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VOL. 43 | NO. 52 | Friday, December 27, 2019

After the boys of summer have gone ...

Diamonds would darken across East Tennessee under MLB plan to trim minor league teams

By Tom Wood

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Numbers tell one story about why Tri-Cities teams in the advanced rookie Appalachian League are in the cross-hairs of Major League Baseball’s proposed minor league contraction.

People in the communities of those affected – Johnson City, Greeneville and Elizabethton along with Kingsport – tell the real story, the human side of why a “Field of Dreams” pushback is underway to save the region’s love affair with the National Pastime.

Just talk to Johnson City residents Elizabeth Lawson and Larry Schmidt about their passion for the Cardinals, one of 42 teams in danger of losing their major league affiliation. For the past several years, they have provided housing for players on the summer league team.

“We’re very concerned. (The Cardinals are) very well appreciated, very well attended,” Lawson says. “We have had players that we’ve kept at our house that we then see at spring training. We haven’t had one yet that went to the majors, but we are hopeful that we will someday have one that’s actually on the team in St. Louis.

“We just feel like it’s such a good community thing, and all the area Cardinals fans feel like it’s really the wrong decision. (Minor league baseball) has been present for a really long time, and there are so many people that appreciate it and follow it and just love the team, the players. That’s how I feel about it. I am very passionate about it.

“I’m hoping that the owners change their minds and realize that it’s really going to affect how people view major league baseball because we get hooked at this level and then we enjoy the major league team as well.”

Fans pack the stands at Joe O’Brien Field in Elizabethton to watch the Minnesota Twins’ Appalachian League club. The park is about 9 miles east of Johnson City in the northeast corner of Tennessee.

-- Photographs Provided

Six of the Appalachian League teams draw fewer than 1,000 fans per game, while Johnson City – which has already seen stadium upgrades – drew an average of 2,519 per game, second-highest in the Appy League.

Schmidt and others say the emotional attachment to small-town teams translate into big-league support that could go away, that it is key to getting youth involved in supporting their favorite teams.

“It would hurt the small towns. It would hurt towns such as Johnson City and all the towns in the Appalachian League,” says Schmidt, 70. “The other thing is, and my wife touched on it, the average age of the baseball fan is 57. Well, this is where it starts. You try to get young people involved in it and enjoy this. And we would hate for it to happen. If it happens, we’ll just do something else with our time.”

Negotiations are ongoing between MLB and minor league officials over contraction, discussing everything from upgrading facilities to improved pay to travel and a number of issues. As proposed, the Appalachian League would disappear. Only one of the league’s 10 teams, the Pulaski (Virginia) Yankees, are not on the contraction list.

There also are two Southern League teams, Chattanooga and Jackson, on the contraction list – making Tennessee the state most affected by the proposal being spearheaded by MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. The current Professional Baseball Agreement of operations expires following the 2020 season.

Fans wait to enter TVA Credit Union Ballpark in Johnson City.

The teams in Johnson City, Greeneville and Elizabethon – as well as the Class AA Tennessee Smokies – are owned by Knoxville businessman and UT interim president Randy Boyd. The Smokies play at Smokies Stadium in Kodak but there have been preliminary discussions of moving the team back to Knoxville.

Chris Allen is president and chief operating officer of the Smokies and Boyd Sports LLC. Their four teams in 2019 drew a combined 432,506 fans, an average of 8,971 per game. Allen recently attended the 2019 Winter Meetings in San Diego and expressed hope that a solution will be negotiated that is satisfactory to all involved.

“At the end of the day, both parties come into the room and they try to fight for what they want, and hopefully there will be a compromise on both ends and everyone will get a little bit of what they want and maybe lose a little bit of what they might have wanted. That’s the way negotiations go, you know,” Allen adds.

“It’s a long, drawn-out process. … I don’t know where it’s going to end. I certainly hope, considering we have three Appalachian League teams, that contraction is not an option. I don’t know where that’s going to fall. Certainly, I think it would be a sad day if a large number of teams were contracted – or any team, for that matter. We just have to trust the process. We’re going to plan for the worst and hope for the best.”

Allen and Jeremy Boler, vice president of Boyd Sports, also touched on the economic impact on the cities if another slice of Americana disappears.

“The local communities would all lose their baseball teams; all the employees, from the full-time staff to the game-day staff; let alone to the players. I think they’re projecting 1,200-plus players – and not just players, but coaches and umpires, too. It’s a big shock to the system right now,” Boler says.

The Johnson City Cardinals, the Appalachian League champs for 2019, play in TVA Credit Union Ballpark, which seats 3,800.

“Small-town USA deserves baseball just like everyone else,” Allen adds. “Dan Moushon, who is president of the Appalachian League, had all of us work on the ‘charitable contributions’ report and I think – well, I know – all 10 teams in the Appalachian League through various donations (and) in-kind gifting impacted their communities in excess of $2 million. That’s a considerable amount of money in any part of the country, but certainly in the Appalachian League.”

Political clout

The MLB contraction proposal has been assailed by a number of Tennessee lawmakers, from Gov. Bill Lee to Rep. Phil Roe, one of several state politicians among 106 congressional colleagues who signed a letter opposing the proposal. Roe also met with MLB Deputy Commissioner Dan Halem.

