Could the Appalachian League be all washed up?

Workers scramble during a rainstorm in Johnson City that postponed this game in 2015. The entire Appalachian League is part of minor league contraction talk as the majors and minors look toward a new working agreement. (Photo by Mike Morrow)

Whether it is the fault of the major leagues or the minor leagues, baseball has managed to scare the bejeebers out of minor league baseball teams, the entire Appalachian League among them.

News broke late last year that 42 minor league teams were in jeopardy of disappearing in light of a plan by Major League Baseball to address minor league conditions. The entire Rookie Level Appalachian League, which includes four Tennessee teams — Kingsport, Elizabethton, Johnson City and Greeneville — was on the list of teams in jeopardy. Additionally, the Class AA Chattanooga Lookouts and the Jackson Generals have been targeted.

Foremost, there is no need for hysteria. The final outcome will likely not be as dramatic or as ugly as original reports threatened. This is all in the backdrop of a new basic agreement due between MLB and the minor leagues after the 2020 season. It’s a negotiation.

When the potential of retraction involving dozens of minor league franchises leaked out, it drew a groundswell of political reaction. Congress responded with a Save Minor League Baseball Task Force and a congressional resolution calling for the “continuation of the 117-year foundation of the Minor Leagues in 160 communities through continued affiliations with Major League Baseball.”

In other words, leave our teams alone, leave our communities alone. It was a softball for politicians across the country who pointed out the economic impact that minor league baseball has on small towns — and a few fairly big cities — across the country. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has said his administration will be watching the issue.

Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has said the minor leagues have mischaracterized MLB’s proposal. He has said the original proposal was meant to preserve minor league baseball throughout the country. At the time the news got out, there was reference to a so-called Dream League intended to do just that, keeping baseball in small towns alive. The Dream League was never fully explained and was almost universally rejected by minor league advocates as unworkable. Since then, the notion of a Dream League and whatever that meant, has diminished.

What has not diminished is Manfred’s insistence that facilities upgrades are a priority, since MLB is in the business of developing future big-league players. Manfred has suggested that facilities in some minor league parks are simply unacceptable.

This is where the public relations aspect of the issue gets fuzzy. If community leaders or paying customers are asked about facilities of a minor league ballpark, they almost certainly are thinking of the conditions of the field and the viewing area of the park. Very few fans, and certainly very few members of Congress, have toured the clubhouses, showers, and other facilities available to the players. While many minor league teams, but not all, get coverage from the local media, it is similarly unlikely that many media members have been in player facilities beyond those of the hometown team.

MLB is in far better position to judge minor league player facilities than many of the critics of contraction of the minor leagues. Manfred has said some facilities are unsafe and not healthy.

Major League Baseball has also made an issue of the fact many of the teams competing against each other are far apart, creating travel hardships for the players. While it doesn’t take long to see the validity of this complaint by looking at a map of some minor leagues, the Appalachian League obviously doesn’t suffer from this problem. The teams are closely bunched. Other teams in the league are in Bluefield, W.Va., Princeton, W.Va., Burlington, N.C., Danville, Va., Pulaski, Va., and Bristol, Va.

If anyone thinks a dramatic contraction, like the disappearance of an entire league, isn’t possible, they haven’t followed the history of minor league baseball. Teams come and go. The KIT League, for Kentucky, Illinois and Tennessee, commonly known as the Kitty League, dated back to 1903. Many Tennessee baseball fans may not realize minor league baseball once existed in Clarksville, Dyersburg, Milan, Trenton, Paris and Union City. Negro League teams existed in Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville, Chattanooga and Oak Ridge.

Whenever business is involved, no one should assume that history and tradition will rule. If the financial conditions aren’t right, regardless of whose fault it is, baseball will change. As much the part of the fabric of a local community a minor league team may be, business will drive the decisions.

The sport will not die. The interest in watching the sport will not die. But there is much more to a business than the paying customer may readily recognize. MLB has taken a public relations hit already. It’s unlikely it will run over its minor league base just because it can. MLB knows there are long-term benefits of having families exposed to professional baseball.

Anytime Congress sniffs an issue involving Major League Baseball, some members will threaten to take away baseball’s anti-trust exemption, a threat that never seems to go anywhere. But if anyone believes the hometown team that has meant so much to a community couldn’t possibly be taken away, well, that’s a Dream League too.

The major leagues are interested in developing big-league talent. They know minor leagues are required to feed big-league rosters. Adjustments in minor league baseball are probable. The end result won’t be as dramatic as the 42-team threat originally envisioned. But the minor leagues will certainly be reminded of who carries the big stick — and the bigger wallet — when a new agreement between the majors and minors is resolved.

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