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Minor execs enjoy surge of power

by Will Lingo
September 23, 2004

Ever since minor league teams became dependent on the major leagues for survival more than 40 years ago, they've been the majors' redheaded stepchild in many ways.

To be sure, minor league baseball has become a thriving business in the years since. But minor league teams are still dependent on the major leagues for survival. Just try to suggest that minor league teams should all become independent now that they're legitimate, self-sufficient businesses. I did that a few years ago, and one Minor League Baseball official called me uninformed.

So the minors depend on the major leagues for survival. And as we've seen in the past decade of Professional Baseball Agreement renewals, Major League Baseball dictates the terms. The two sides had a showdown in 1990, and the minor leagues blinked. Things have worked out beautifully since, but make no mistake about who's in charge.

In each PBA renewal since, major league teams have extracted more money from the minor leagues in exchange for the preservation of the precious affiliation agreements. As long as a minor league owner has those, he knows he doesn't have to worry about having a product to sell.

So when the affiliation scramble rolls around every couple of years, it's no wonder minor league executives try to throw their weight around a little bit. It's one of the few opportunities they have to have the upper hand on their major league partners.

The most blatant example this time around came when the Fresno Grizzlies made the Giants sweat a little bit before renewing their affiliation agreement. The Giants have been in Fresno since the team returned to the Pacific Coast League in 1998 and have a history with the city that goes back much further, to say nothing of the two cities' proximity. So it's a no-brainer for the two to be together.

But Grizzlies president Pat Filippone apparently was upset Giants general manager Brian Sabean wouldn't return his calls, saying the clubs needed to resolve marketing and communication questions before he would renew their contract. Giants vice president Dick Tidrow visited during the team's final homestand and apparently smoothed things over, because the teams renewed their deal.

"We're very pleased to continue our partnership with the Giants," Filippone said. "We look forward to the next two seasons, and the further development of the clubs' relations."

Playing The Ballpark Card

Some minor league teams can afford to throw their weight around more than others. Filippone, who just joined Fresno in the last year, wouldn't have been tweaking the Giants when the Grizzlies were playing home games at Fresno State's Beiden Field a few years ago, when their ballpark was in an endless cycle of delays. But once you get the new ballpark, all bets are off. It's the ace in the hole, and many minor league executives are more than happy to use it.

The Twins and their Midwest League affiliate, Quad Cities, were a similar situation. The Twins have been sending players there for six seasons, all but one of which at ancient John O'Donnell Stadium. The team rebuilt the ballpark in the offseason, however, and Quad Cities was ready to swing.

"We are a much prettier girl at the dance than we have ever been," team president Kevin Krause said. "It's certainly nice to be looked at in a different light."

You can read our complete rundown of how the Twins/Quad Cities relationship broke down on Page 46 and decide who you think is right and wrong. The point here is that after years in the back of the affiliation line, Quad Cities was happy to have teams calling them back.

Don't Fight The Power

The teams that have that power can't be blamed for using it. Wilmington is the best franchise in the Carolina League and has been affiliated with the Royals for its entire history, a total of 12 seasons.

Blue Rocks president Matt Minker said in recent years he had heard fans grumble because the Royals had promoted players just before the playoffs and moved their spring training base from Florida to Arizona. So the Blue Rocks put themselves on the market.

Minker said seven major league teams contacted him as soon as the contract with Kansas City expired. The Red Sox, who were interested in moving out of the Florida State League, made the best pitch. "The Red Sox just blew us away," Minker told The News Journal of Wilmington. "We think we got the big prize."

It happens all over the minors this time of year. Minor league teams have pretty facilities and feel unappreciated. Major league teams start calling to offer great players, tickets to playoff games and exhibition games. (Not really, of course. Those things would be against the rules.) And while the major leagues probably don't enjoy sucking up to the assistant GM in Anytown, it's good for them to be on the other end now and then. And besides, you don't have to call them back for another two years.

You can contact Will Lingo by sending e-mail to willlingo@baseballamerica.com.

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