A radical proposal being pursued by Major League Baseball owners and commissioner Rob Manfred threatens to cripple organized baseball in West Virginia.
Upon the expiration of MLB’s current working agreement with Minor League Baseball – a 30-year contract that runs through the end of next baseball season – MLB is proposing a complete restructure of the minor leagues in a move that would essentially eliminate three of West Virginia’s four MLB-affiliated teams.
Last month, Manfred received unanimous approval from MLB’s 30 owners to create a plan to streamline the minor leagues. According to the New York Daily News, many of the details — i.e., the teams selected for downsizing — have been hammered out by the general managers of the Houston Astros, Milwaukee Brewers and Baltimore Orioles.
Short-season rookie leagues such as the New York-Penn League and Appalachian League would be entirely eliminated, while others would be restructured.
According to a New York Times story that has since been confirmed by multiple sources, a whopping 42 teams are on the chopping block. For a game as conscious of its own history as baseball — if not downright obsessed with it – the precise number of teams that would be eliminated sticks out a catcher’s thumb after getting hit by a foul tip.
42 is the only number retired by every Major League team, honoring Jackie Robinson, who integrated the sport and helped pave the way for integration in multiple American institutions. Daytona, Fla. – the city where Robinson first played spring training games for the Triple-A Montreal Royals in 1946 – is among the cities that would lose their big-league affiliation.
Few states would take a heavier hit than West Virginia.
The Charleston-based West Virginia Power (Class-A South Atlantic League), Bluefield Blue Jays (Appalachian League) and Princeton Rays (Appalachian League) would all lose their affiliations with Major League organizations. In addition, West Virginia-adjacent markets in Frederick, Md. (South Atlantic League) and Hagerstown, Md. (South Atlantic League) would also lose their MLB affiliations.
The Power released an official team statement Monday addressing their placement on baseball’s version of an endangered species list.
“Over the past several weeks, multiple media outlets have written stories about the reduction of Minor League baseball teams for the 2021 season, with the initial pitch including the West Virginia Power and 41 other clubs. MLB and MiLB are still early in the negotiations, and thus, nothing has been finalized and may not be for quite some time.
“Although MLB has stated publicly that their main concerns are facility standards, club travel and proximity to an MLB affiliate, Appalachian Power Park currently meets MLB’s facility standards, and the West Virginia Power is a centrally-located team within the South Atlantic League, providing fair travel times.”
Appalachian Power Park opened in 2005 at a cost of $25 million, the bulk of which came from state and local funding. It’s far from the only ballpark funded with public money, which creates a likelihood that MLB would be facing a massive legal battle from multiple angles if it goes through with the planned restructure.
Power owner Tim Wilcox said the team, which is currently affiliated with the Seattle Mariners, would take additional steps to cement its status as an MLB affiliate.
“We appreciate the outpouring of support from the Charleston community and our fan base over the years, and especially recently with our franchise being placed on this preliminary list,” Wilcox said in the team’s release. “We are working diligently with the state of West Virginia, Minor League Baseball and the city of Charleston to ensure that Minor League baseball stays in The Capital City for a long time.”
The franchise has been in Charleston since 1987. Minor League Baseball has had a successful run in the city dating to the Triple-A Charlies in the 1970s, who produced multiple contributors to the Pirates’ 1979 World Series championship team.
“The history of the game in the city is a big deal,” said Power general manager Jeremy Taylor. “That’s why I’m fighting for it, personally.”
The Morgantown-based West Virginia Black Bears (New York-Penn League) do not appear on the list of endangered teams, though it is unclear how the Black Bears would be able to transition into a full-season minor league.
The Black Bears share Mon County Ballpark with WVU, an arrangement that works because their schedules do not intertwine. A move to a full-season league in Class-A or AA would require sharing the field and facilities for two full months, not to mention the possibility of postseason play for the Mountaineers further complicating matters.
Teams culled from affiliated baseball would be able to take part in what MLB is calling “the Dream League,” which would consist of players who are undrafted and unsigned. The existence of such a league would be necessitated by another MLB proposal that would cut the draft from 40 rounds down to 20.
On paper, the Dream League looks like nothing more than a shell game favoring Major League owners.
Minor league owners would be responsible for all salaries and costs associated with running the teams. Taylor estimates it would take an additional $300,000-450,000 in additional annual expenses to keep a franchise afloat in the Dream League.
West Virginia’s minor league franchises are not entering their fight for survival alone. Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner told the New York Times his mission is to keep all 42 franchises afloat.
“My job is to save baseball in all 42 of those communities, if that’s possible,” O’Conner said.