When baseball returns please support your local teams. Public Health experts will be cautious in reopening the country, hopefully the politicians will listen. Major League teams will be fine, they have their millions. Support Minor League and Independent League teams, they are feeling the biggest impact of the shutdown. Many of these teams and leagues operate on the edge of existence in the best of times. The Coronavirus has left many vulnerable to folding.
Minor League and Independent League teams are often in smaller cities than Major League teams. They are more connected to the well being of their city as they depend on local support for survival. These teams lack the regional or national fan bases of MLB. Minor League teams can rely on their Major League affiliate to pay players through Player Development Contracts. MiLB teams fund everything else including stadium maintenance, game day staff, front office, and concessions. Independent League teams do this too and must also pay their players. Baseball teams draw visitors to their city and its economy. Fans pay the salaries of team employees, but they also go to restaurants and bars, or other attractions, before or after games. Baseball teams attract visitors and their money, and give the community something to rally around.
Growing baseball means reaching people, such as expanding television and radio coverage. However, the excitement of watching a game in person is quite different than watching or listening from home. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is pushing a plan to cut 40 or more Minor League teams in favor of the Dream League, an Independent League with some MLB support. This is foolish. MLB continues to see record profits, while MiLB players are paid criminally low contracts. Reducing the number of teams affiliated with MiLB is about reducing cost and increasing profits for MLB teams. Baseball is a business, but MLB must be careful to not stifle the future of the game to save a little money to increase record profits.
How can you not be romantic about baseball? View of the 2016 South Atlantic League All Star Game at Whitaker Ball Park, home of the Lexington Legends. (The Winning Run/ DJ)
Not everyone lives close to an MLB or MiLB team. Obviously baseball cannot have a team in every city, nor can every family afford to take their baseball crazed kids to a game several hours away. There are some fans who live in a baseball desert. The cost hinders the exposure of the in person experience and could ultimately lose the fandom of kids and adults. Baseball has already priced out many low income youth players due to the ever expanding expense of travel baseball. Why would MLB and Manfred build more obstacles to the game?
Teams have contracts with cable providers for broadcast rights, including MLB.tv, which is another expense not every baseball fan can afford. MLB is strong financially, but they need to consider the finances of the fans. Reducing the number of MiLB teams eliminates access to professional baseball for many and could have unintended consequences. Cities like Erie, Lexington, Chattanooga, Billings, Danville, Great Falls, Missoula, and Colorado Springs will be changed by losing their teams if the proposed cuts are made. Some cities are close to other teams for a baseball day trip. Others create a professional baseball desert. MLB needs to think about the long term health of the game before cutting MiLB teams. Baseball should not trade saving a few dollars for losing a generation of fans.
In 2008 the Tampa Bay Devil Rays dropped the Devil, becoming the Tampa Bay Rays. Changing their name also changed their fortunes. The Rays have a .535 winning percentage, much better than the Devil Rays, .399. Tampa is winning roughly 22 more games a season since the switch. In 12 seasons as the Rays, Tampa Bay has won at least 90 games seven times, made the Postseason five times, won the American League East twice, and reached one World Series. The Rays success has come while averaging 27th in team payroll.
Tropicana Field was not always home to success. The Devil Rays began play in 1998 and struggled through the 2007 season, their last as the Devil Rays. They averaged 25th in payroll, including ranking 10th in 2000. The 2004 season was the Devil Rays best, winning 70 games and did not finish last. Tampa Bay finished 4th, three games ahead of the Toronto Blue Jays.
Every expansion team has growing pains as they build a competitive team. Tampa Bay received no breaks in the Expansion Draft. None of their first five draft picks played more than three seasons in Tampa Bay. Teams need players to build around and the Devil Rays did not find a franchise player in the Expansion Draft.
The Devil Rays held the first overall pick in the 1997 Expansion Draft. Tampa Bay selected Florida Marlins pitcher Tony Saunders. In 1997, the 23 year old lefty started 21 games for the Florida Marlins, going 4-6 with a 4.61 ERA and 1.464 WHIP in 111.1 Innings, allowing 57 Earned Runs, 12 Home Runs, 64 Walks, and 102 Strikeouts. Saunders pitched in the Marlins Postseason run to their World Series victory. Saunders, a young lefty with Postseason experience, was a logical first pick.
