—a minor league contest in Rochester. He has been writing about the game--primarily through SABR sponsored platforms, but also in some historical works--for about a decade. His email address is: courtwatchernc@aol.com.

Cleaning Up

Steve Cohen’s Cash Helps Mets But Hurts Game

By Dan Schlossberg

The advent of billionaire Steve Cohen as the new owner of the New York Mets is good for fans of the team but bad for everyone else.

The only good news is that Cohen cannot buy every one of the free agents since roster size still stands at 26.

What blows the mind is how owners could vote him into their fraternity by a 26-4 vote, with only a small faction led by Jerry Reinsdorf sensible enough to vote no. Had he found four more votes, the aging owner of the Chicago White Sox would have been able to keep Cohen out.

The main problem, not to mention Cohen’s alleged past involvement in insider trading, is his wealth – and willingness to spend it.

Should the Mets suddenly sign Trevor Bauer, George Springer, DJ LeMahieu, and J.T. Realmuto, that would give them a monopoly on the top four free agents and tilt the balance of power not only in the National League East but also in the entire National League?

Cohen is virtually certain to whisk the Mets beyond the $219 million luxury tax threshold and has given Sandy Alderson, his new director of baseball operations, the green light to spend as if he were playing with Monopoly money.

In fact, that’s exactly what Cohen is trying to do: set up a monopoly.

He promises to be a hands-off owner but that’s exactly the same thing George Steinbrenner said when he bought the Yankees for $10 million – Brad Hand’s salary in 2020.

Steinbrenner proceeded to monopolize all the top free agents -- including future Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield, Catfish Hunter, Goose Gossage, and Mike Mussina – and force other owners into a salary spiral that went up tenfold during the Marvin Miller era.

Make no mistake: the Mets are a toy Steve Cohen has wanted to buy for years. He did try for other teams, notably the Dodgers, but he’s a Long Island guy with a longing for his favorite team. He just had to wait for the right juxtaposition of the stars.

So what if it cost him $2.4 billion, the most ever paid for any franchise?

While it’s true the Wilpons, stung by the Bernie Madoff pyramid scheme, were reviled by Mets fans, it’s worth remembering how Steinbrenner was hated by everyone – even Yankee fans.

In his first 17½ seasons, Steinbrenner changed managers 19 times and pitching coaches two-dozen times – often rehiring men he had fired (including Billy Martin a record five times).

The man called The Boss before Bruce Springsteen also flipped publicists like a kid flipping baseball cards. Never mind that real-life people and their feelings were involved.

Steve Cohen and his wife Alexa share an alarming number of Steinbrenner attributes. They have money and promise to spend it – even though such activity will spark bidding wars with no ceilings.

In the National League East alone, Phillies owner John Middleton said he would spend “stupid money” and proved it by snatching Bryce Harper from the Washington Nationals and Zack Wheeler from the New York Mets. Already, he’s locked in a tug-of-war with Cohen over catcher J.T. Realmuto, who said he likes Philadelphia but will probably be persuaded by the best contract.

Washington won its first World Series since 1925 – and only the second in its history – in 2019 after spending vast sums of the Lerner family’s real-estate fortune to bring in keep Stephen Strasburg and add Patrick Corbin.

Atlanta hit a home run (Marcell Ozuna) and struck out (Cole Hamels) on a pair of one-year, $18 million contracts last year but needs to re-sign Face of the Franchise Freddie Freeman, this year’s National League MVP, before pursuing Ozuna or free-agent closer Mark Melancon, the top-paid pitcher on the 2020 team that came within a game of the NL pennant.

Before Cohen joined the fraternity, the Braves had the richest owner, with Liberty Media’s John Malone claiming a net worth of $7 billion, but the Denver-based corporation kept tight control of the club’s middle-of-the-pack payroll.

Nor are the Miami Marlins, even with celebrated new GM Kim Ng, much threat to Cohen’s millions. The Fish, the only NL East team other than the Braves to reach the expanded 16-team playoffs, aren’t likely to sign anyone Steve Cohen covets.

Neither is anyone else – unless that player abhors the idea of playing in New York.

Even now that Marcus Stroman has accepted the Mets’ $18.9 million qualifying offer, the club’s projected player payroll stands at $155 million, about $20 million less than the Yankees payroll now that LeMahieu, Masahiro Tanaka, and James Paxton have become free agents.

Cohen told Joel Sherman of The New York Post that he won’t spend like “a drunken sailor” but that the Mets would have a payroll “commensurate” for any team playing in a major market city.

He also said he expected to have a contending team every year and a world championship within three to five years.

That’s a tall order for a team that has more different ballparks (3) than world titles (2).

In baseball, a sport where timing is everything, Steve Cohen has already won his biggest battle.

His ascension to team owner coincides with a raging pandemic that has kept fans from ballparks and forced teams to reduce costs in reaction. All teams but the Mets, that is.

It may not be long before a bunch of big-time owners regrets their votes.

Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg is Weekend Editor of HERE’S THE PITCH, national baseball writer for forbes.com, and author of The New Baseball Bible: Notes, Nuggets, Lists & Legends From Our National Pastime. His e.mail is ballauthor@gmail.com.

Timeless Trivia

Roger Clemens got his 4000th strikeout and 300th win in the same game . . .

Mark McGwire was the only Olympian to hit 50 home runs in a season . . .

The Oakland A’s played six home games in Las Vegas because of construction at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum . . .

After winning the 2014 American League Cy Young Award, Corey Kluber was asked if he had any special plans. “I’ll probably go home and give my daughters a bath,” he said . . .

When his picture was posted on the scoreboard during a Kiss-Cam promotion at Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark, a man was spotted by his probation officer and arrested for a parole violation.

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Know Your Editors

HERE’S THE PITCH is published daily except Sundays and holidays. Brian Harl [bchrom831@gmail.com] handles Monday and Tuesday editions, Elizabeth Muratore [nymfan97@gmail.com] does Wednesday and Thursday, and Dan Schlossberg [ballauthor@gmail.com] edits the weekend editions on Friday and Saturday. Readers are encouraged to contribute comments, articles, and letters to the editor. HTP reserves the right to edit for brevity, clarity, and good taste.

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