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Statehouse Beat: Why take us out of the ball game?

In a political era when bipartisan is practically a dirty word, West Virginia politicians united in opposition to Major League Baseball’s proposal to eliminate 42 minor league baseball teams, including three of the four minor league teams in the state.

Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., co-authored a congressional letter to MLB opposing the plan, signed by 106 House members, including Rep. Carol Miller, R-W.Va. (Rep. Alex Mooney, R-W.Va., presumably busy trying to ferret out secret meetings in the Capitol basement and videotape himself in the process, did not sign on.)

Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., also strenuously objected to the plan, as did Gov. Jim Justice. The governor said he spoke with MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, with whom he worked two years ago in an unsuccessful attempt to require state casinos to pay a portion of sports betting profits to the league in the form of an “integrity fee.”

Frankly, it was a bit of a shock to see the West Virginia Power on the list of teams slated to lose Major League affiliations in 2021 as part of a proposed new Professional Baseball Agreement with Minor League Baseball.

It was particularly shocking since it had been announced previously that Major League Baseball planned to eliminate all short season leagues (rookie, short-season A) that play from mid-June through August, beginning in 2021.

Those leagues account for 40 teams, so I assumed the Power would survive the contraction. However, under the MLB proposal, about a half-dozen short season teams — including the West Virginia Black Bears in Morgantown — would be retained and promoted to full-season Class A leagues.

(That poses a whole other set of problems for the Black Bears, who share Monongalia County Ballpark with West Virginia University, presenting scheduling conflicts in April, May and maybe June.)

There’s a couple of reasons why MLB wants to contract the minor leagues.

Baseball is under pressure to increase salaries for minor league ballplayers, which works out to sub-minimum wage at the low minors. (Never mind that top prospects get six- to seven-figure signing bonuses, and prospects behind them get five- to six-figure bonuses.)

Like true capitalists, rather than dig into their own deep pockets, Major League team owners propose to slash the size of their workforce of minor league players in order to free up enough cash to pay the remaining players a decent salary.

They also propose to eliminate teams with substandard playing fields and ballpark facilities, as well as geographically isolated teams that contribute to excessive amounts of travel for teams in the league.

The South Atlantic League, of which the Power is a member, is a prime offender in contributing to the latter. The SAL has expanded from its core of teams in North and South Carolina and Georgia into Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky and even New Jersey.

With the two major sticking points being facilities and geography, we can presume a team like the Hagerstown Suns, which is located close to five other Class A teams but plays in a dilapidated, 90-year-old ballpark in a city that has rebuffed multiple attempts to build a new stadium, is on the cut list because of its facilities.

Conversely, we can presume — despite claims by the MLB to Congress that all 42 teams set for contraction have substandard facilities — that the Power and the Lexington (Kentucky) Legends are on the cut list because of geography.

As proof, the list proposes retaining a team in Pulaski, Virginia, a town of 9,000 in southwestern Virginia, with a 2,500-seat ballpark built in the 1930s. Some of those seats are concrete slabs.

I’m sure that, like many rookie Appalachian League fields, Pulaski’s Calfee Park is a charming little ballpark, but no one could legitimately compare it to Appalachian Power Park and conclude that Calfee Park is the better facility.

The one advantage Pulaski has is that is about a one-hour drive from the next closest team in Salem, Virginia, while Charleston is about three hours from Salem.

The Sally League shares a rough geographical footprint with another Class A league, the Carolina League. Sally League teams frequently have to drive past Carolina League towns to get to road games, and vice versa, which makes little sense.

If geography is the issue, a more sensible and less litigious alternative would be to restructure the leagues to make them more geographically compact.

Just for fun, I came up with a restructuring plan for existing Class A teams in the East, comprised of a Sally League with teams in Georgia, South Carolina and southern North Carolina; a Carolina League with teams in Lexington, Charleston, northern North Carolina, and southern Virginia; and the MLB’s proposed new Mid-Atlantic League, with teams in New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Morgantown, and northern Virginia. (I posted details of my little proposal last week on Twitter.)

That would create three relatively geographically compact eight-team leagues that would cut travel times and preserve teams slated for elimination. Just a thought.

•••

Certainly, the loss of minor league ball would diminish the economics, tourism and quality of life in the affected cities.

The Power, for example, has 10 full-time employees, a slew of seasonal employees, along with 30-some players, coaches and trainers who make Charleston their home for five months of the year.

Attendance at Power games, after dipping in the great recession and regional economic woes that followed, improved in 2019, and those attendees include out-of-town visitors making ballpark tours, or following their home teams on road trips, and, often, friends and families of the players.

More importantly, for five months out of the year, Power Park is Charleston’s proverbial front porch, providing a gathering place for the greater Charleston community to socialize and enjoy the national pastime at affordable prices.

MLB’s proposal includes a vague offer to help subsidize abandoned teams in order to form a quasi-independent league (or leagues) made up of players passed over in the Major League draft.

However, that shifts a lot of costs, including player and coaches’ salaries and insurance, to the individual teams — which is a reason many existing independent leagues around the country are struggling.

Under that proposal, Charleston and Lexington would likely still be left out in the cold geographically, since it is highly doubtful any of the nearby abandoned Appalachian League teams or towns would have the financial resources to join an independent league.

•••

How this all plays out remains to be seen. That members of Congress and many elected officials in affected states and cities are making their objections heard is positive.

As MLB Deputy Commissioner Daniel Halem stated in his response to the letter from Congress, “In our view, the best way to address the challenges facing MLB and MiLB ... is at the bargaining table. In this respect, we have had only one formal bargaining session with MiLB on the issues discussed in this letter, and anticipate many more to come. I am optimistic that we can reach a favorable agreement for the benefit of all concerned ...”

In 1992, the last time a proposed agreement between major and minor league baseball was this contentious, initial proposals included a demand that minor league teams remit 5 percent of their ticket sales to the MLB.

They ultimately settled on a 3.5 percent ticket tax, but MLB also used the 1992 agreement to impose strict new standards for minor league ballpark playing fields and facilities, citing a legitimate concern that million-dollar prospects should not have to risk injury playing in substandard facilities. The requirements led to a flurry of construction of minor league ballparks around the country, ultimately including Power Park, and led to movement of teams away from cities unable to make the necessary improvements.

As Halem noted, the contraction proposal is a first step in negotiations, and whether MLB intends to stick with the plan or use it as leverage in negotiations with minor league clubs remains to be seen.

Congress, and the affected cities and states, also bring bargaining power to the negotiations, not the least of which is Congress’ ability to revoke antitrust exemptions for the MLB.

Likewise, host cities and team ownership groups are all but certain to sue over what the New York Daily News estimates would be the loss of $300 million in equity, and likely would hold up the contraction effort for some time with multiple injunctions.

For Charleston, the argument would be that the state, county and city had reasonable expectations when state and municipal economic development bonds were sold in 2004 to help build Power Park, that it would be home to a Major League affiliated team for at least the 20-year life span of the bond issues.

Another issue that I think should be raised is that of the 42 teams slated to be eliminated, 20 are in or adjacent to Appalachia. Why is MLB singling out one particular region of the U.S. to bear the brunt of the cutbacks?

•••

Finally, in somewhat the way that Bart Giamatti once sat down to write class notes for the Yale Alumni magazine and ended up composing “Green Fields of the Mind,” I intended to write three or four paragraphs on minor league contraction, and ended up filling an entire column.

Meanwhile, I hope everyone has a festive Fall Harvest Celebration — just pulling your leg — Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Reach Phil Kabler at

philk@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1220

or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

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