For most of the 1990s through 2001, the NFL was a laughing stock of geography experts everywhere. But what’s about to happen in minor league baseball will be more than an embarrassment, it’ll be a money pit for minor league teams that can’t afford it.
In the past, football’s NFC “West” contained five teams: The San Francisco 49ers (who made sense), two teams on the Mississippi river (the St. Louis Rams and the New Orleans Saints), and two teams in the eastern time zone (the Atlanta Falcons and the Carolina Panthers). Meanwhile, the NFC “East” contained two teams further west than 80% of the “West”: The Arizona Cardinals and the Dallas Cowboys.
It wasn’t just ridiculous. It was stupid. It was embarrassing. But it’s worth noting how the NFL got there. It’s a story of an inability to agree, laziness, and a story of rich old men getting their way.
What’s happened to the High-A level of minor league baseball is way, way worse, and while it’s not a national embarrassment, it should be an embarrassment to the people who claim to be running this thing. The new Mid-Atlantic League in an unbalanced, hard to believe it exists object that will exorbitantly increase costs for teams and increase stress on young players that goes against everything Major League Baseball claims to have wanted, and it only further discredits Commissioner Rob Manfred and others in charge.
Based on the invitations that were sent out, and Baseball America’s reporting, the new Mid-Atlantic league features twelve teams broken into two geographically unbalanced groups. Seven teams in the southeast, and five in the northeast.
Bowling Green, KY
Hudson Valley, N.Y.
Jersey Shore, N.J.
There’s an entire (and sizable) empty state of Virginia between those groups. If you look on a map and plot a road trip between the closest cities of those two groups (Aberdeen and Greensboro), that’s a 378 mile trip. The two furthest (Rome and Hudson Valley) are a ridiculous 918 miles on the road. Last month, we learned MLB wanted to revamp travel restrictions and rules for the minors, requiring that any trip over 350 miles require a plane instead of a bus (or an offday to go on bus).
Remember, one of MLB’s complaints about the previous minor league system was that travel was out of hand, and it was one of their better points. The South Atlantic and Carolina Leagues both reached from the Georgia/South Carolina region up to Maryland and New Jersey, respectively. So as MLB took over, someone in their organization apparently said “That’s really bad, so how about we just make them travel even further north to upstate New York, and now that’s all better.”
I don’t know exactly how MLB got there, but I can guess. And for this, let’s go back to football. Let’s look at how the NFL got to their stupid point.
The NFC West division started essentially as a stunt, the “NFL Coastal Division” which featured teams from both coasts (San Francisco, Los Angeles Rams, Atlanta, and the Baltimore Colts). Why? The NFL wanted each division name to start with the letter “C”, they were competing with the flashy AFL, and…I imagine maybe some marijuana or other drugs. It was the 1960’s.
When the AFL and NFL merged for 1970, they went to geographic divisions. The teams could not agree on a realignment plan, so they put five different plans into a bowl, and Pete Rozelle’s executive assistant picked one out at random. I’m not kidding. The selected plan was the only one of the five that had Dallas inexplicably in the east (along with the St. Louis Cardinals), and Atlanta staying in the west with New Orleans.
So…they couldn’t agree, and let random chance choose, and they got the stupidest plan. After that, they wouldn’t budge from it.
In 1988, the Cardinals moved to Arizona, placing two “east” teams out west. But in 1995, things really changed and the NFL didn’t. That year, the Rams moved east to St. Louis, leaving San Francisco alone on the west coast. At the same time, the Carolina Panthers were an expansion team, and ended up placed into the NFC West because it was the only NFC division with four teams. It seems obvious that in that year, a realignment would have made sense. But old white men balked at changing things, and the NFL remained geographically stupid for another 7 years.
An inability to come to a compromise led to a stupid layout. Team moves changed the landscape but the league didn’t care enough to try to change. Even when they had the opportunity, they didn’t do it.