The Devil Rays took Tony Saunders with the first overall pick in the 1997 Expansion Draft. (Jonathan Kirn/Allsport/ Getty Images)
The 1998 Tampa Bay Devil Rays struggled, finishing 63-99, 16 games behind the fourth place Baltimore Orioles. In 31 starts, Tony Saunders went 6-15 with a 4.12 ERA and 1.570 WHIP in 192.1 Innings, allowing 88 Earned Runs, 15 Home Runs, 111 Walks (league leader), and 172 Strikeouts. Saunders pitched 7+ innings in 10 starts, allowing 3 runs or less in nine of those starts. He won twice. In four of those starts, Saunders pitched 8 innings, allowing three runs or less, yet he lost all four starts. Saunders received 3.37 in run support, while Major League teams averaged 4.79 runs per game. Tony Saunders pitched well for the expansion Devil Rays, despite his record.
Tampa Bay and Tony Saunders entered the 1999 season full of hope. The Devil Rays sought to play more competitive baseball and Saunders looked to build upon his success. Entering play on May 26th, the Devil Rays were 22-24. An expansion team hovering around .500 a quarter of the way through the season had many hoping the Devil Rays would soon contend. The Texas Rangers were visiting Tropicana Field facing the surprising Devil Rays. In the Top of the Third Inning, the Rangers had runners on first and third with two outs, trailing 3-2. Tony Saunders had a full count on reigning American League MVP Juan Gonzalez. Saunders took the sign from John Flaherty and uncorked a Wild Pitch. Gonzalez trotted to first, Rusty Greer moved to second, and Luis Alicea scampered home to tie the game.
Tropicana Field fell silent except for Tony Saunders screaming, writhing in pain on the ground. The pitch broke the humerus bone, the bone connecting the shoulder and elbow, in Saunders’ left arm. Training staff tried helping Saunders up, but the pain was too much. He was carted off the field and taken to the hospital. His season was finished and his career was in doubt.
Professional baseball players are tough. They play through pain and injury throughout the long season. A year after breaking his arm Tony Saunders was pitching again. His rehab assignment began with the Charleston RiverDogs, Tampa Bay’s Single A team. Saunders pitched in two games, throwing 5 Innings, with a 1.80 ERA and 0.800 WHIP, allowing 2 Hits, 1 Earned Run, 2 Walks, and 3 Strikeouts. He was promoted to the St. Petersburg Devil Rays, Tampa Bay’s Advanced A team. Entering the Third Inning of his second game, Saunders had pitched 7 Innings with a 3.86 ERA and 1.429 WHIP, allowed 7 Hits, 3 Earned Runs, 3 Walks, and 3 Strikeouts. Then it happened again, Saunders broke his arm throwing a pitch. His Major League career was over.
Tony Saunders broke his arm throwing a baseball. The Devil Rays future rested on his left arm. (www.mlb.com)
The Devil Rays retained their rights to Saunders through 2004, when they released him. Less than a month later the Orioles signed Saunders. He pitched in Spring Training for the Orioles, but spent the 2005 season pitching for the Mesa Miners of the independent Golden Baseball League. He pitched 9 Games in relief, going 1-0 with a 1.80 ERA and 1.600 WHIP. He threw 10 Innings, allowed 9 Hits, 2 Earned Runs, 7 Walks, and 8 Strikeouts.
There are no guarantees in baseball. Tony Saunders is not alone in having his career cut short by injuries. However his injuries were particularly gruesome. The future of the Devil Rays rested on his left arm, it took years for Tampa Bay to recover. Tony Saunders’ efforts to continue his baseball career did not go unnoticed. He received the 2000 Tony Conigliaro Award from the Boston Chapter of the Baseball Writer’s Association of America. The annual award is given to a Major League player who best overcomes an obstacle and adversity through the attributes of spirit, determination, and courage. While the award cannot replace his career, it is important to recognize Saunders’ perseverance in his comeback attempts.
Tony Saunders’ final career statistics: 3 Seasons, 61 Games Started, 2 Complete Games, 13 Wins, 24 Losses, 4.56 ERA, 1.528 WHIP, 345.2 Innings Pitched, 343 Hits, 175 Earned Runs, 33 Home Runs, 204 Walks, and 304 Strikeouts.
Oh, what could have been in Tampa Bay.