At long last, after a nearly 600-day absence caused by the pandemic, minor league baseball is back. Full-season teams across the country are opening their gates on May 4, marking the first official action since the 2019 Triple-A Championship Game between Memphis and Sacramento.
Even though the games are back, Opening Day will be far from a return to normalcy. Between 2019 and 2021, Major League Baseball moved forward with its One Baseball plan, which rearranged the minor leagues.
The Rookie-advanced Pioneer League is now a professional partner league with ties to MLB but unaffiliated players. The short-season New York-Penn League has dissolved. Three of its teams jumped up to full-season ball. Other former NYPL teams joined summer wood bat amateur leagues. The Rookie-advanced Appalachian League retained its league identity but now operates as a summer wood bat amateur league. Six of the eight teams from the old short-season Northwest League are now High-A affiliates.
Beyond the restructuring, rule changes will be sprinkled throughout the minors. Included among those rules are the implementation of the automatic ball-strike system, larger bases, new regulations on pickoffs and plenty more. The biggest differences between this year and 2019, however, revolve around the effects of the pandemic. A year with little to no revenue has wrought immense havoc on teams and their front offices, and the continued threat of Covid-19 will mean teams have to shake up the way they do business both in and out of the public view.
With that, Baseball America asked minor league front office executives around the country a series of questions about the issues facing the sport now and in the future.
Even though minor league operators have sustained great financial loss in the past 20 months, many were quick to highlight their resiliency in getting to this moment.
“Despite the struggles we were all having financially and all the staff we had to let go, teams still found ways to make huge impacts on their community to help ease the pandemic,” a Triple-A general manager said. “It just shows that the resiliency and creativeness is as strong as ever.”
1. How has the coronavirus pandemic affected the operations of your team?
This was the question whose answers showed the least amount of variance. Quite simply, the pandemic wrecked the operation of minor league teams throughout the country. They were left with virtually no income, meaning that teams were forced to lay off or furlough staff members and drastically pare their operations.
“It was four times as bad as the great recession after 2008,” one Double-A GM said. “We are stripped to the bone with regards to staffing and morale could not be much worse.”
As the season neared, teams began rehiring some members of their staff, but some admitted it might take a while before their team can recoup enough revenue to add everybody back to the fold.
“(The pandemic) created the need to lay off staff and rethink how we do business each day,” one Triple-A GM said. “We are just now staffing back up for 2021 and will continue to do so for a year or so before we reach preCovid levels again.”
2. It will take until what year for your team to dig out from the economic hole created by the lost 2020 season?
Baseball is back, but it’s not all the way back. Capacities will vary across the country, and some of the fans will be using tickets bought before the 2020 season. Those costs were rolled over to 2021, which meant that clubs didn’t have to refund the money to those fans, but they also weren’t going to earn any new revenue on those seats in 2021. The same principle was true for things like advertisements and sponsorship deals.
A majority of the answers centered around the 2022 and 2023 seasons, though some executives pegged as late as 2025 for when their team’s finances would begin to approach pre-pandemic levels.
The variable in all this is how quickly the world at large returns to normal. The slower that happens, the more time it will take to recover.
“Who knows? It will depend on how quickly this season we can get to a capacity level that will enable us to survive the season and throughout next offseason,” another Triple-A executive said. “2021 is all about getting to 2022, when hopefully we will all be back to full capacity allowed at our ballparks.”
3. So far, what are your impressions of MLB’s governance of the minor leagues?
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