Cooper: Florida Fire Frogs Mess Comes At Bad Time For MiLB

Image credit: (Photo by Mike Janes/Four Seam Images)

You have a great family. Your kids are great. They’re kind and smart and funny and sweet. They love each other and get along really well, most of the time.

And then your parents show up for a visit from out of town. Right after they walk in the door, your kids decide it is time to declare World War III on each other. Toys are thrown, names are called, meltdowns are had.

And as you watch the carnage you wonder, why couldn’t they have done this the day before your parents got there or the day after your parents left?

The Florida Fire Frogs are one of Minor League Baseball’s kids. And right now, they are acting up at the worst possible time.

At baseball’s Winter Meetings, MLB and MiLB continued work to try to negotiate a new Professional Baseball Agreement, the document that governs the relationship between the minors and majors.

If everyone was starting with a clean sheet of paper, no one would design a system like the one that is the current minor leagues. Instead the minors have grown, adapted and evolved over the course of more than a century to get to the point they are at now. Because MiLB used to be entirely independent of the major leagues (which were at first little different in structure and governance than the leagues that formed the minors), there are league constitutions and rules that give leagues and teams plenty of independence. They also ensure that MLB has very little say in what goes on at the minor league level. MLB teams provide the players, but MiLB handles the details of when, where and how those players play.

That’s how it was at the turn of the 20th century and it’s true 120 years later as well.

One of the core issues at the heart of the very difficult PBA negotiations is MLB does not want to be so hands-off going forward while MiLB doesn’t want to give up its authority.

And along came the Florida State League’s Florida Fire Frogs.

The Fire Frogs disagreement couldn’t have made MLB’s case for it better if it had been engineered in a lab.

The structure of how MiLB teams operate is something that fans (understandably) rarely understand. Teams are owned by independent operators, who are governed by their league. The team owner also has to have a lease for a stadium (if they don’t own the stadium themselves). And then there is the player development contract between the MLB team and the MiLB team that ensures that the MLB team provides and pays for the players. The team owner promises to provide a reasonable place for those players to play.

So the Fire Frogs are independently owned. They have a lease to play at a stadium and they have an agreement to field players provided by the Atlanta Braves.

As a business operation, the Fire Frogs are failing. The club replaced the Brevard County Manatees for the 2017 season, playing at the Astros old (and otherwise unoccupied) spring training stadium.

Fans have not flocked. After drawing 1,082 fans per game in 2017, the club drew only 600 fans per game in 2018. In 2019, it dropped again to 327 fans per game.

The Fire Frogs failed to draw 1,000 fans for any game in 2019. Their total attendance of 19,615 was the second worst of the 21st century. It would have been dead last if not for the fact that Dunedin also drew almost no one in 2019 while playing in a temporary facility. But the Blue Jays were doing that while their stadium was upgraded for 2020.

Even with a low-cost, no-frills front office, the team is a significant money loser. One partner has sued the others over how the partnership covers the growing red ink. The team received a $500,000 check at the end of the 2019 season to buy the Fire Frogs out of the remaining three years of their lease in Kissimmee—the stadium has now been turned into a soccer stadium for 2020.

That gave the team some much-needed funding, but it also meant that the team was left without a place to play. And there are few good answers to fix that problem for 2020. When the Winter Meetings ended, the team was still homeless. Coco Beach’s ballpark, a facility that doesn’t currently have clubhouses, is one of the best on a list of bad options.

This is a problem that has been building for several years. And it is one where the current structure of the minors works against solving.

The current partners could sell the team to a new buyer — that’s not really an option in the current situation as the club is ticketed to be potentially eliminated in 2021 as part of the new PBA. The league can revoke a franchise if a team fails to live up to its responsibilities, and that is a possibility here. But so far, the rest of the league’s owners (which in most cases are MLB teams) have shown little appetite for taking over the franchise because that would mean they would be responsible for cutting checks to fund the team’s operations in 2020.

The Braves have a brand new spring training facility in North Port, Fla., but the team cannot play there because that facility is within the territorial rights of the FSL’s Charlotte Stone Crabs. Territorial rights can be waived, but the Stone Crabs have not been willing to do so without being paid.

The Fire Frogs ownership, already losing money, isn’t looking to write a check and the Braves, who do not own the team, also are not inclined to have to pay to fix the Fire Frogs problem for them (Atlanta didn’t ask them to leave Kissimmee).

So as 2020 neared, there was a Florida State League team without a home, with owners who did not seem to be sold on covering the team’s bills for 2020, and the rest of the leagues owners showing little desire to spend the money needed to fix the problem.

It’s a mess. And it’s giving MLB an argument for why it wants a larger role in running the minors. MiLB can rightfully point out that the fact the Fire Frogs are ticketed to be eliminated in MLB’s plan for the next PBA eliminated almost any chance to find a reasonable buyer.

But MLB can also point out that under the current structure, this can happen again somewhere else. MLB teams have little control over whether their players end up playing at a high school field or a modern ballpark.

MLB wants to change that. Right now, the Fire Frogs are making their argument for them.

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