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Scheduling Across Minor League Baseball Remains In Flux Entering February

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The Atlantic League announced on Feb. 2 that its 2021 season will begin on May 28. The start date is later than normal—the league’s 2019 season began on April 25—because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But what was just as notable was what the Atlantic League didn’t announce. There was no schedule or even a full list of the teams that will be participating in the 2021 season. Neither was announced because those items have yet to be finalized. Two of the other three partner leagues (the American Association and Frontier League) have also yet to announce schedules or a finalized list of teams for the 2021 season. All three leagues are waiting to see if they will end up adding any further clubs left out of the 120 minor league teams invited to be part of Major League Baseball’s new development system.

As of right now, the Pioneer League is notable because it was able release its schedule in late January. In a normal year, releasing a schedule in late January would be considered to be exceptionally late. This year, it means the league is the envy of almost every other professional baseball league.

Technically, the Pioneer League is not the first pro league to roll out its schedule—the United Shores Professional Baseball League announced its schedule last November and the Pecos League has also announced its schedule. But everyone else in pro ball in the U.S. is still playing a waiting game.

Even as the calendar moves into February, the state of the minor leagues around the U.S. remains very much in flux. The Iowa Cubs have announced that they have signed their Professional Development License, but most of the 120 minor league teams invited to be part of MLB’s new minor league system are waiting until closer to next week’s deadline to sign their PDLs. There will be no schedules announced for affiliated leagues until those PDLs have been signed.

Multiple professional partner leagues (the American Association, Atlantic and Frontier) are also still playing a waiting game. The Frontier League has added the Tri-City ValleyCats, which brought the league to 16 teams. Midwest League refugees Clinton and Burlington have announced they are joining the Prospect League, a summer amateur wood bat league.

Neither the American Association nor the Atlantic League have added any clubs from the more than a dozen cities/teams that have been left out of the 120 and have yet to announce their plans (if any) for 2021.

That logjam is expected to be resolved for multiple teams in the not-to-distant future. The Lexington club fits geographically in all three partner leagues. Once it decides on a landing spot it may lead to further decisions—Charleston, W.Va. is only 177 miles away, making the two teams useful travel partners.

Kane County fits geographically in the Frontier League and the American Association (both have teams in the Chicago area already).

The landing spots for Lancaster and Hagerstown are less obvious. Lancaster’s options seem to be limited to the Cal Collegiate summer amateur league or the Pecos League (independent pro baseball).

The Pecos League has already landed in Bakersfield and High Desert, two former California League cities.

Hagerstown’s city council is discussing its options for baseball in a meeting Feb. 2. After drawing less than 1,000 fans per game in its final two seasons in the South Atlantic League, Hagerstown has not shown the fan base to provide the revenue to pay players, making a summer college amateur league the most likely remaining option.

The situation in Jackson, Tenn. has also become much more complicated. The city of Jackson has said that the Jackson Generals’ lease is no longer in force and has told the team to vacate the ballpark by Feb. 15. The city is opening up a request for proposals for future usage of the Ballpark at Jackson. The city said that the Generals’ lease requires that it “will always be a member of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (the official name of Minor League Baseball) … and if it loses its National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues affiliation, this license terminates automatically without any further action from the city.”

The Generals’ majority owner David Freeman sent a letter back to the city saying that the Generals do not intend to withdraw from the National Association and the team remains a member of the NA, so it is still a member of the NA in good standing.

By the time this legal dispute results in any further action, it may become moot, as there are efforts beginning to wind down the National Association as a corporate entity. If such plans become final, the Generals’ claim that they will remain a member of the National Association would likely disappear with the elimination of the NA.

The Pioneer League is not the only league to release a schedule recently but it is the only pro league to do so. The Salem-Keizer Volcanoes owners also announced their schedule when they unveiled the new Maverick League. Volcanoes CEO Mickey Walker announced a four-team, one-site independent league. Salem-Keizer is one of the two members of the Northwest League that was left out of the six-team Northwest League going forward. The other, Boise, has joined the Pioneer League.

“It’s really exciting for us,” Walker said. “It’s exciting for the family, for the organization. It was pretty devastating what MLB did. We’re excited to still offer high quality baseball. Doing it this way has re-energized us as far as how the future looks.”

Describing how the Maverick League will function is a little hard to do. One of the teams will be named the Portland Mavericks, harkening back to the 1970s when the Mavericks were an independent team that competed in the affiliated Northwest League. They will be joined by the Volcanoes, the Salem Senators and the Campesinos de Salem-Keizer.

The league will be an amateur league where the players are unpaid, but in addition to college players, it will attempt to attract post-college players who have either been released from organizations or players with significant amateur experience who were not drafted.

The league has announced that each team will play 48 games, with games scheduled for Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sundays from mid May to the end of August.

Walker said that the league hopes to help players with housing and seasonal jobs. As an amateur league, it is worth noting that players will most likely be responsible for a majority of any medical expenses from any injuries they incur—since they are not employees, they are not eligible for worker’s compensation.

The league will cut ticket prices 20% below what they were when Salem-Keizer was in the affiliated Northwest League.

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