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Dec. 11, 2020 — The end of small-town baseball?

For many small towns across America, minor-league baseball is a driver of economic and social good, with family-friendly entertainment during the summer months that allows the town to showcase itself to the nation.

The small Mississippi town in which I was born had a minor-league baseball team from 1893 to 1956. The smaller town upstate in which I was raised had a team for a season and a half in the mid-1920s. This was an era where every small hamlet across America had a ball team of some kind, with nicknames as colorful as the Undertakers, Gasbags, Lunatics, the House of David, and the Hottentots.

But now that Major League Baseball owns and controls the entirety of organized minor-league baseball, it has made a number of radical shifts in the last two months. It created partnerships with a couple of independent minor leagues, and then allowed parent clubs to pluck from their ranks to become full minor-league affiliates, which has happened in Sugar Land, Tex. and St. Paul, Minn.

Major League Baseball also demoted the Appalachian League to a college wooden-bat league, and pretty much blew up the New York-Penn League to create a short-season “draft league” encompassing six teams.

But the revamping of the minor-league system has done terrible damage, I think, to the cities which were left out of the equation, such as Batavia, N.Y., Norwich, Conn., and Hagerstown, Md.

I once attended a game back in 1992 at Falcon Park in Auburn, N.Y., where the short-single Season A Auburn Astros played. It was a dusty facility with bleacher seating which was barely better than a baseball diamond in a public park in a mid-sized U.S. city. But the people in the town, located a few miles west of Syracuse, were proud of the team, which was run as a community non-profit. Auburn, however, is one of the 11 cities left without a minor-league baseball team.

Auburn was one of the towns which had upgraded its home field in the mid 1990s at the behest of Major League Baseball to prevent the team from moving out of town. One team that had moved during that period was a team in Colonie, N.Y., a suburb of the state capitol of Albany. Minor-league baseball was reborn in the Capital District when the Tri-City ValleyCats started playing in Troy during the summer of 2002. But because of minor-league realignment, Tri-City also now finds itself without a minor-league team.

Another city without minor-league ball is Charleston, W. Va., which had lost its previous team, the Charlies, back in the 1980s.

As you can tell, the history of minor-league baseball in the U.S. is one of shifting teams, often through no fault of the players who were looking to get away from jobs in mining or agriculture. If you could hit the curve, it was a way out of poverty.

But if you’ve been reading the details of the realignment, you’ll have noticed that the baseball draft is now going from 40 rounds to just 20. That means 20 fewer draftees, meaning one less level of competition in the minors, and 30 fewer teams for players to play on.

In the midst of this pandemic, and the economic uncertainty surrounding it, I am not sure this was the wisest move that the billionaires who run baseball could have made.

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