ST. PAUL — Before charges of electronic sign stealing rocked the baseball world, dominating the headlines and claiming the jobs of three managers and one general manager, the story of the season was ongoing negotiations between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball that appeared to be turning contentious.
While the two sides have an agreement that runs through the 2020 season, they will need to secure a new Professional Baseball Agreement after that, which means changes are coming, and the effects likely will send lasting reverberations through all corners of minor-league baseball.
In November, a list surfaced of 42 proposed teams up for elimination. One Twins affiliate was on the list. Front-office officials at the Twins’ other affiliates were left wondering just how they might be affected, while expressing shock and sadness about the situation.
None would be more affected than the rookie-level Elizabethton Twins, one of the teams on the elimination list leaked to multiple publications. The team has been playing in Tennessee since 1974, winning 12 league titles since then. Nine of the Appalachian League’s 10 teams were included in the proposal.
“I was aware that the Appalachian League was certainly one of the leagues that was looking to be contracted,” said Chris Allen, the president of Boyd Sports, LLC, which operates the team in Elizabethton, affectionately referred to as the E-Twins. “…I was aware of that before the list came out, but I guess it kind of hit home when the list finally hit and the whole world found out about it.”
Just last year, the City of Elizabethton and the Twins unveiled a revamped clubhouse in Elizabethton. The Twins’ share — most of which was divided into installments to be paid over the course of a decade — was for $800,000 of the project, according to a 2018 article from the Johnson City Press, with the city covering $1,521,310. The new clubhouse is substantially larger, and includes a kitchen, a room to study film and more.
“I don’t know this to be true, but I think the baseball operations side for the Twins … were kind of caught off guard with this too because there was a considerable investment the city as well as the Twins put into that ballpark just last year to upgrade the locker rooms,” Allen said. “If you know you’re going to be contracted, why would you spend that kind of money to improve the facility?”
At Boyd Sports, Allen helps oversee four teams. He said he told team leaders to step back and trust the process. If there was anything requested that would help their case, they would comply.
“We’re going to have faith in the leaders that Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball have in place negotiating this deal,” Allen said. “…It’s been a long relationship for many, many years between the two parties, and we’re hoping they can work everything out and we can continue this relationship.”
Improving facilities around the country is at the heart of the issue for the two sides. Major League Baseball is unhappy with the quality of some of the facilities, especially considering Major League Baseball is subsidizing “to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars every single year to the operations of Minor League Baseball,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred pointed out in December at the Winter Meetings,
“Given that we are already subsidizing at the level that I’ve previously referred to, I think it is unreasonable to come to a bargaining table and say, ‘Yeah, we got some facilities. We know they’re substandard. In fact, they may not be fixable, but we’re not willing to do anything about that,’” Manfred said in December. “That’s unreasonable.”
Minor League Baseball responded with a 12-point rebuttal, stating there are “few, if any” facilities deemed non-compliant and that it has offered to “discuss and negotiate reasonable facility standards in the next agreement to address any unmet needs of MLB.”
“Minor League Baseball has never express to MLB an unwillingness to address new standards and improvements in facilities,” the rebuttal read. “To state otherwise is untrue and a misrepresentation of the facts regarding the position of MiLB on facilities improvements.”
While the two sides work on their negotiations, some Twins affiliates are being proactive in improving their facilities in anticipation of the next PBA.
“There (will be) these rules that nobody knows what the rules are. But with the Twins, what we did there, we just went to them (and said), ‘What would you like to see?’” Double-A Pensacola team president Jonathan Griffith said. “…Our feeling is if the Twins are happy and we’re taking care of their players, they want to be there.”
That led to a visit to Pensacola from Dan Starkey, the Twins’ Senior Director of Ballpark Development and Planning, who came down to do a walk through, Griffith said. Now, he said, they’re working hand in hand with some architects on redesigns to improve their stadium.
“Facility-wise, there’s never been accountability held. They do the studies, they go out to the ballparks. But if they said, ‘Hey, your lights are bad,’ it was an, ‘OK, they’re bad,’ but there were never any true consequences,” Griffith said. “…You need to make sure you have a nice facility for the players. These are million-dollar athletes; you can’t have fields that are unsafe fields.”
While Pensacola’s Blue Wahoos were not on the original contraction list, two teams in their league — the Southern League — were, and another could move up to Triple-A, Griffith said. It’s the same in the Midwest League, where the Twins’ Class-A affiliate, the Cedar Rapids Kernels, play. The Burlington Bees and Clinton LumberKings, two other Iowa teams, are both on that list.
“The impact that we would see would be definite increased travel just because the closer affiliates are the ones currently on the list. (If they were eliminated,) that would mean we’d have more hotel and bus travel,” said Scott Wilson, the Kernels’ general manager. “…It doesn’t directly impact us. It just hits the bottom line pretty hard.”
Like the Blue Wahoos, the Kernels have been in touch with the Twins about improvements they would like to see made to their facility, including more hitting tunnels and a bigger area to accommodate the team’s growing number of coaches.
In Fort Myers, Fla., the Mighty Mussels would likely feel less of the effects. The Twins’ Class-A Advanced team makes its home at Hammond Stadium, the big-league team’s spring training home.
“It’s basically like a mini-major league stadium, and on top of that, we have the dormitories for the players and the cafeteria,” team owner Andrew Kaufmann said. “It’s basically the Twins’ academy is on sight there. … We’re very lucky.”
And in Rochester, N.Y., where the Twins have had their Triple-A team since 2003, team president Naomi Silver said they were operating under the assumption, like the last time the PBA was updated, that there would be some level of improvements needed to stadiums, but not that teams would outright disappear.
“If it can happen at short season rookie-ball level, I guess we’re all concerned it could happen at any level, and it’s not good for baseball,” she said.
What about St. Paul?
Facilities aside, cutting down on travel is another concern for Major League Baseball as lower-level minor-league teams often have to deal with long, cramped bus rides to games. Realignment is also on the table for this reason in the search to help provide better geographic affiliations and leagues.
So, what about St. Paul?
According to Baseball America, the proposal included the suggestion that two independent clubs would make the leap to affiliated ball: the Sugar Land Skeeters and … the St. Paul Saints.
While the idea of the Twins moving some of their minor league operations to St. Paul would be attractive geographically, Saints executive vice president and general manager Derek Sharrer said his organization hadn’t had conversations with anyone before it was included in the proposal — and as of earlier this month, the Saints hadn’t been contacted after, either.
Sharrer said it was flattering that the Saints’ CHS Field and the team’s operation were seen as one that could be considered as an affiliated franchise, but the Saints take pride in their independent status.
“Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball appear to be pretty far apart at this point,” Sharrer said. “It’s going to be a pretty interesting next several months as they work toward the end of the agreement. But fortunately for us, we’re not part of that agreement at this point, so we don’t necessarily have to worry about it other than how we’re brought up in conversation.”
For now, much of the conversation has centered around the communities and the jobs that would be lost if the proposal to become reality, rather than teams that could potentially be added. And that’s been both a point of shock and sadness around the minor league community.
“When you take into account the owners of the team that have spent millions of dollars buying teams for their communities, and you take into account the amount of public funding that has gone into the stadiums, it’s just hard to believe that they can be made to disappear,” Rochester’s Silver said. “It would be really unfortunate to see something like that happen.”