It’s been known since at least 2019 that Major League Baseball planned to contract some of its affiliated minor league teams. What has only come fully into view in the last week or so is the scale of the desecration Rob Manfred and Co. had in mind.
Major League Baseball has murdered the minor leagues.
The coup de grâce came a little over a week ago when it was announced that not only was MLB reorganizing the structure of the minor leagues, they were even removing the historic names of those minor leagues.
Gone will be the Pacific Coast League, the International League, the Texas League, the Carolina League... and on and on. In their place will be soulless corporate monikers like Triple-A East and Double-A Central.
That may sound trivial, but these leagues have identities that in some cases stretch back well over 100 years.
The Pacific Coast League was formed in 1902 and for the first half of the last century, it was the highest level of professional baseball on the West Coast. Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and dozens of other Major League stars began their professional careers with teams like the San Francisco Seals and the (pre-MLB) San Diego Padres. In the offseason, barnstorming teams of MLB players would head west to play PCL teams.
For its first half-century, PCL teams were unaffiliated with MLB clubs. Like the KBO and NPB of today, its players were at the top professional level in their region. And like those leagues, their top players were often poached by the more wealthy MLB teams.
In 1952, the PCL was granted “Open” classification - a level above AAA, with its own autonomy and protection from MLB poaching. That era was short-lived however, as it came just before the dawn of MLB games on television and the migration of MLB teams to major West Coast cities. In 1958, the league reverted to AAA, and its clubs became affiliated minor league teams. It has remained that way ever since.
That’s just the story of one of the minor leagues. They each have a history that stretches back before MLB affiliation and frankly, an identity that goes well beyond MLB affiliation. RJ McDaniel at Fangraphs wrote an obituary for The Northwest League.
Some of you may not care about minor league baseball at all. That’s because you are a fan of the corporate entity that is Major League Baseball. If you are a fan of baseball itself, and recognize the game has a life outside of Rob Manfred and 30 billionaire owners, this is a major loss.
I feel this on a personal level because, for the last decade plus, I’ve lived in a AAA city - home of the Iowa Cubs. And for decades, the Iowa Cubs have played in the same league as the Memphis (and previously Louisville) Redbirds. In a town with a nearly even split of Cubs and Cardinals fans, these series were always a major attraction. In fact, for the last several years, the Cubs and Redbirds have played a home-and-away series over the 4th of July weekend to capitalize on the popularity of the rivalry (and fireworks) in both cities.
These two minor league clubs - formerly of the PCL and American Association before that - will not play each other this year. Both are now part of the Triple-A East, but the Cubs are in the Midwest Division while the Redbirds are on the Southeast. Those subdivisions will not play this season, but whether that is a quirk of limiting travel for COVID reasons or the new normal... nobody knows for sure.
Des Moines is also home to an NBA G-League team and whatever they call the minor league hockey teams. As I sit and write this, I honestly can’t remember what our local G-League team is called. In fact, I initially forgot it was now the G-League and not the D-League. I know the team name has changed in the last couple years. I also can’t tell you for sure which NBA team they are affiliated with. I think it’s the Timberwolves, but that’s changed several times as well. At one point, they had players from both the Phoenix Suns and one other team.
I’ve been to a handful of NBA G-League games, though I don’t think I’ve ever paid for a ticket. The quality of play is really high - higher than Division I college ball - but it’s a struggle to maintain interest. Why is that? Because these teams and these leagues have no identity whatsoever.
Rob Manfred’s goal seems to be to make minor league baseball as faceless and boring as the NBA D-League. Hell - his goal seems to be to even sweep the regular season under the rug. The league’s proposals to the Player’s Association this offseason were all about 7-inning double-headers and let’s-wrap-it-up extra innings, in hopes of rushing the MLB season to an expanded playoffs and the pot of TV gold that comes with it.
It’s not just the owners who take this view. Plenty of fans do as well. Look at the disregard so many American fans had for the World Baseball Classic, or for the desire of players like Yadier Molina and Carlos Martinez to compete in winter ball and the Caribbean Series. In the view of these fans, everything that does not contribute directly to the crowing of a World Series Champion is just a distraction.
Baseball is not - or at least should not be - a rigid, national TV monolith like the NFL. It’s a more regional game, and it’s been that way for 150 years. It’s at its best when baseball is played at a variety of levels, from college to independent leagues to minor leagues, each with their own identity. There’s more to “the game” than just being a pipeline to put 50-some players in the World Series once a year.