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Orioles, minor league affiliates embrace ‘Birdland’ approach amid contraction talks

SAN DIEGO — When Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias addressed the team’s affiliates at their annual dinner Tuesday night in San Diego, he touted the player development progress made in the first year of the team’s rebuild and the momentum toward continuing that.

All that development, however, could be happening in a vastly different environment considering Major League Baseball’s proposal to cut 42 minor league teams, reorganize the affiliate structure and change the way prospects get to the major leagues. It’s all a part of sweeping changes to the Professional Baseball Agreement that governs the relationships between MLB and Minor League Baseball and expires next year.

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Many of the Orioles’ affiliates have come out against the plan, with the Triple-A Norfolk Tides, Double-A Bowie Baysox and High-A Frederick Keys issuing statements praising Congress forming the “Save Minor League Baseball” task force to protect the threatened MiLB teams. Frederick is on the initial list of teams in jeopardy, according to The New York Times.

The proposal was a big part of commissioner Rob Manfred’s annual winter meetings press conference, and Elias’ final media session Wednesday. Where it didn’t really come up was at the affiliates dinner, which celebrated the successes of the farm system at a time when it is receiving more attention than ever. And more attention means more money.

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“For us, we’ve found success in the current setup and we really like the way our minor leagues are situated with Baltimore, with all of them so close,” Elias said. “It’s all a big part of our fanbase. To us, ‘Birdland’ is this entity that extends beyond Baltimore and includes our minor league facilities. We like our setup. We think it’s helpful for us, but any time there’s new regulation, you certainly have to tailor your strategy towards it.

“Unless that happens, it’s hard to know what that looks like. But I think we know how to succeed in the current setup and the current environment as well as anyone.”

Ken Young, owner of Norfolk, Bowie, and Frederick and president of the Tides, said the affiliates have gotten that same impression, and he’s hopeful none of those teams end up on the outside of whatever agreement is reached.

He posited that the published list of possible teams to cut was compiled by some who “didn’t have a great knowledge of the minor leagues,” while expressing hope that MLB “will see that it’s in their best interest to do something different than the cut they were planning."

“The Orioles, and Mike may have told you this if you ask him, really like where their affiliates are right now, including Frederick,” Young said. “They think they have a great situation, so Frederick being on that list wasn’t caused by the Orioles, because the Orioles’ desire is still to play in Frederick. Eventually, that’s the way it’s going to continue to be.”

Elias didn’t address the plan in the full-group setting of the annual dinner.

“I think there’s some anxiousness on all of our parts when there’s ideas floating around out there, but it hasn’t been a topic of conversation,” Elias said. “We’re focused on the current setup. We had a terrific year. … I think we have a lot to celebrate there, and some really good relationships across all of our affiliates between the front office and each minor league affiliate.”

Manfred said Wednesday that the negotiations between the two sides had been “a little more positive” while noting that the initial reporting of the proposal is “by no means a fait accompli as to what the agreement is going to look like.”

He also said that MLB would be flexible, while MiLB “has taken the position that they’re not willing to discuss anything but the status quo or any changes that would provide for upgrades in adequate facilities, better working conditions for our players.” He added that the minor league side’s actions in breaking the confidentiality of the negotiations created some ill will from the major league owners. Earlier this fall, MiLB representatives presented the same kind of intransigence about their major league counterparts.

MLB subsidizes minor league baseball “to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars every single year,” Manfred said when asked whether he appreciated that teams in small towns across the country are a conduit to growing the game.

“Given that we are already subsidizing at the level that I’ve previously referred to, I think it is unreasonable to come to a bargaining table and say, ‘Yeah, we got some facilities. We know they’re substandard. In fact, they may not be fixable, but we’re not willing to do anything about that.’ That’s unreasonable.”

MiLB, for its part, issued a lengthy statement Friday to dispute most of what Manfred claimed, pushing back on everything from facilities issues to travel and player welfare while noting what’s overseen by the major league clubs versus the minor league affiliates.

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Part of the issue of facilities standards applies to the player development conditions at the Maryland stadiums that house Orioles affiliates, too. Some of the charms and quirks of a minor league stadium are less so when it comes to taking batting practice and building professional athletes.

There’s an expectation at some affiliates that investment toward upgrades that best align with the organization’s player development goals are on the horizon. And while each side has painted the other’s negotiators as stubborn at one turn or another, the scope of what’s been proposed and what significant changes could mean should be plenty to allow for an agreement.

“This has been one of the great relationships in American sports history,” Bowie general manager Brian Shallcross said. “It’s the reason our sport covers every corner of the United States, the system between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball. Look at any other sport. It just doesn’t work like the baseball model works.

"I think that at the end of the day, that’s still going to be intact, and we’ve got to make sure that we respect the wishes of our major league partners and certainly that the game of baseball takes top priority, for what’s good for the game.”

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