Minor-league baseball won’t return this season

More than 5,000 players are officially out of work as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Three FSL teams are impacted in Tampa Bay, as well as six Rays affiliates nationally.
TD Ballpark, home of the Toronto Blue Jays spring training and Dunedin Blue Jays.
TD Ballpark, home of the Toronto Blue Jays spring training and Dunedin Blue Jays. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published June 30, 2020|Updated June 30, 2020

As baseball officials proceed with a planned-for start to the major-league season, they made official what seemed obvious: There will be no 2020 minor-league season.

Formal word came Tuesday afternoon from Minor League Baseball’s St. Petersburg headquarters in an acknowledgement that time ran out on staging even an abbreviated season.

“This has been months in the coming,” MiLB president and CEO Pat O’Conner said. “This is kind of like just the epiphany and realization of where we are and what’s in front of us. It was the right thing to do. Probably in a practical sense it was the only thing to do.”

That means 160 affiliated minor-league teams in 14 leagues across 43 states — and more than 5,000 players — are officially out of work for this season as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. That includes six Rays affiliates from Port Charlotte to Hudson Valley, N.Y., and Tampa Bay-based Florida State League teams in Clearwater (Phillies), Dunedin (Blue Jays) and Tampa (Yankees).

Further, cancelling this season, and the devastating financial impact of doing so, may be just the beginning of the end for the minor-league structure as it has existed for decades given the critical juncture of the industry.

‘‘We’re just treading water, trying to see our way through this,” O’Conner said. “We’re in dire straits.”

Even before the pandemic, Major League Baseball was already pushing hard on a plan to significantly restructure and consolidate the minor-league system, most dramatically by eliminating affiliations with 42 teams.

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Using the leverage of the expiring Professional Baseball Agreement that connects the two organizations, MLB officials are determined to consolidate and streamline the setup, claiming it would help the big-league teams manage their prospects, reduce travel costs and ensure better facilities.

Their plan reportedly calls to cut the number of affiliated teams to 120 — four for each of the 30 big-league teams — grouped not just by classification and leagues but also geographically, resulting in a major overhaul and shift in control to MLB officials.

The impact on the minors would be dramatic, from the 42 communities that lose teams (some small, where it is the only game in town) to the team owners now saddled with additional expenses to modernize facilities and upgrade travel and amenities for players.

“This is the perfect storm,” O’Conner said. “There are very many teams not liquid, not solvent, not able to proceed under normal circumstances. And these are anything but normal circumstances given the PBA and the uncertainty of the future for some of these ball clubs. The coronavirus has really cut into many clubs’ ability to make it and without some government intervention, without doing something to take on equity partners, you might be looking at half of the 160 who are going to have serious problems.”

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Another potential outcome is the elimination of the minor leagues’ executive structure and long-time St. Petersburg-based headquarters, which had more than 50 employees before recent furloughs, which could be absorbed into the main New York office.

Spectrum Field in Clearwater, home of the FSL's Threshers.
Spectrum Field in Clearwater, home of the FSL's Threshers. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

That battle is still to come as the more immediate concern is the massive financial impact of losing this season, which likely will lead some teams that are independently owned (as opposed to by a major-league team) to a sale, bankruptcy or even out of business. O’Conner said teams will need legislated government assistance to avoid financial peril, noting that funds from the Paycheck Protection Program provided only “a Band-Aid on hemorrhaging industry.”

The teams will lose almost the entirety of their revenues from ticket, concession and merchandise sales (and thus go 17 months without anything coming in) while having already incurred expenses in buying merchandise, promotional items and food and beer.

With 85-90 percent of their revenue from having butts in seats at games, playing without fans doesn’t work for minor-league teams, who get little money from having games on TV and radio, some buying the airtime or doing Internet-only broadcasts. Just turning on the lights for a night can cost a team several thousand dollars, and with staffing costs it may need to average 1,000 fans a game to approach breaking even.

Plus, money that was received from sponsors or advance group ticket sales either will have to be refunded or credited to next season, scarring the 2021 balance sheet as well, perhaps into future years. Some teams, he said, will need two to three years to recover.

Related: While MLB is returning, minor-league dreams are still on hold

The financial impact extends well beyond the owners — to the employees, the vendors that supply the teams, area businesses that benefit from game-day attendance, and governments that get revenue or reimbursement for stadium improvements.

Teams, some of which already reduced staffs of 20-plus full-time employees to single digits, are likely to make further cuts, turning furloughs into layoffs and firing others, crushing the dreams of women and men who already put in excessively long hours for meager pay for the opportunity to say they work in baseball.

“It’s going to be devastating to minor-league teams financially,” said John Timberlake, the Phillies Clearwater-based director of Florida operations, before the official cancellation. “But it’s a resilient industry and there are some of the most creative people in the country on the staffs so they will rebound and they will return. Minor-league baseball just has to figure out ways to survive this and move forward.”

O’Conner said it was too soon to say if the cancelled season changes the leverage in the negotiations with MLB, or could lead to an extension of the current pact and delay potential changes. Nor could he even guess how many teams will be playing in 2021. “The agreement doesn’t specify how many and the pandemic hasn’t determined how many will be left,” he said.

There is also an impact on the players, who have been idled since the mid-March shutdown, trying to stay in shape on their own and getting by on $400 weekly stipends that teams, such as the Rays, have been providing them.

The George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, home of the FSL's Tarpons.
The George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, home of the FSL's Tarpons. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

For all but the few chosen to be part of their big-league team’s 60-player pool, there isn’t much they can do, though Baseball America reported they can pursue opportunity with independent league teams that are planning on playing.

And there is talk of the major-league teams hosting some type of expanded fall camps at their training complexes that would allow at least the more advanced or promising players an opportunity to make up for some of the missed time.