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OC Register: Hoornstra: For minor league baseball teams, a lockout is hardly a hindrance


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An announced crowd of 2,446 watched the Lake Elsinore Storm beat the Inland Empire 66ers on Sept. 19, a hot Sunday evening. It was a fraction of the group that attended the Dodgers’ final home game of 2021, or the Angels’, but the fans of minor league baseball have one less thing to worry about: whether the next game will be played on schedule.

Moments like this offer a rejoinder to Major League Baseball’s insistence on a corporate entity (“Baseball”) serving as a synonym for a sport (“baseball”). Its tactics for standardizing Baseball-as-baseball are usually gradual and subtle, but not always. Taking over operations of the minor leagues last winter was an ambitious realization of the “One Baseball” mantra Commissioner Rob Manfred first publicly articulated in 2015.

More recently, in case you missed it, MLB instituted a lockout. The effect is that there are now “Two Baseballs”: those that don’t promote their player-employees (MLB), and those that do (every other league on the planet).

Here in Southern California, that means the Storm, the 66ers, and the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes can advertise their 2022 schedules, special events, and promotions without reservation.

“Hopefully the union and clubs can come to common ground,” 66ers general manager Joe Hudson said. “If not, we’re happy to operate and still provide baseball to the community.”

While the labor dispute between MLB and the Players’ Association portends doom and gloom, this offseason represents the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel for minor league teams and players.

The darkness began with the MLB takeover, after which the number of affiliated minor league franchises was forcibly cut from 162 to 120. The teams that continued as affiliates accepted their fate on the premise that their stadiums would be improved, in-season travel would be reduced, and player salaries would rise.

But not every minor league team remained operational. The Staten Island Yankees folded in Dec. 2020 and sued their former parent organization. The Hagerstown Suns, a Washington Nationals affiliate, shuttered more quietly. Many more teams joined independent professional leagues or became summer league destinations for college players.

The COVID-19 pandemic offered another formidable obstacle. Opening Day of the 2021 minor league season was postponed. When the games returned, fans were constrained by local public-gathering ordinances. Then the delta variant swept the country. Attendance suffered.

“It was a weird year,” Hudson said.

The minor league landscape is still weird, but for different reasons.

For years, minor league players shared horror stories about their poor pay and shared-housing situations with anyone who would listen. The legal threat against minor league wages was so powerful, MLB successfully lobbied Congress to exempt it from the federal Fair Labor Standards Act in 2018.

The poor pay persists. Shane Kelso, a recently retired pitcher in the Angels’ organization, told me he was hemorrhaging $1,000 a month from his savings account while he played for the 66ers in 2021. He would have gone broke had he finished out the season. He also identified housing as “the number-one problem guys are facing right now.”

Mercifully, MLB announced a mandate for teams to provide housing to all minor league players beginning next year. In places like San Bernardino County, where housing prices increased 24 percent from April 2020 to April 2021, soaring rent costs are a massive obstacle for those earning less than the federal minimum wage. The housing mandate offered a rare bit of good news in employer-employee relations in professional baseball.

It’s something minor league baseball can build on going into 2022 – in addition to the assurance of a 2022 season.

“It’s definitely a flip of the script compared to what we were up against in 2020, when they were the ones with games and we were not,” said Christine Kavic, CFO and co-general manager of the Lake Elsinore Storm.

In a twist, major league teams are willing and able to help market their minor league players.

When the lockout went into effect, major league teams removed all images of their current 40-man roster players, who are protected by the MLBPA. Team social media accounts banished mentions of any active major leaguers. The Dodgers’ regional sports network even banned highlights of current players from its highlight show.

Minor leaguers are not protected by the union, so teams are free to use their images in promotional materials. In some cases, they have.

Both Kavic and Hudson described their offseasons as relatively normal. Since the Winter Meetings did not include the usual contingent of major league team personnel, it was a relatively subdued affair. Its typical media-circus atmosphere was replaced with that of a tourist hotel in Orlando, Kavic said.

Since minor league revenues depend primarily on attendance, not television contracts, their immediate outlook is relatively rosy. Barring another pandemic panic, attendance in 2022 could return to pre-COVID levels. Kavic said the Storm project a 20 percent increase over their 2021 attendance figures.

Hudson stopped short of confusing the lockout with a blessing for the 66ers.

“I think all baseball fans want to see the biggest names in the sport playing baseball,” he said. “We’re going to be there, have great baseball, have great family entertainment. But we’re not the Angels, we’re not the Dodgers. We don’t have some of the biggest stars in the game playing on our field. We’re rooting for that to happen, regardless. I don’t look at this as a way to be an opportunist.

“Baseball took a little bit of a hit during (the 1994-95 players’ strike). Hopefully, that doesn’t happen.”

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