Fixing The Minors Feature Reminds That Game's In Good Shape

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We're always dreaming up ways we think we could make things better, or thinking about how much happier life would be if we were in charge, so our 10 ideas to improve the minors was a fun feature to put together and led to a lot of discussion in the office.

What it also highlighted, however, was that the minor leagues are in pretty darn good shape. If someone asked you, "What's the one thing about minor league baseball that must be fixed?" you can't come up with a hot-button issue that is affecting anyone's welfare. By and large, minor league ballparks are nice, safe places that are fun for fans to go to and enjoyable for players and front-office employees to work in. (I'm sure both of those groups would like better pay, but then, who wouldn't?)

That doesn't mean we shouldn't try to come up with ways to make things better, though. After all, someone had to challenge the status quo to realign Triple-A into two leagues back in 1998, to get two teams to move from the South Atlantic League to the Midwest League last season, or to make sumo wrestling a minor league ballpark staple.

The most significant change of the last 25 years came in 1990, when Major League Baseball pushed through a change to the Professional Baseball Agreement (the contract that governs the relationship between the majors and minors) that imposed formal facility standards on the minor leagues for the first time.

The renewal of the PBA that December represented a sea change in the majors-minors relationship in general, as Major League Baseball passed some of the cost of player development back to its minor league brethren for the first time in a generation. Since 1962, when the minors were on the verge of collapse as an independent entity, major league teams had subsidized minor league teams in order to give their developing players a place to play. When minor league operators started to figure out how to make money operating their franchises in the 1980s, however, the major leagues decided it was time for them to share in the expense as well.

New Ballpark Bonanza

The thrust of the financial part of the negotiations was a tax on ticket revenue that minor league teams had to start paying to the major leagues. Major league teams also decided that minor league facilities needed to improve. The standards approved in 1990 covered everything from the brightness of the lights in the ballpark to how big the clubhouses needed to be. Minor league operators were incensed, believing the majors had placed an unfair and unmanageable burden upon them.

In a classic case of unintended consequences, though, teams found that local governments were willing to pay for improvements—or at the very least work together with the local franchises—in order to keep their minor league teams. Many cities decided to forget the improvements and just build new ballparks. And for franchises that weren't able to get improvements, they found any number of willing cities that were happy to build new ballparks in order to bring a team to town.

The effect of the 1990 ballpark standards simply can't be overstated. Look through your copy of the Baseball America Directory and you're hard pressed to find a minor league stadium built before 1990. And most of those listed with earlier opening dates have been renovated so significantly that their original openings are there more for nostalgia. The ballparks themselves are of the modern era.

The sheer scale of the minor leagues made the boom even bigger, too. It's not just 30 franchises getting new ballparks over time. It's more than 100. And the building boom had a trickle-down effect as well. Displaced minor league cities found homes in independent leagues, as did cities that were unable to attract an affiliated team. These cities built ballparks that were usually on a smaller scale, but sometimes just as nice as the ones in the affiliated minors. College summer leagues benefited as well, and even college baseball's building boom probably has roots in the one that started in the minors.

I don't think any of the ideas we have put forward are that revolutionary. Then again, no one expected the 1990 ballpark standards to do what they did, either. If people expected anything dramatic, it was that the rules would have a dramatic negative effect on minor league operators.

Some of our ideas have real merit, though, especially the idea to start using the minors as an incubator for rules changes. And the overarching point is that the minors should not fear change. Sure, things are great. But that's not to say they couldn't be better.