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Courtney Knichel gets the question often. The general manager of the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs hears from a lot of fans who want to know the same thing when they visit the team’s Regency Furniture Stadium in Waldorf.

“Who are you guys affiliated with?”

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She then tells them the Blue Crabs are not one of 160 minor league teams with ballparks in cities throughout the country, but instead, they are a member of the Atlantic League, one of several leagues that are independent of Major League Baseball and its minor league counterparts.

Knichel is open to that changing. Under a proposal from MLB to Minor League Baseball (MiLB), 42 minor league teams would lose their affiliated status after the 2020 season, with MLB organizations limited to five minor league affiliates, including their Rookie-level teams in Arizona and Florida. Also part of the proposal would be two independent teams, including one of the Blue Crabs’ fellow Atlantic League teams — the Sugar Land Skeeters — receiving player development contracts, the deals that bind minor league teams to MLB franchises and make them affiliated teams.

Knichel said the Blue Crabs, the only independent team in Maryland, certainly would be interested in a player development contract if MLB offered them one. But she’s also not convinced the challenges her team faces regularly aren’t also experienced by affiliated teams.

One challenge that is exclusive to independent teams, though, is their player payment structure. Affiliated teams have their players and coaches provided and paid for by their MLB parent clubs. In the Blue Crabs’ case, Knichel and manager Stan Cliburn share the responsibility of putting together the team’s player roster, with all coaches’ and players’ salaries and benefits being part of the franchise’s payroll.

“When a parent club gets involved, obviously, they are taking a lot of the expense, as well,” Knichel said. “A lot of pressures could be taken off in that scenario."

Those are pressures the executives of several current minor league teams could face in 2021. Should the MLB proposal come to fruition, franchises that lose their affiliations will have to add player and coach salaries and benefits to their current expenses, which include minor league staff and travel.

Part of the MLB proposal is the creation of a “Dream League,” a semi-independent league that would have support from MLB and MiLB in the form of marketing and diversity initiatives, with the league being composed of some of the MiLB teams that become unaffiliated.

Three of the minor league affiliates in Maryland seem particularly at risk. Although the teams in Aberdeen and Bowie are positioned to survive the proposal, Frederick, Delmarva and Hagerstown’s facilities could cause them to lose their affiliated status under the proposal, two MLB sources told The Baltimore Sun last week. All of the teams are affiliated with the Orioles except Hagerstown, the Washington Nationals’ Low-A affiliate.

Should one of the Maryland teams lose its player development contract and become part of the Dream League, Knichel said she doesn’t think the Blue Crabs would suffer from another semi-independent competitor. She said “a night out at the movies, festivals, backyard barbecues” are what the Blue Crabs consider business competitors, not other minor league teams in the area.

“You want to take your family to the closest, most affordable entertainment,” she said. “I don’t really think that one of the teams in the area becoming an independent team is going to really make us feel any kind of an effect."

In fact, Knichel is excited about what the proposal could mean for the Blue Crabs and the Atlantic League, even if it doesn’t lead to a player development contract making its way to Waldorf. The amateur draft is expected to be reduced by 15 to 20 rounds under the proposal, which would leave plenty of talented players undrafted. Although it’s likely many of them would fill Dream League rosters, others could join existing independent teams such as the Blue Crabs.

Knichel noted that the Atlantic League, as part of an agreement with MLB, began using experimental rule changes in 2019, including allowing players to “steal” first base and the use of an automated ball-strike system, more commonly referred to as a “robotic umpire.” Knichel said many of the experimental rules are “younger player-geared.”

A youthful roster could add excitement for fans making it out to Blue Crabs games. Although seeing their favorite team’s top prospects at the minor league level is an area of interest for some fans, Knichel said others simply want to enjoy a baseball game.

“I think people are going to professional baseball games for cheap hot dogs and firework shows,” she said. “It’s all about filling the stands, selling the hot dogs, putting on entertainment.

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“I think gone are the days of people who go to baseball games for that affiliation tag.”

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