“The 1st District of Tennessee is home to four minor league baseball teams in the Appalachian League — with a fifth right across the border in Bristol, Virginia,” Roe says. “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.

“For that reason, I met with Deputy Commissioner Halem to discuss the concerns our communities have with the potential loss of the Appalachian League and its impact on Northeast Tennessee. I look forward to continuing on working to preserve baseball in the 1st District of Tennessee.”

Boler says it’s great to have politicians championing their fight for survival.

It’s certainly not the locker room major league players might expect, but it’s home for Elizabethtown players.

“Congressman Roe’s been a big, big supporter of the Smokies, the Appalachian League and the whole minor league baseball. He’s been a big advocate of the fight up there, the meeting they had (Dec. 4) with Congress,” Boler continues.

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Bill Hagerty recently issued a statement in support of keeping minor league teams intact.

“When I was in the Tri-Cities, several Tennesseans spoke with me about MLB’s plan to cut the region’s minor league baseball teams. Our teams in Chattanooga, Elizabethton, Greeneville, and Jackson are also on the chopping block. It would be devastating for our communities.

“These teams bring America’s pastime to our backyards, and they are integral to the fabric of our communities. They inspire young athletes, provide family fun, support the community, and provide hundreds of good jobs. It is my hope that MLB reconsiders its plan and works with these teams to remain home in Tennessee.”

Others weigh in support

Retired Cincinnati Reds broadcaster Marty Brennaman is against contraction, particularly because of the effect it will have on small towns like Greeneville, which is affiliated with the Ohio ballclub.

“The most important problem it has that this is contrary to is finding ways to, one, attract youngsters back to the game – and I’m an old guy, so I remember how it was when I was a kid,” says Brennaman, who will be guest of honor at the Nashville Old Timers Baseball Association banquet Jan. 14.

A big crowd for the Greenville Reds, who play at Tusculum University’s 2,572-seat stadium, about 27 miles southwest of Johnson City.

“In the summertime you get up in the morning and play baseball all day, might come home for lunch, might not, and at night you listen to games on the radio – and by taking baseball away from towns in the minor league that’s going to eliminate or minimize or reduce the amount of interest that young people are going to have in this game that they’re working hard to get right now. … Baseball does a lot of things that just make me walk away scratching my head, believe me.”

Chattanooga businessman David R. Eichenthal, managing director for PFM Group Consulting, who recently wrote an opinion piece on MLB’s contraction proposal for The Hill, says commitments to new or upgraded facilities are the key to smaller cities keeping their teams.

“When I saw the list of the cities and the teams that were the target of Major League Baseball contraction, it was a familiar list because a lot of these are cities that I’ve worked with over the last several years as they seek to overcome economic challenges,” Eichenthal says.

“We know there’s a lot of economic literature that suggests that building big new stadiums doesn’t necessarily help bigger cities with major league stadia, but there is actually reason to believe that minor league baseball can be a real economic boost for smaller cities.

“If the Major League Baseball plan goes forward and minor league baseball goes away from these places, the economic impact could be quite real. And as I point out in the article that you reference, a lot of these cities have already faced significant economic setbacks over the decades.

“They disproportionally have higher rates of poverty, are more likely to sustain population loss and high unemployment. So what I’ve said is that it’s great that Congress is stepping up in a bipartisan way to encourage Major League Baseball to stay put when it comes to these minor league cities. But there’s so much more that the power of government needs to do to help these places achieve economic turnarounds.”

Intrinsic value of teams

Beyond attendance and financial figures, having a minor league team can boost a city’s morale as they follow the exploits and dreams of athletes who play the game for the sheer love of the game. Most know they’ll never make it to a major league roster.

“A minor league team can be a big deal to a small town, but most of the players on a rookie-level team have little chance of making it to the major leagues. Yet it is important for Tennessee baseball fans to realize that some big name players, MVPs like Jose Altuve (Greeneville) and Joe Mauer (Elizabethton), a Cy Young winner like Jacob deGrom (Kingsport) and future Hall of Fame catcher Yadier Molina (Johnson City) started their professional careers in Tennessee,” says longtime fan Mike Morrow of Nashville, who writes about baseball at tnprobaseball.com.

Kenny Loveless, 52, a meter reader for Johnson City government, says he actually prefers minor league baseball to the parent club show. Loveless recalls driving to Atlanta to watch his favorite major league team, the Mets, play against the Braves.

“I am definitely upset and I am definitely mad about (contraction),” Loveless says. “For the last three or four years, I’ve gotten season passes. And I’m right behind the plate, two seats over from behind catcher, so I’m there, I’m on top of it. And it’s just become my thing to do in the summer.

“It’s not that long a drive from Tri-Cities (to Atlanta). And they treated me good down there. Everybody was friendly, from the time we parked the car to the time we went in, the staff was great. But it just ain’t got the feel of minor league baseball,” Loveless adds.

“I tell anybody and everybody, if you want to experience minor league baseball at its best, you come to a Johnson City Cardinals game because we get with it.”

And that’s the message major league baseball leaders need to hear.

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