MLB proposal eliminates the minor leagues in Colorado. But Grand Junction and Colorado Springs are pushing back
Branch Rickey, who invented baseball’s farm system nearly 100 years ago, once said “a baseball club in any city in America is a quasi-public institution.”
That belief, and the concept of minor league baseball as fans have long known it, appears near an end. Major League Baseball owners recently proposed a radical restructuring of its farm systems, one that would eliminate the two minor league teams in Colorado in addition to 40 other lower-level affiliates following the 2020 season.
Owners say drastic change is necessary to ensure professional-grade facilities for all minor league players, reduce travel by reorganizing leagues by geography and to improve “compensation, accommodations, and amenities” for minor league players. The proposal includes dropping the Rockies’ rookie-league team in Grand Junction as well the Colorado Springs-based Rocky Mountain Vibes, a rookie-league affiliate of the Brewers. “I’m in favor of restructuring Minor League Baseball, and hopefully getting a better situation for the development process and a better situation for the communities where we have Minor League Baseball,” said Dick Monfort, the majority owner of both the Colorado and Grand Junction Rockies. “It’s the whole development process that needs to be re-looked at.”
On the other side, Minor League Baseball — a separate entity bound to Major League Baseball by the Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA), which expires Sept. 15, 2020 — paints a different picture. That view is one of the communities across the country losing an important cultural and economic engine should their local teams be disbanded.
An expansive farm system has been an integral part of baseball since Rickey laid the groundwork with the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1920s.
“It would be a total tragedy it something like this were to happen,” Vibes President Chris Phillips said. “When you think about what (minor league baseball) is about, baseball is a part of it, but it’s community. Everything we do is somehow entrenched in engaging with the community. The proposal would not only affect us here in Colorado Springs, but you multiply that by 42 across the country, it’s a big deal.”
The issue boils down to MLB weighing a trimmed down, modernized approach to player development versus Rickey’s farm philosophy of “quality in quantity.” A century of heritage in mostly small-town America is at risk.
And the debate will unfold with high stakes here in Colorado.
To understand how Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball arrived at an impasse where entire lower-lever leagues might be axed — including the 80-year-old Pioneer League, in which the Grand Junction Rockies and Vibes play — fans should first understand the owners’ position.
“Though the last 10 years, organizations have continued to add additional farm teams, thinking that the more players you have in the system, the better chance a few might develop enough to become major-league players,” said former Rockies general manager Bob Gebhard, now a special assistant for the Cardinals. “The downside of it is, I think we’ve probably gone a little overboard. Recently there were 126 minor league teams, and now there’s (160). We might have gone a bit too far.”
The last contentious PBA negotiation came in 1990-91. It resulted in MLB taking over player contracts and development while minor league teams were tasked with facility upkeep and player care. Monfort said owners voted “unanimously” in support of the restructuring ahead of the PBA expiring next year.
“We’ve rolled over the agreement with Minor League Baseball since 1990, and during that time, there have been 80 shifts in minor league teams going to different cities,” Monfort said. “One of those relocations was Casper to Grand Junction. We’ve just sort of allowed it to happen as they restructure leagues and re-jigger things, and it needs to be addressed.”
The reduction of the Rockies’ farm system from six teams to four won’t hurt the big league club, Monfort said. He argues that by concentrating the club’s analytics, scouting and development on fewer players, the Rockies can be more efficient.
“We’d still have enough prospects,” Monfort said. “And we’d get better development out of fewer players.”
The potential of the disruption, though, is widespread, and already being felt in Colorado Springs, Grand Junction and beyond, where stakeholders in minor league teams are bracing for a drawn-out negotiation.
“There’s usually some changes each side has to make when this comes up, but just as both sides are getting ready to start negotiations, this is what Major League Baseball comes out with,” Phillips said. “The timing is making things difficult to start promoting the 2020 season when we’re getting questions from fans, sponsors and people who are in multi-year agreements with us. It’s (Major League Baseball) not coming to the table in good faith.”
Grand Junction manager Jake Optiz said MLB’s ideas regarding restructuring have some merit.
“You’re trying to develop players, and you go to some different facilities, and you can’t even hit in the batting cage because it’s run down and there are holes in the nets,” he said. “That type of stuff needs to improve. And the travel can get really tough, because when you’re talking a (13-hour) one-way bus ride from Grand Junction to Great Falls (Mont.) for a three-game series, that wears you out.”
