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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: October 1, 2022 2:51 pm PDT
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My phone came alive earlier this week after the latest Rob Manfred boondoggle came to light:  MLB’s desire to have the ability to eliminate hundreds of minor league playing jobs by whittling down the Domestic Reserve List. That really hit a nerve with baseball men I keep in contact with, men I lean on to understand the heartbeat of the game.

This is just another assault on minor league baseball, which through the years has been one of the greatest advertising mechanisms for Major League Baseball and a lot of fun to watch for fans. As we all know with spring training delayed and the start of the season in jeopardy, MLB has the players locked out – yet this is the kind of stuff they are concerned about: killing even more minor league jobs. There will be another negotiating session Thursday. Perhaps real progress will be made.

As for the lockout and contract squabbles I don’t really care – except for the impact on the fans. Eventually both sides are going to be hauling in a lot of money, look at the $350 million Juan Soto rejected from the Nationals as my friend Enrique Rojas discovered. But when it comes to minor league baseball and messing that up, – and cutting jobs – that’s drawing a line in the sand for me.

Only Manfred and his apparently baseball-hating henchmen would try to grow the game by cutting back the game.

Short term dollars replace what would be good for the game in the long run and would be good for fans and small towns that house baseball.

This is just another example of The Great Reset that is happening in baseball.

“They want to destroy the minor league system by having development leagues, so they don’t have to pay salaries, health care and staff retirement.”

It wasn’t long ago that Manfred and his cronies dumped 42 minor league teams; but that bloodletting of ballplayers, franchises and coaches, and taking the game away from fans who love the game, is one more example of his overall baseball crudeness.

The MLBPA did not sign off on this latest Manfred request, which was reported by ESPN’s Jeff Passan.

So what’s the end game here?

Well, you can be sure this is all part of the Luhnow Plan, a plan of cutting the minor leagues to shreds and eventually creating a system where teams, through their own gorgeous spring training complexes, train their own players with a limited number of minor league teams.

Jeff Luhnow is out of baseball after the Astros electronic, trash can-banging, sign-stealing scandal but he remains in baseball in the way that Manfred is running the business and a number of sources have told BallNine that Manfred was all for the Luhnow plan.

Just a point of information, before baseball, Luhnow spent five years at McKinsey & Co., the powerful consulting firm. For what it’s worth, in 2020 The Atlantic wrote an article on McKinsey entitled “How McKinsey Destroyed the Middle Class.’’

After this latest plan came to light via Passan, one longtime coach and manager texted me and said, “They want to destroy the minor league system by having the development leagues, so they don’t have to pay salaries, health care and staff retirement.’’

When you drop minor league players you also drop coaches, scouts, athletic trainers, strength and conditioning coaches and all the rest of the support system. So we are not just talking about minor league players losing their jobs.

Juan Soto turned down a 13-year / $350 million offer from the Washington Nationals. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Another baseball man wisely noted: “There is not a true business person in the world who is trying to grow a business worldwide that closes the entry level down and minimizes it. You want to maximize it. That’s been my argument from the beginning. We should be adding teams so the players actually develop.

“You develop by playing,’’ he said. “Not by having a roster with 35 guys where guys who get the big signing bonus get to play every day and then another group of about 15 guys get less than 100 at-bats a year between them. Then you have pitchers who throw an inning a week. That’s not player development. This just doesn’t make any sense to me at all. It makes me sick to my stomach.’’

Some MLB honchos have actually said of the draft that after the fifth round there’s really no players that come out. Sad but true.

This also is about control, if there is a period these players stay at the team’s complex in development leagues, you all train them the exact way, in a sense they are indoctrinated into the system that certainly relies heavily on analytics and such.

“I don’t like that word indoctrination,’’ one evaluator said.

Who does? Baseball does.

General manager Jeff Luhnow of the Houston Astros reacts before the game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Minute Maid Park on June 11, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)

There are not as many variables. They will have players go station to station: Horizontal spin rate or exit velo weighs more heavily in that teaching frame of reference than how to take a secondary lead because base-running is not important. It’s launch angle over solid contact because RBIs, as you well know, are just a matter of luck.

Right now, the 30 major league teams can have up to 180 players on the Domestic Reserve List and if they have Dominican Summer League teams, they can add those players as well but Manfred wanted to reserve the right to whittle the rosters if so desired by the owners. The commissioner’s office wanted to be able to drop that to 150 in the future and have complete power to move the number up or down.

Remember Branch Rickey, the brilliant front office executive who brought Jackie Robinson to MLB? Well he was a farm system innovator, too – first with the Cardinals, later with the Dodgers – and his teams created many minor league teams in the pursuit of finding and developing major league players.

Makes sense. Good plan. And it worked to perfection.

As Pat Doyle noted in Branch Rickey’s Farm, “By 1940, the Cardinals owned 32 major teams and had working agreements with eight others, resulting in control of over 800 players. Mr. Rickey’s farm was alive and well.’’

