Minor League Sports

Midwest League's future in Iowa in limbo as Clinton and Burlington likely lose teams

Report says Minor League Baseball has agreed to Major League Baseball plan to cut 42 MiLB franchises

(David Harmantas/Freelance)
(David Harmantas/Freelance)

CEDAR RAPIDS — The other shoe apparently has just dropped on affiliated minor league baseball in the state of Iowa. And it’s a really, really big shoe.

Baseball America reported Tuesday that Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball will resume negotiations Wednesday on a new Professional Baseball Agreement, and that MiLB has agreed with MLB’s initial request to cut the number of teams beginning next season from 160 to 120.

That means it’s likely Burlington and Clinton of the Midwest League will lose their teams. They were on an initial “contraction list” that was leaked last fall and are two “small-market” franchises with older stadiums.

Quad Cities of the MWL also was on that initial list, which has been considered to be fluid. The Cedar Rapids Kernels were not, but their future is far from clear.

Burlington is the smallest full-season market in affiliated minor league baseball and joined the Midwest League in 1962. Clinton is the only original MWL club remaining, one of eight to commence play in 1956.

“I do not know any of the specifics, other than they are meeting tomorrow,” said Kernels CEO Doug Nelson. “My heart goes out to the communities of Clinton and Burlington, because they have worked very hard to save their teams. At least according to this article, the future does not look too bright for them.”

“Recent articles on the negotiations between MiLB and Major League Baseball (MLB) are largely inaccurate,” Minor League Baseball said in a statement late Tuesday afternoon. “There have been no agreements on contraction or any other issues. MiLB looks forward to continuing the good faith negotiations with MLB tomorrow as we work toward an agreement that best ensures the future of professional baseball throughout the United States and Canada.”

Clinton General Manager Ted Tornow said he was operating as it’s business as usual.

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“I don’t give up,” he said. “Until somebody knocks on my door and says ‘You’re done. Go retire, go sell insurance, go do whatever,’ I’m not giving up. I am just not going to give up.”

Baseball America reported that Minor League Baseball appeared to be gaining traction in its efforts to retain all 160 affiliated franchises, but the COVID-19 pandemic blew all of that up. Major League Baseball has said there are too many minor league teams and too many minor league players in general, most of whom it claims have no chance of making it to the big leagues.

It also wants an increase in standards for the stadiums its minor leaguers play in and less travel for them. On the stadium standards front, for instance, the parent Minnesota Twins asked the Kernels to increase the space in the home clubhouse at Veterans Memorial Stadium to accommodate a larger coaching staff, as well as provide multiple additional batting cages.

The apparent plan is to have the short-season and Rookie-level leagues outside of each MLB club’s spring training complex eliminated. They would be the New York-Penn League, Northwest League, Pioneer League and Appalachian League.

Each MLB club would have four full-season affiliates and a Rookie affiliate at its spring training complex. The St. Paul Saints in Minnesota and Sugar Land Skeeters in Texas would gain affiliated teams, meaning 42 other teams need to be eliminated.

The composition of leagues undoubtedly will change with MLB’s request for less travel. Though there are 40 teams in the four leagues expected to be axed, some are owned by MLB clubs and others have good enough facilities to survive if it’s geographically feasible.

The Midwest League has 16 teams split into two eight-team divisions, something that surely will change beginning in 2021. If Burlington, Clinton and Quad Cities go away, the Kernels would lose all of their commuter trips, with the closest MWL team being three hours away.

That would mean additional cost in hotel expenses, on top of needing to make stadium improvements. Being on an island geographically also could mean eventually being put on the contraction list.

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“The honest answer is no,” Nelson said, when asked if he was confident the Kernels would survive. “We have seen the preliminary list and others, and Cedar Rapids has not been on them. We’ve had excellent conversations with the Twins and feel like we have a solid relationship with their organization. So, at this point, to a certain extent it comes down to what are the new facility standard requirements going to be? And are we going to be able to comply with them?”

And are they going to be able to pay for them? This is a franchise owned by community members and run as a non-profit, though technically it is not one.

It is not flush with cash, especially considering having any sort of a 2020 season would have to be considered a long shot, at this point.

“Step one is to quantify how much money is needed,” Nelson said. “Step two is finding out where to get it. We have had a preliminary capital repairs stadium study done, and that is taking it about as far as we can go until we get the specific facility standard requirements.”

According to Baseball America, teams that are contracted could be part of a “Dream League” of players not with affiliated clubs. MiLB is rightfully skeptical of the viability of such a league, though MLB apparently is open to helping.

Cedar Rapids has been affiliated with a major league team since 1932.

Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com 

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