All that aside, the truth is that the NFL is a one-game a week sport, where teams regularly cross the country for one game and then come home, even if they go on the road the next week. Road trips weren’t trips, they were weekend getaways, by teams with multi-million dollar TV contracts. So maybe then New York Giants GM George Young was right: “Geography doesn’t matter.”
Okay…let’s get back to minor league baseball.
Minor league baseball does not have huge TV deals. The teams operate on razor-thin margins of profit. Travel costs are paid for by the minor league owners, not the Major League affiliate. But perhaps most importantly is that baseball teams play almost every day. They need an even number of teams, especially within divisions. This isn’t like the NFL, who could play with 31 teams for a few years and just have at least one team on bye every week.
And that brings us back to the unequal distribution of teams geographically. One unlucky team, probably Greensboro, is going to have to be in the “North” division. That means that for any “in-division” road trip, Greensboro would have to fly (or waste a valuable, restful offday). And to make those dollars work more, they’d probably want to schedule a bunch of road games at once while in the northeast, leading to nearly three weeks on the road in hotels each time (assuming four games per each of the five opponents).
That is expensive for the team’s bottom line, and taxing for players’ health.
But imagine the costs for the other northeast teams.
Of course, their “in-division” trips to Greensboro could just be the kick to inter-divisional road trips to save money (but again, causing long, taxing road trips). But some minor league watchers have hypothesized that to save money, this Mid-Atlantic League would limit intra-divisional games similar to the previous South Atlantic League, where some teams wouldn’t play any games at some cities in the other division.
This sounds good…until you get to the unbalanced divisions. The less inter-division games, the more in-division games. Which means *more* games for the orphaned southern team against the northeast. And the real chance that teams like Hudson Valley and Brooklyn will be flying down to Greensboro for just a single series, and then flying back.
According to Baseball America, a bus travel trip can cost around $2,000-$2,500 a day. The same trip by air “would likely run” around $10,000 plus the fees for buses to and from each airport. That’s over $20,000 for a single series of 4-5 games. Perhaps several times in a 132-game season.
So, tell me how this makes sense.
It’s not like MLB didn’t have choices. There were other realignment options. There were dozens of teams in the northeast, both that got booted from the New York-Penn League or that continue to exist in other leagues. The Delmarva Shorebirds, in Virginia just south of Delaware would be a solid rival for Wilmington and Jersey Shore, for instance. Bowling Green (Kentucky), has been moved from the Midwest League to this “Mid-Atlantic” League, where it is just as out of place as ever, when it probably should’ve gotten a Double-A spot in the Southern League, or got outright dropped in general like other out of the way cities like Boise (except, you know, Mitch McConnell’s home state). And there were teams that were dropped from affiliated status, like the Frederick (MD) Keys
Instead, because MLB owner didn’t want to compromise and force some big league teams to accept changes (like Baltimore losing Delmarva, or Tampa Bay losing Bowling Green), they have compromised the finances for the teams of an entire league.
If I’m the owners of Greensboro, (and their proposed affiliates, the Pittsburgh Pirates), I don’t know how interested I’d be in this arrangement. They have a natural rival at Winston-Salem, just 30 miles away, who they might almost never play between divisions. Heck, all of the Northeast teams should be upset at the costs this proposal puts on them.
Everything MLB claimed they wanted for travel out of this minor league reorganization is shown to be unimportant, all because of an unwillingness to compromise, and old rich guys (the MLB owners) getting their way.
The best case scenario for the Mid-Atlantic League at this point is for one of the seven High-A southeast teams to balk and not sign their invitation, and let Frederick rejoin affiliated baseball. That would actually make this league balanced, if still ridiculously huge. But it should never have gotten to the point where the better option is the backup plan.
The new Mid-Atlantic League shows us all the hypocrisy of MLB’s arguments, why they can make even their most legitimate arguments a joke. And now, it’s going to cost minor league teams (and the fans that will pay the tickets) a lot of money.