MLB Cuts Out The Heart Of America

The year was 1960, the first time I attended a minor-league baseball game, featuring the Duluth Dukes hosting the Eau Claire Braves at Wade Stadium in Duluth, Minn. "The Wade," as the locals call it, is a concrete fortress whose aluminum planks in the cheap seats can be downright frosty even in summer if the wind is blowing in an unfriendly direction off Lake Superior.

Our summer camp was 30 miles away, and a field trip to see the Dukes of the Northern League more than 60 years ago was a delicious treat.

The Dukes were the Class-C affiliate of the Detroit Tigers. Their light-hitting shortstop Ray Oyler was destined to play four seasons in Motown (six altogether in the majors) despite a .175 lifetime batting average. William James (Gates) Brown, recently released from prison- hence the moniker Gates - joined the Tigers three years later and was one of the American League's most feared pinch-hitters for 13 seasons. And Willie Smith, a promising young pitcher, went 10-6 with a 2.96 ERA for Duluth that season, the same Willie Smith whose Wrigley Field Opening Day 11th-inning, pinch-hit, walkoff home run for the Cubs ignited their near-miss 1969 season.

Little did we realize that Eau Claire catcher Joe Torre would go on to big league stardom prior to becoming a manager for 29 seasons that included four World Series titles with the Yankees.

However, Major League Baseball is taking a major league step to extinguish memories like mine with its announcement earlier this month of its realignment of the minor leagues. Gone are 43 lower-classification franchises whose working agreements with MLB will not be renewed. League designations also have been railroaded.

Gone are the Pacific Coast League, the International League, the American Association, The New York-Penn League, the Southern League and many other circuits long-associated with various sections of the country. Now we simply have Triple-A, Double-A, High-A and Low-A, all of which are divided into designations like East, West, Northeast, Central, and Southeast. One might think that the folks who named the New York City public schools are on retainer with MLB.

Since 1901, with the creation at the Leland Hotel in Chicago of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues - renamed Minor League Baseball or MiLB in 1999 - the rules and agreements between the big league clubs and their affiliates were negotiated and structured where compromise and teamwork were required. However, that arrangement expired in 2020 so that Commissioner Rob Manfred and the owners unilaterally now make up the rules. You know, the same guys who say they've lost billions due to the pandemic, disregarding that minor league clubs in places like Billings, Mont. and Burlington, Ia. had their entire seasons cancelled.

And what did the folks in Billings and Burlington and 41 other towns that had minor league clubs in 2019 glean from the new arrangement? The news that their affiliation with Major League Baseball was hereby terminated. Their teams would not be filled with drafted players from MLB. If they want to continue, they're on their own. This makes cancel culture look like discontinuing reruns of Gunsmoke.

Much of my reaction is personal because my brother John spent a good portion of his professional life running or working for minor league franchises in Indianapolis, Cedar Rapids, Wichita, Tulsa, New Orleans, and Springfield, Ill. Like many other individuals, from general managers to hot dog vendors, his focus and energy were aimed at bringing the best possible experience to every fan who passed through the turnstiles.

When he was GM of the Midwest League's Cedar Rapids Cardinals, a St. Louis Class-A affiliate, my college roommate and I visited him for a night game and crashed at his austere apartment afterward. Arising at dawn the next day, he was dressed in sport coat and tie on his way to the ballpark. He said he needed to get there early to ice down the beer for that evening's game.

"Stay as long as you want," he said, "but whatever you do, don't open the refrigerator."

Of course, as soon as we heard his car's exhaust exit the parking lot - a new muffler would have been an improvement - we did exactly as we were instructed not to do, and we paid for it. Apparently the power company weeks before had cut off his electricity for late payment, and John never bothered to clean out the contents of the appliance even after power was restored. My sinuses just recovered last week.

