Who owns the national pastime?
NOTOTHER SAID emerges like the sound of cowhide on maple. It follows that nothing says mass vaccination like the sound echoing in a crowded stadium. Lexington and 3,000 other Marylanders experienced the thrill on a sunny evening last week in Frederick, Maryland, home of the dreaded Frederick Keys.
It was indeed the first home game for the team, the game of the day having been rained. And rarely have the rituals of small-town baseball – back after an 18-month covid hiatus – felt more welcome. Children with cotton candy and mittens ran into the hall. Neighbors and co-workers greeted each other, relaxed and mostly without masks, as they lined up for pizzas and beers. It all dawned on the Star-Spangled Banner, whose lyrics are particularly loved in Frederick, having been written by a former resident, Francis Scott Key, after whom the ball club is named.
In Section 107, behind the plate, season ticket holders indulged in another minor league tradition: to take a critical look at the new blood. It included the anthem singer (“We’ve had worse, remember the bell ringers?” Said Meri-Lyn, an executive assistant who rarely misses a game) and the overly enthusiastic shill (“She has to avoid energy drinks, “impassive Don, a security systems expert, enters plugging each bullet into his tablet. All of the Keys’ white uniformed players were also new.
“They don’t look too bad,” Don’s wife Colleen said as the home team struggled after a sleepy start. His first hitter, a 22-year-old Nevadan called Nick Hernandez, was the first to impress the die-hards, after hitting a brace and then a homer in the sixth. “Come on Nick, we need you to win this!”
This ritual reflected the talent attrition that characterizes the lower levels of professional baseball. Since the evolution of the farming system in the 1920s, miners have had little or no control over their squads, which their big-league boss recruits, pays, and treats like cattle. In a normal year, two-thirds of a minor league team may be new and may be attacked by their boss during the season. Any Minor Leaguer good enough to be adopted by fans is almost by definition halfway there. The same is true for advertisers and hosts at a local baseball stadium. Ironically, this makes one of the most locally entrenched institutions in American sport – the small town ball club where local couples court each other, entertain their children, and advertise their businesses – also l one of the most ephemeral.
With tolerance on both sides, it has been fruitful tension. Major League Baseball, the game’s monopoly overseer, suffered the inefficiencies of a diffuse system for its talent pool. Fans of the minor leagues have given up a deep relationship with their teams for the thrill of a prestigious connection to the majors and high-quality baseball, often in places like Clinton, Iowa or Niles, Ohio, with few others. reasons to brag. But the MLB upset that balance. Teams like the Keys are emerging from the covid-induced calamity – the drop of a season and more than 40 million potential ticket sales – to the most traumatic underage upheaval in decades.
Upon the expiration of a pre-existing operating agreement at the end of last year, MLB reduced its list of minor league affiliates by 42, tightened its grip on the remaining 120 and thus removed several historic leagues, such as the Ohio International. League (founded in 1884). Advances in talent scouting had reduced his need for a large pool. The Keys, for 30 years a farm team for the Baltimore Orioles, are among the teams that have lost.
This change was also related to covid. When MLB first came up with its plans in late 2019, they encountered a high profile setback. Over 100 House members supported a bipartisan “Save Minor League Baseball” task force. A related Senate resolution brought together the two Republican senators from Iowa – who were at risk of losing three minor-league teams, including the Clinton LumberKings – with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, whose states were at risk of losing one each. MLB’s chances of success seemed risky. But the pandemic has diverted political attention and the cancellation of the miners’ season has made it difficult for them to recover it. MLB ended up getting everything it wanted.
Its 30 franchisees are not the only beneficiaries. Salaries for players in the miners have been increased (from a pitifully low base). The distances to be covered have been reduced. To its credit, the MLB meanwhile helped most of the teams it abandoned find another league. The Keys and their recent opponents, the West Virginia Black Bears, are part of a half-dozen who have formed a new league to feature the best college players ahead of the MLB Draft in July. It must also be said that while the diehard Section 107 were livid to be thrown by the Orioles, few other Keys fans seemed to care. Most minor league observers, with little connection to the players, come for baseball-themed fun. “It’s a great place to bring the kids, but I couldn’t say who’s playing,” said Dan, a regular participant, sitting with his brother Leel, a thick-bearded trucker.
Nonetheless, the MLB has dealt a heavy blow to the infrastructure and regional traditions of baseball. Four of the affected teams have ceased operations, including another in western Maryland, the Hagerstown Suns. Others will follow. The Keys will play half as many games as before, but even after laying off staff their costs won’t be cut in half. Of the 202 teams that have played in independent leagues over the past 30 years, almost half have failed in four years.
In a minor key
It’s a dark development, and not just for baseball fans. Politicians from both parties talk a lot about improving capitalism by correcting regional imbalances, respecting place and communities, restricting big monopoly cats, etc. It can be difficult to take such a speech seriously. It’s even harder now, after failing to protect the national pastime, represented by the Frederick Keys, 41 other beloved local teams and their fans, from the cost cutting of a sports monopoly that brings in well over $ 10. billion dollars a year.■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Who Owns the National Pastime?”