Isn’t it interesting that the then commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was at odds with Rickey’s system as well. Here we are 82 years later, and this baseball commissioner is all about cutting down the number of minor league teams and players. History repeats itself.

By the way, when the 42-team plan cutback was first announced by MLB, Daytona Beach, the first professional home connected to Jackie Robinson’s MLB journey and the home to Jackie Robinson Ballpark was on the list. We all know that 42 was Jackie’s number, and that was some coincidence 42 teams being axed and one of those teams being the one that played at Jackie Robinson Ballpark.

BEAR MOUNTAIN, NEW YORK - MARCH, 1944. Branch Rickey confides in Leo Durocher during a practice session at spring training for the Brooklyn Dodgers at Bear Mountain, New York in March of 1944. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images)

Evidently, someone in the major league offices took a second to think it all out and Daytona Beach was eventually spared from being eliminated, but 42 other teams were not as lucky. Great minor league organizations like the Trenton Thunder were shown the door by the Yankees. Trenton was able to help out the AAA Buffalo Bisons this past year but this year they will host a summer collegiate team in the MLB Draft League that begins in June and runs through the first week of September.

True baseball men know the value of the minor leagues and how it helps develop players and the game of baseball. Kansas City’s Dayton Moore in 2020 offered one of the best breakdowns of why minor league baseball is so important and not just because players develop on their way to the major leagues.

“Understand this: The minor league players, the players you’ll never know about, the players that never get out of rookie ball or High A, those players have as much impact on the growth of our game as 10-year or 15-year veteran players,’’ Moore said. “They have as much opportunity to influence the growth of our game as those individuals who played for a long time because those individuals go back into their communities and teach the game, work in academics, are JUCO coaches, college coaches, scouts, coaches in pro baseball.

“They’re growing the game constantly because they’re so passionate about it.’’

That was such a good comment it should have come with the music from ‘’Field of Dreams’’ playing in the background.

What a concept, growing the game. And growing the game in different ways. Become a coach after your pro career and inspire kids to love baseball. Maybe even run an academy or different leagues. Sure, you didn’t make the big leagues or get to AA or AAA, but you understand and love the game and you want to pass that love of the game on to future generations.

This latest Manfred proposal comes on the heels of an MLB lawyer arguing that minor league players should continue to be unpaid during spring training because “They obtain greater benefit from the training opportunities that they are afforded than the clubs.’’

What a few days for MLB showing fans how much they truly love the game.

Jackie Robinson Ballpark in Daytona Beach, FL. (Photo by Kevin Kernan)

One baseball man described to me how the spring training facilities fit into the plan, saying, “The facilities will be used 12 months a year and players will not have to leave the facility to develop the talent,’’ he said. “They want to be able to pay the major league players and give the minor league players enough crumbs to tell them to keep quiet.’’

Can “control complex baseball” become a reality? We’ll see.

The draft has been cut back too.

“It might end up being a 10-round draft,’’ one scout told me of the future. “How many scouts do you need to evaluate 300 players?’’

Some major league scouts I know said they would be on the road attending major league games last season and after early in the year, would not see another major league scout from a different organization for a week or more.

No scouts at games? That’s because so many organizations have moved to just reading numbers off tracking equipment and video scouting. That explains some of the things I see during the season when I would see a team pitch to a red-hot batter instead of a batter who was scuffling.

“You still need people in the ballpark,’’ one scout said. “You still need somebody to say, ‘I wouldn’t touch so and so for what you are going to pay him. He’s not good for the team.’ When you are in the ballpark you get to see the shit that those analysts, that those people on video that watch every home run that he hit, ‘Oh my gosh, what a great swing,’ don’t see.

“No, he doesn’t have a great swing. He’ll put a decent swing on the ball occasionally, right now he has at-bats that he gives away because it’s cold out.

“Every day it’s a drip, drip, drip from Manfred that tells us why the game stinks,’’ the evaluator said. “Ultimately they want to get to three minor league teams (per organization).’’

For the Luhnow Astros to get to the World Series and cheat, they first had to tank, which is a popular trend in baseball. In Luhnow’s first two years they lost 218 games. In January of 2020 Ryan O’Hanlon wrote a piece for GQ entitled: “How the Stats-Above-Everything Houston Astros Paved the way for Baseball’s Demise.’’

The readout to the article: “It wasn’t’ just the McKinsey-field cheating that reverberated through America’s pastime.’’

And so it goes. The Astros got their championship under Luhnow, a man I dealt with many times through the years, and now Manfred dumped 42 minor league teams and wants to bring the Domestic Reserve List down. In 2019 Bill Madden pointed out the owners’ acceptance of the Luhnow Plan 30-0 and here we are today.

No Luhnow. Same plan.

Hopefully the minor league teams and players can hold their ground against this wave of elimination of teams and people in the game.

You’ve already given up 42 teams. Don’t give another inch to Manfred & Co.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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