In the Antelope Valley, waiting is the hardest part right now.
Lancaster had known for a little over a year that his tenure as a professional baseball town was weak. When reports of Major League Baseball’s initiative to reduce the minor leagues to 120 teams were first released last October, it was one of the most vulnerable spots. Even then, the talk was that MLB was considering pushing Fresno back into the Class A California League and squeezing Lancaster out.
At least then we assumed the JetHawks would have at least one more season, but the new coronavirus destroyed every chance of that. So they face the prospect of being pushed out the door without even saying goodbye.
Tuesday afternoon the ax had not yet fallen. MLB Deputy Commissioner Dan Halem issued an ultimatum last week to Fresno city officials and the owners of the Grizzlies Triple-A franchise, with a Monday deadline, to accept relegation to the Cal League or go without affiliated baseball. Fresno attorney Doug Sloan told the Fresno Bee Monday after a city council meeting that the city had been given extra time to determine if a low A ball – which is due to reclassify the Cal League in 2021 – is preferable to no baseball at all once you’ve been a Triple-A town.
The Grizzlies owners would be adamant to stay in Triple-A, and the city – which owns the downtown 10,650-seat stadium and presumably has rental terms based on Triple-A baseball – appears to be backing that fight, but it may not matter. The solution could ultimately be some sort of compensation package for accepting the degradation.
If Fresno did that, it would become the Cal League affiliate of Colorado Rockies after 22 seasons in the Pacific Coast League. The Rockies had been the JetHawks parent team. Feel free to connect the dots.
As we noted last year when MLB’s plan to reduce minor league teams – and players, salaries, and expenses – was first published, it is not about turnout or success or other forms of community support for any particular franchise. In this particular case, geography is the problem.
Fresno had an employment contract with the Giants for 17 seasons, but has since had ties with Houston and, for the last two seasons, Washington. The goal appears to be for Triple-A teams, at least most of them, to be closer to their Major League affiliates, and there are eight Major League teams and eight Triple-A teams in the Pacific and Mountain time zones.
The reason for the imbalance? Blame the Dodgers. Their Triple-A team is located in Oklahoma City, owned by Mandalay Entertainment – whose chairman and CEO, Peter Guber, is also part of the Dodgers property. So there are eight Triple-A teams for seven Western big league-clubs, and that’s why a team from the East had a branch in the West… and why is Fresno being asked to step down now.
Why are these machinations important? If Fresno is in the Cal League, Lancaster is effectively out. And so is every geographic balance in the Cal League, with three franchises in the south (Rancho Cucamonga, Lake Elsinore, Inland Empire) and five in the north (Visalia, Modesto, Stockton, Fresno, San Jose).
MLB has tried to make these changes pleasant by tying compensation franchises to the affected areas – an independent minor league team, for example, or a wood bat collegiate summer league team. Neither has much appeal in the Antelope Valley, as none of the “partner leagues” MLB recommends are anywhere near this part of the country.
Also: Aside from the prestige of being a minor league affiliate and being able to brag about your alumni ultimately making major league rosters, the affiliate franchise bears no responsibility for players’ salaries and the comp costs of employees. The difference is estimated at a whopping $ 400,000 per year that an independent franchise should cover, at a level where margins are much thinner to begin with.
Andy Dunn, JetHawks president, did not answer phone messages on Tuesday afternoon, and general manager Tom Backemeyer indicated in an email that the team would not have any comment until things were done. But when Dunn and I spoke last November, he indicated that such a replacement franchise was a non-starter.
“Where we are, there is no possibility to join another league,” he said. “And we are not interested in joining any other league.”
Now is also a good time for a reminder: In their 24 seasons of existence, the JetHawks have provided nightly summer entertainment to a region of more than 475,000, with a paid attendance of nearly 1.6 million from 2010 to ’19. They have been good members of their community, sponsoring a Little League of 250 children and collaborating with more than 150 nonprofits in the region in fundraising and community activities.
At one point, 106 members of the House of Representatives, from both sides of the aisle and representing many of the cities and towns potentially affected, signed a letter to MLB asking them to reconsider the mistreatment of the minors. That increased the ability to leverage the sport’s antitrust exemption, but either those members of Congress lost interest – unsurprisingly in an election year – or MLB lobbyists skillfully worked across the room.
Whatever the reason, besides a miracle, the Antelope Valley’s future will have many quiet summer evenings.
@Jim_Alexander on Twitter