NOTHING SAYS spring like the thwack of cowhide on maple. It follows that nothing says mass vaccination like the sound echoing through a crowded ballpark. Lexington and 3,000 other Marylanders experienced this thrill one sunny evening last week in Frederick, Maryland, home of the redoubtable Frederick Keys.
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It was in effect the team’s first home game, the previous day’s fixture having been rained off. And rarely had the rituals of small-town baseball—back after an 18-month, covid-enforced hiatus—felt more welcome. Children with cotton candy and mitts raced around the concourse. Neighbours and workmates hailed each other, relaxed and mostly maskless, as they queued for pizza and beers. All rose for the Star-Spangled Banner—whose lyrics are particularly prized in Frederick, having been written by a former resident, Francis Scott Key, after whom the ball club is named.
In Section 107, behind home plate, season-ticket holders indulged in another minor-league tradition: casting a critical eye over the new blood. It included the anthem singer (“We’ve had worse—remember the bell ringers?” said Meri-Lyn, an executive assistant who rarely misses a game) and the over-enthusiastic compere (“She needs to keep off the energy drinks,” deadpanned Don, a security-systems expert, between logging each ball into his tablet). All the Keys’ white-uniformed players were also new.
“They don’t look too bad,” offered Don’s wife, Colleen, as the home team battled back from a sleepy start. Its lead-off hitter, a 22-year-old Nevadan called Nick Hernandez, was the first to impress the diehards, after he smacked a double, then a homer in the sixth. “Go Nick, we need you to win this!”
This ritual reflected the churn of talent that is a feature of pro baseball’s lower levels. Since the evolution of the farm system in the 1920s, the minors have had little or no control over their squads, which their major-league patron recruits, pays and treats as feeder-stock. In a normal year, two-thirds of a minor-league team may be new, and it is liable to be raided by its patron during the season. Any minor leaguer good enough to be embraced by the fans is almost by definition halfway out the door. The same is true for a local ballpark’s announcers and entertainers. Paradoxically, this makes one of the most locally rooted institutions in American sport—the small-town ball club where local couples court each other, entertain their children and advertise their businesses—also one of the most transient.
With forbearance on both sides, this has been a fruitful tension. Major League Baseball, the game’s monopolistic overseer, has suffered the inefficiencies of a diffuse system for its talent-pool. Minor-league fans have forgone a deep relationship with their teams for the thrill of a prestigious connection to the majors and high-quality baseball—often in places, such as Clinton, Iowa, or Niles, Ohio, with little else to boast of. But MLB has upset this balance. Teams like the Keys are emerging from covid-induced calamity—the scrapping of a season and over 40m prospective ticket sales—to the most traumatic shake-up of the minors in decades.
On the expiry of a pre-existing operating agreement late last year, MLB cut its roster of minor-league affiliates by 42, hardened its grip on the remaining 120, and in the process scrapped several historic leagues, such as the Ohio-based International League (founded in 1884). Advances in talent-spotting had reduced its need for a large reserve. The Keys, for 30 years a farm team of the Baltimore Orioles, is among the teams that have lost out.
This change was also covid-related. When MLB first proposed its plans, in late 2019, they met high-level pushback. Over a hundred House members backed a bipartisan “Save Minor League Baseball” task-force. A related Senate resolution united both Republican senators from Iowa—which stood to lose three minor-league teams, including the Clinton LumberKings—with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, whose states stood to lose one each. MLB’s chances of getting its way looked dicey. But the pandemic diverted political attention and the cancellation of the minors’ season made it hard for them to get it back. MLB ended up getting everything it wanted.
Its 30 franchisees are not the only beneficiaries. Player salaries in the minors have been increased (from a pitifully low base). Travel distances have been reduced. To its credit, MLB has meanwhile helped most of the teams it dropped find another league. The Keys and its recent opponents, the West Virginia Black Bears, are among half a dozen that have formed a new league to showcase top college players ahead of the MLB draft in July. It should also be said that, while the diehards in Section 107 were livid at being junked by the Orioles, few other Keys fans seemed to care. Most minor-league watchers, having little connection to the players, come along for some baseball-themed fun. “It’s a great place to bring the kids, but I couldn’t say who’s playing,” said Dan, a regular attendee, sitting with his brother Leel, a thickly-bearded trucker.
Nonetheless, MLB has dealt a heavy blow to baseball’s regional infrastructure and traditions. Four of the affected teams have ceased operations—including another in western Maryland, the Hagerstown Suns. More will follow. The Keys will play half as many games as before, but even after shedding staff will not halve their costs. Of the 202 teams that have played in independent leagues over the past 30 years, almost half failed within four years.
In a minor key
This is a gloomy development, and not only for baseball fans. Politicians in both parties talk a lot about improving capitalism by righting regional imbalances, respecting place and communities, restraining monopolistic fat cats and so forth. It can be hard to take such talk seriously. It is even harder now, after they failed to protect the national pastime, as represented by the Frederick Keys, 41 other cherished local teams and their fans, against the cost-cutting of a sports monopoly that rakes in well over $10bn a year.■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Who owns the national pastime?”