But the lesson is that his full attention was directed toward running a minor-league baseball franchise while the little details of life, like paying his electric bill, were neglected. He had the means to write a check, but I suspect it never occurred to him. He made sure that the power company was compensated for the ballpark arcs, but he was much less concerned about his own living quarters.

If John were around today and still hustling tickets, concessions, advertising, promotions, and special events, and MLB said, "Thanks, but we don't need you anymore," he no doubt would be livid before figuring out ways to bring baseball entertainment to the heartland of America.

He would have been proud of Bernie Sanders, who has been tweeting and e-mailing for almost two years about the "contraction" of franchises like Cedar Rapids. The lone minor league club in Sanders' state, the Vermont Lake Monsters in Burlington, is among the 43 abandoned franchises.

In an age where a small-market team like San Diego makes a splash with a $340 million deal for Fernando Tatis, Jr., the owners claim they simply can't continue to stock the rosters of 160 minor league teams, paying many players less than minimum wage.

High school teammates of mine who played professional baseball came back to tell me about the times they experienced. My friend Mike played in the Carolina League after signing with the Pirates. Teammates included Dave Cash, Richie Hebner and Gene Clines, who had notable big league careers. Steve signed with Minnesota and played in the Northern League with the St. Cloud Rox, who were champions in 1966. He tells the story of the clubhouse celebration when one of his teammates needed medical attention after being popped in the eye by a Champagne cork.

While neither of these pals ever rose to higher classifications, their sons can tell their grandsons, "Pops played pro ball." That's a nice thing and one that will happen less in the future.

Seven states - Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado and Arizona - will join Vermont as the only states without an affiliated minor league ballclub. Ten teams in those states who employ vendors, ticket-takers, ushers, clubhouse attendants, salespeople and others have been told to hit the road. At the risk of mixing apples and oranges, one might conclude that this is an instance of the eastern and urban elite disrespecting and ignoring the less-populated and rural sections of the country.

Part of the rationale advanced by MLB involves player development, whereby Manford and his cronies, among other assets, say that a minor league franchise needs to have a clubhouse with so many square feet, a facility with access to indoor batting cages and pitching mounds, and more than adequate weight room and training facilities. Interestingly, Mike Trout played at the aforementioned Cedar Rapids and also Class-A Rancho Cucamonga on his way to being the best player in baseball. Further investigation is required to see whether these locales had state-of-the-art facilities, but my guess is coaching, guidance and raw talent had more to do with his development than a fancy facility.

The lords of baseball continually tinker with the game, displaying on full view their inferiority complex, admitting that they themselves think the game is too slow and boring. They want the game to appeal to a wider range of fans, especially the younger set.

At the same time, they keep a close eye on attendance, which at the major league level has slowly diminished every year from 2015 to 2019. Meanwhile, minor league attendance in 2019, the last year the teams were active, rose 2.6 percent. So then, are we to believe that the solution to giving the game wider appeal is to basically eliminate more than 40 minor league teams? Sounds like Rahm Emanuel's solution to improve public education in Chicago by closing 50 schools. We know how that's working out.

Every season in Birmingham, Ala., the White Sox heretofore Double-A club hosts the Rickwood Classic at Birmingham's Rickwood Field, the oldest ballpark in America. The stadium easily qualifies as a baseball museum. The ads on the outfield walls are from yesteryear as is the old scoreboard with the Southern Association teams listed. There is a "Colored Section" reminding us of the days of Jim Crow. The place oozes history both exhilarating and distressing.


Maybe Rob Manford should round up his minions - the Reinsdorfs, Rickettses, Steinbrenners, the Guggenheim Baseball Management of the Dodgers - and have them attend the Rickwood Classic, a reminder of what baseball means to small town America. Maybe they'll have a change of heart. They'll realize that the game belongs to everyone; that families can enjoy nine innings of baseball, hot dogs, popcorn and beer for a fraction of the cost of a big league game just a 10-minute drive away. Or more likely they'd return home, check their balance sheets, and figure out additional ways to inflate the bottom line.


Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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