SARASOTA, FLA. — Bob Bruchey is well aware of the volatility of the baseball industry. Before his fourth term as Hagerstown’s mayor, he supervised the marketing efforts of the city’s minor league team before being thrust into the role of interim general manager for the Suns, the Washington Nationals’ Low-A affiliate. It wasn’t long after a return to his original role that he again found himself with the title of GM.
That fluidity keeps him calm amid the possibility that 2020 will be his city’s final season with an affiliated minor league baseball team.
“I know how that industry works,” Bruchey said, “and I don’t believe anything until I see people pack up and leave."
With the Professional Baseball Agreement between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball set to expire after the 2020 season, the Suns could be among several minor leagues teams that would lose their player development contracts, the deals that affiliate them to major league clubs, under a proposal from Major League Baseball. The Frederick Keys, the Orioles’ High-A affiliate, were also on an initial list of the 42 teams that would lose affiliation should the proposal pass.
Both Bruchey and Frederick’s Michael O’Connor are among more than 100 mayors nationally who have signed a “Save Minor League Baseball” petition. Eight other Maryland mayors have also joined the same task force, though none represent the state’s three other cities with minor league teams — Aberdeen, Salisbury and Bowie, all host sites of Orioles’ affiliates.
Congress created a task force of its own, one that received praise from the Orioles’ affiliates in Frederick; Bowie; and Norfolk, Virginia, all of which are owned by Maryland Baseball Holding LLC. Both political efforts, on the local and national levels, are aimed at preventing the loss of minor league teams. But a source close to MLB said the league’s intent is for them to go nowhere at all.
Speaking to reporters in North Port, Florida, last month, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred emphasized the league’s desire to not take teams out of the cities and towns they are already in.
“The proposal that we made to Minor League Baseball and every single conversation we’ve had with Minor League Baseball about this topic included a plan so that every single community that has professional baseball would still have some form of professional baseball,” Manfred said. “Minor League Baseball has chosen to mischaracterize the discussions in an effort to put public pressure on [us].”
That pressure is primarily coming from public bodies and elected officials, support MiLB has appreciated in this process.
“It’s always great to see support from community leaders and obviously elected officials,” said Jeff Lantz, MiLB’s senior director of communications. “It shows the importance of minor league teams to their communities, and those elected officials understand what a big part of the community those ballclubs are and that they do mean a lot, and not just community pride but the jobs that are on the line here and quality of life. It’s a big part of each of these communities."
MLB is equally trying to maintain some form of professional baseball in those cities with teams that would lose affiliation while finding ways to improve working conditions for minor league players, the source said. Among those efforts is improving the facilities the prospects are developed in, with several of the teams with futures in doubt playing in ballparks MLB doesn’t find appropriate for grooming top talent.
Another intention of MLB’s proposed affiliation reduction is to better organize the teams’ locations to simplify travel and minimize the lengthy bus rides that have become synonymous with minor league baseball. Given what the league now knows about rest, training and recovery, the source said, it’s become clear such circumstances are not optimal for developing a team’s prospects into quality major leaguers.
The contraction of affiliated minor league teams also would reduce the number of minor league players, which could allow those who remain to be better compensated. MLB has already announced that there will be unilateral pay increases for minor leaguers in 2021, with some teams supplying raises a year early for the 2020 campaign.
“MLB is confident that we can simultaneously keep baseball in the communities in which it is currently being played and modernize our player development system so that it fits the 21st century, improves playing conditions and increases opportunities for players,” an MLB spokesperson said in a statement. “That’s why MLB clubs have already decided to increase compensation for minor league players.”
Richard Griffin, Frederick’s director of economic development, said the Keys have a yearly economic impact of about $15 million on the city, with Bruchey approximating the Suns’ economic impact to Hagerstown at $3 million to $5 million.
Although some form of the Suns has been in Hagerstown since 1981, their home ballpark, Municipal Stadium, turns 90 years old later this year. Despite the uncertainty, Hagerstown is moving forward on a phase-two study for a new ballpark for the Suns, Bruchey noted. The Keys were originally the Hagerstown Suns from 1981 to 1988 before moving to Frederick, playing at Nymeo Field at Harry Grove Stadium since 1990.
“When you have an organization in the community for that long, obviously it becomes a part of the community,” Griffin said. “The Keys and what they represent both in terms of economic impact, but also just quality of life for a community that really has come to depend on minor league baseball as one of the sources of entertainment in our community.”
The league, the source said, understands that. The initially reported proposal — one that became public in October after only three negotiation meetings between MLB and MiLB, per the source — included the idea of having the teams that lose affiliated status become part of either an amateur summer league or a “Dream League,” a partly subsidized pseudo-independent league where the teams’ rosters would be filled with undrafted players. The source said those plans could be altered in further negotiations.
MLB said in a statement that it hoped public bodies such as Congress and the coalition of mayors would help bring the two sides together rather than further drive MLB and MiLB apart as the negotiations continue.
“Major League Baseball appreciates the role that elected officials, community leaders and other stakeholders have played in promoting baseball,” the league spokesperson continued in the statement. “The most constructive role they can play in these negotiations is to encourage Minor League Baseball to continue working with MLB to address the real issues impacting minor league players and communities across the country.”
But whatever potential improvements come out of the ongoing negotiations are unlikely to benefit any teams that would lose their affiliated status. The league’s hope is that the loss of affiliation will do little to impact the fan experience at the respective ballparks, the source said, noting that attendees will still be able to watch the same sport, eat the same food and enjoy the same in-game promotions. But losing the benefits that come with affiliated status — which include top prospects on a roster that the major league parent club provides and pays for — would still hurt, Griffin said.
“I think clearly one of the great things that attract people to the minor league baseball (games) is the affiliation to Major League Baseball and the fact that you have stars coming through these teams who are rehabbing or they're young and they're up-and-coming stars,” Griffin said. “We've had a lot of those kinds of folks come through Frederick, and it draws people out to come see them, and being able to then follow them and their career up into the major leagues.
“Our sense is that keeping minor league baseball here in Frederick and across the country is good for baseball as a whole and good for our economy, good for our communities."
In 2020, the Keys figure to start the season with the Orioles’ top two prospects and previous two first-round picks, catcher Adley Rutschman and right-handed pitcher Grayson Rodriguez. Four members of the Nationals’ 2019 World Series roster played for the Suns along their climb up the minor leagues.
As MLB tries to quell political pressure, fear remains that by next year, 42 cities will no longer be able to see the stars of the future in their backyards.
“We’re talking about an amenity in our community that people enjoy,” Bruchey said. “To lose that is just one more nail in the coffin of our local community and our local economics.
Latest Baltimore Orioles
“Here’s an amenity that a lot of us have poured a ton of money into for our people, and they’re just gonna pull the rug out from under us.”