Minor League Baseball Relief Act has one major flaw

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AFP contributor Jerry Carter found a significant flaw in the well-intentioned Minor League Baseball Relief Act introduced in Congress in June.

Jerry set himself on a fact-finding mission by way of visiting the nine minor league communities in Virginia listed in a press release from Senate co-sponsors Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.

First problem: four of the communities aren’t homes to teams in the minor leagues anymore.

The teams in Danville, Pulaski, Bluefield and Bristol remain in the Appalachian League, but that league is now a summer college baseball league, having been among the cuts when Major League Baseball jettisoned 43 teams from MiLB in 2020.

Visiting those communities on his tour of the Commonwealth’s baseball scene, Jerry noticed the similarities to the Valley Baseball League, where he’d served as a volunteer and even one year as owner-caretaker of the VBL’s Waynesboro Generals, in 2009.

I also have a history in the VBL with the Waynesboro Generals. I worked with Jerry in 2009, then hung around to assist in sales and gameday operations and as the play-by-play web radio voice of the team for five more seasons, through 2014.

In the total of six years that I spent behind the scenes, I learned that running a summer league baseball team is a labor of love, which is a nice way of saying, the people in it aren’t there because it makes money.

For us in Waynesboro, the goal was to lose as little money as possible, and if we could keep the bleeding to around $10,000 for the summer, we considered that a success.

The money goes out in so many directions – paying a coaching and training staff, paying for transportation for road games, paying the umpires, rent and utilities for the home field, updating the hats and uniforms every few years, and I’m sure I’m leaving a lot out, but that’s a good list to start with.

It’s been a few years since I’ve been behind the scenes, but the number that sticks out to me to run a team in the VBL is roughly $80,000 for the summer, which might not sound like a lot at first glance, but then you consider, the tickets go for five bucks apiece, the profit margins on hot dogs and fries aren’t all that much, so unless the people running things are willing to write big checks, you need to find sponsors.

Even before COVID, it was hard to find enough sponsor dollars to make ends meet, with the changes in the marketplace – largely, that so many local retailers had found themselves squeezed out by the big box stores that locate on the edges of towns.

Throw in the COVID redshirt year that shut down operations, and it wasn’t a surprise to me when I heard that the VBL was adjusting its schedule for the summer this year to have teams play more doubleheaders, and also that some teams were asking their players to drive themselves to some road games, both moves intended to cut down on transportation costs.

Jerry heard similar stories from folks running teams in other summer college leagues in Virginia – he eventually found more than 40 playing nightly across our expansive Commonwealth.

As we compared notes, we came to a similar conclusion: that it makes little or no sense for Congress to help tide over MiLB teams without doing something to assist summer college teams.

My count has more than 75 summer college baseball leagues in operation across the country, with more than 900 teams fielding rosters of college players looking for at bats, innings, reps in the field.

It’s not hard to imagine that most if not all of those teams and leagues suffered from the COVID redshirt year the way the VBL and its teams did the past couple of years.

These teams and leagues mean so much to their communities, which you can get a glimpse of basically any night in June, July and into August, when you see a few hundred people in bleachers and lawn chairs taking in games featuring players who themselves dream of making it one day to The Show.

One thing I like to say, based on my years broadcasting and writing about the VBL, is that on any given night, among the 50-plus players on the field, odds are that at least one of them will be playing in MLB in a few years.

The fun is figuring out which one, right?

MiLB is certainly struggling after having 2020 come and go without being able to play games and thus have the money coming in to sustain operations.

Summer college baseball is struggling, too.

I love the idea behind the Minor League Baseball Relief Act, which as proposed would provide up to $550 million in federal relief funding for MiLB teams.

As the debate over the details begin, we need to expand it to give summer college baseball a piece of the pie as well.

Story by Chris Graham

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