With no players to fill rosters, no major television contracts to generate revenue and no way to put fans in seats, Minor League Baseball bowed to the inevitable Tuesday and canceled its 2020 season, which had already been delayed by nearly three months by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The cancellation, first reported by Baseball America on Tuesday and confirmed by a source familiar with the discussions, came following a meeting of Minor League Baseball’s board of trustees. An official announcement was expected later Tuesday.
The move has been expected for months, since the business model for minor league teams – which lack the same lucrative television contracts as major league teams – isn’t built to withstand the financial pressures created by games played without fans.
“We are disappointed that Tacoma will be unable to experience Rainiers baseball in 2020, but we are already looking forward to opening our gates for the 2021 season,” said Tacoma Rainiers President Aaron Artman. “At Cheney Stadium, we feel that friends and families gathering for a ballgame represents the soul of our community. While we’re going to miss that this summer, we are excited about welcoming our fans back and continuing the decades-long tradition of Rainiers baseball at Cheney Stadium.”
In addition, due to the national emergency, Major League Baseball suspended the agreement covering the assignment of players to minor league affiliates, and decided to adopt a “taxi squad” model to supply its teams with extra players – who will train together at one location per team – during this truncated, 60-game season.
In other words, to survive, minor league teams would have had to find and pay its own players in 2020.
While big league teams are permitted to start the 2020 season with 30-man rosters, and can keep taxi squads of up to another 30 extra players in reserve, the lack of a minor league season still dooms hundreds of farmhands to a year without organized baseball. Some could latch on with independent league teams, or seek winter league spots in foreign countries.
Minor league players had been receiving $400 per week stipends through the end of June. However, while some teams, including the Washington Nationals, have said they will continue paying minor leaguers through the end of their season (Sept. 7), others have not made the same commitment. According to reports, three teams – the Los Angeles Angels, Arizona Diamondbacks and Cleveland Indians – will not pay their minor leaguers beyond June.
As for the minor league franchises, many have turned their ballparks into makeshift outdoor restaurants, farmers markets or outdoor movie theaters – with proper social distancing – to generate revenue. A handful of those minor league facilities will be used as headquarters for MLB’s taxi squads this season.
Tuesday’s news was the only the latest blow in a tumultuous, eight-month stretch for Minor League Baseball, which was confronted last fall by MLB’s plans to eliminate the affiliations of as many as 42 of its 160 minor league franchises beginning in 2021.
Initially, Minor League Baseball resisted the plan, enlisting members of Congress in a high-profile pressure campaign that portended a long and ugly fight with MLB. But this spring, facing a deepening economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, its leaders eventually indicated they would accept the plan.
If it is ultimately adopted, the plan would lead to the dissolution of the short-season New York-Penn League and the rookie-level Appalachian and Pioneer Leagues, though some of those franchises could find their way into the remaining minor leagues.
And with the 2020 season now falling victim to the global pandemic, many of the teams that fall off the baseball map will disappear without so much as a chance to say goodbye.