By Dave Ongie
On a Tuesday morning in late autumn 2019, Randy Boyd approved significant upgrades to three ballparks occupied by the Appalachian League teams owned an operated by Boyd Sports, LLC. The Greeneville Reds would get a new video board, while the parks the Johnson City Cardinals and Elizabethton Twins call home were in line for major improvements as well.
Two days later, a letter arrived from Minor League Baseball (MiLB) President Patrick O’Connor cautioning owners of minor league teams against making any financial commitments beyond the 2020 season.
“We got approval on Tuesday, we got the letter on Thursday, and everything came to a halt,” said Jeremy Boler, vice-president of Boyd Sports.
While the 2020 season will go off without a hitch, there is a real possibility it will be the last for the Appalachian League, which was founded in 1911. The current agreement between Major League Baseball (MLB) and its 160 minor league affiliates ends Sept. 15, 2020. As a foundation of its proposal for a new agreement, MLB has proposed sweeping changes to MiLB that could eliminate 42 teams, including the entire Appalachian League.
“We are in discussions with the owners of the Minor League teams to reorganize elements of the system with the goal of improving the working conditions of minor league players, including upgrading the facilities to Major League standards, increasing player compensation, reducing travel time between affiliates for road games, improving transportation and hotel accommodations, increasing the number of off days, and providing better geographical affiliations between the MLB Clubs and affiliates,” Major League Baseball said in a statement.
The proposal would allow Major League clubs to remove around 1,600 players from their payrolls, but it is being met with significant pushback from MiLB and the independent owners who operate the teams currently on the chopping block.
That sets the stage for the most contentious negotiations between MLB and MiLB since a bruising bargaining session in the early 1990s that greatly altered the landscape of the minor leagues. In the aftermath of those negotiations, MLB teams took over the contracts and player development of minor league players and left the owners of minor league teams in charge of facilities and player care.
With that in mind, Boler is hopeful the MLB’s latest proposal is simply an aggressive opening position by MLB that will leave room for compromise later.
“Part of me hopes it’s just a hardcore negotiation (tactic),” Boler said. “But I think we have to be cautious that they very well might be serious, too, and we’ve got to protect ourselves from that.”
What is at stake for Boyd Sports and other owners is the very survival of the teams they own. O’Connor recently told the New York Times he believes only eight to 10 of the 42 teams the MLB is seeking to cut ties with could survive without MLB affiliation.
Boler said he cannot foresee a viable business model where any Appalachian League team could survive without a Major League team paying the players and coaches. There are minor league teams that play in independent leagues in larger markets, but the burden of a payroll ranging between $250,000 and $300,000 per season would be too heavy for the teams in our market.
“None of our teams could financially support that,” he said. “You’re one rainout away from not making the revenue you need to pay the players. That’s a high risk.”
As news of MLB’s proposal has spread, minor league teams have found support in Washington, D.C. as members of Congress have become aware of the potential economic damage to their districts that could occur as a result of teams dissolving. The bipartisan Save Minor League Baseball task force quickly sprung up with Representatives Lori Trahan (D-MA), David McKinley (R-WV), Max Rose (D-NY) and Mike Simpson (R-ID) leading the charge.
Closer to home, Representative Phil Roe recently met with MLB Deputy Commissioner Dan Halem to discuss the ramifications of eliminating the entire Appalachian League, which has four teams in Roe’s congressional district.
“There are ongoing discussions between MLB and its minor league affiliates about the future of minor league baseball, and since half of the Appalachian League teams play in our region, I want to be active in ensuring America’s pastime is preserved for generations to come,” Roe said in a statement. “I look forward to continuing on working to preserve baseball in the First District of Tennessee.”
While Boler said he appreciates the support Boyd Sports and other owners are receiving on Capitol Hill, he said this is a problem that most likely can’t be solved legislatively since MLB is a privately owned entity. But, he did say those on Capitol Hill do have a powerful tool at their disposal to help preserve minor league baseball.
“The strongest repercussion would be the anti-trust exemption Major League Baseball has had since 1922,” Boler said. “Congress and the U.S. Senate do have the authority to yank that. I know that has a lot of people nervous.”
It’s easy to see why rural communities like those that make up most of the Appalachian League fear the end of their affiliation with MiLB. Aside from the affordable summer entertainment having a minor league team provides, the teams have an economic impact that goes beyond the gate receipts.
In recent years, for instance, a record number of fans have flocked to downtown Johnson City each summer, helping spur the revitalization of the downtown district. Boler said the economic ripple effect is felt far beyond the ballpark. As an example, the Holiday Inn in Johnson City houses visiting Appalachian League teams in town to play both the Cardinals and Twins, meaning approximately 30 rooms are occupied on any given summer night during the season, and that number is doubled if both teams have home games.
Moreover, the players and coaches do charitable work and spend money in our community during the season, which adds to the tax base. Front office employees serve on boards and help enrich the community. Boler said the affiliation between teams and communities is a win-win scenario.
“The more successful we are, the more successful the local governments are as well,” he said.
And now, the league is preparing to enter a season of uncertainty as both sides get set to begin negotiating in earnest in the months ahead. Boler allows that there is plenty at stake, but for now, he’s content to let the process play out.
“We truly have to trust the process with MiLB and MLB,” he said. “Obviously all the congressional support is wonderful as well, but we do trust that MiLB has put the right people in place to negotiate on our behalf.”