The majority of minor league teams are not owned by major league owners (the Grand Junction Rockies are an anomaly in that regard), and MLB is looking at cost savings with the reorganization between $600,000 and $1 million per year, per team, in salary expense. That figure doesn’t include other subsidies and bonuses that racks up the total tab to nearly $500 million, according to MLB.
Monfort, however, stressed that the owners aren’t looking to contract as a monetary move, but rather as an effort to overhaul a stale system, and possibly increase pay for minor leaguers.
“The player salaries have not been addressed in a long time, so yes, if you went from 220 players to 150 players in the system, you’d probably spend the same salary,” Monfort said. “It’s just the 150 remaining guys would be making more.”
For those cities and towns losing teams, MLB has said it “will take responsibility for providing viable options to preserve organized baseball in places that currently have affiliated MLB teams.”
The alternatives pitched by the league to the 42 communities in danger of losing their minor league teams are a collegiate summer team, an independent league team or a “Dream League” team. MLB said the “Dream League” concept would “serve as a platform for programs designed to increase the number of children and adults from traditionally underrepresented groups playing baseball in the U.S.”
“There’d be organized baseball in these cities, and the players wouldn’t be part of a major league team, but they’d be available (to get signed),” Monfort said. “Figure it as a glorified college system, or junior college system, to where we continue to have the same amount of organized baseball, just none of them are affiliated with the MLB teams.”
That explanation isn’t flying in Grand Junction or Colorado Springs, or in some cities where the stadium is owned by the city or county and millions of dollars of upgrades have been made.
“It’s just not a substitute,” said Grand Junction city councilwoman Anna Stout, who has been a host family for Rockies players the past three seasons. “We already benefit from having Colorado Mesa University here, and they have a fantastic baseball team. And the JuCo World Series has become a cultural phenomenon. Another (amateur) team won’t draw.”
In Colorado Springs, the Vibes franchise has been through the minor league baseball ringer. The city was previously home to the Triple-A Sky Sox from 1988-2018, a Colorado Rockies affiliate for much of that time before the Sky Sox left for San Antonio last year. That led to the rookie-league Helena Brewers relocating to Colorado Springs as the Vibes.
“Last year, with the re-brand that we went through, and really coming up with something fun and creative — it breathed a whole shot of life back into the franchise here,” Phillips said. “To get this kind of proclamation that this is happening, and there’s nothing we can do about it — that’s basically the stance that Major League Baseball is taking — it’s ridiculous.”
Teams scheduled to be shuttered are looking for political help.
Congressmen Scott Tipton (District 3, which includes Grand Junction) and Doug Lamborn (District 5, which includes Colorado Springs) were among 106 congressmen nationwide who signed a letter of opposition to the proposal, citing the cultural and economic drawbacks of losing their district’s respective teams.
“The turnover of people to see players who will eventually be on the major league team, and some of the future stars of the team, we can’t overstate that cultural importance,” Tipton said. “The direct affiliation with the major team, especially right within our state, is huge … The Rockies are a point of pride for Grand Junction, and have been since Day 1.”
The Grand Junction Rockies drew 88,476 in 37 home games in 2019, an average of 2,391. The Vibes drew 137,294 in 35 home games, an average of 3,923 and an increase of 106,208 from the 2018 attendance of the Helena Brewers.
Phillips said the Vibes, who have 14 full-time employees, had an approximate total economic impact of $20 million on the area in 2019. And according to an estimate by the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce, the Rockies had a $3.8 million direct impact on the city in 2019, with a total economic impact of $13.68 million. The team has 25-35 full-time and seasonal employees.
As the annual Winter Meetings convene next week in San Diego, the contraction issue will be front and center. Those within baseball believe a combative negotiation process lies ahead. And Gebhard is not alone in his belief that the proposal to cut 42 teams might be a “bargaining chip” to pressure Minor League Baseball to take on more financial responsibility in the next PBA.
“Maybe they’ll take this to the bargaining table and use it as leverage, or maybe they’re serious about redoing the PBA and they still cut the teams anyways,” Gerhard said. “Either way there’s going to be a lot of conflict; there’s going to be lawsuits.”
Minor league teams in line to be cut won’t close down without a fight.
“I’ve dealt with enough years of uncertainty and influx, and we finally got this thing to where we wanted it — so I’m not going to sit back and let it just die on the vine,” Phillips said.