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How 3 Iowa Minor League Baseball Teams Fight For Survival

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Burlington Bees chief executive Ted Tornow is optimistic that affiliate baseball will continue in his city after 2020.

The Des Moines register

DAVENPORT, Ia. - Quad Cities River Bandits owner Dave Heller looks at the photos in the hallway near his team’s stadium shelter, Modern Woodmen Park. These are historical snapshots of the River Bandits, the Houston Astros' Class A affiliate. An image catches his attention.

It’s a picture of a perfect day at Davenport’s downtown stadium: the green grass is immaculately cut, there is no cloud in the sky, and a crowd full of abilities is watching the game in front of them.

"Do you want to get rid of this?" Asks Heller.

" It does not mean anything. "

He talks about his River Bandits, Clinton LumberKings and Burlington Bees, three Iowa minor league teams who have an uncertain future as Major League Baseball plans to cut its number of affiliated teams in upcoming negotiations Minor League Baseball.

Included in a proposal revealed last fall that 42 minor league teams were planning to lose their MLB parent club membership. Three of the five Iowa minor league teams were on the initial cut list.

The decision is not official, but the senior officials of these teams are giving it their full attention. But without affiliation with a major league team, their businesses are likely to fail in a few years, statistics show.

"(The fans) come here to see the next generation of major league stars," said Heller. "You take that away, and we are nothing. "

The proposed loss of affiliation is central to upcoming negotiations between the major and minor leagues for a new professional baseball deal that will expire at the end of the 2020 season. The PBA governs relations between the two leagues. A series of formal negotiations will take place on February 20 in Dallas.

Now that spring baseball is getting closer to fans waking up from their winter sleep, these clubs in Iowa and elsewhere are facing a battle to survive.

"I'm going to fight tooth and nail to get everything we can," said Kim Parker, executive director of Burlington Bees.

'What are we going to do?'

Team leaders first heard of the MLB's staggering proposal in October.

Pat O’Conner, president of the Minor League Baseball, has asked the general managers and senior staff of the Midwest League to stay after a meeting in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Parker said.

Everyone is out.

Then, Parker recalls, O’Conner started reading a team list from the MLB’s cut list. It included the River Bandits, the LumberKings and Parker’s Bees.

"I had tears running from my eyes," she recalls.

Her mind ran to how she and others could save their teams.

" What are we going to do? How to solve this problem? How to fight it? She remembers thinking.

The problem is that the leaders of the Minor League baseball say that they do not know exactly what to fix. MLB has stated that it aims to improve working conditions in playgrounds, reduce travel and improve hotel accommodation. MLB officials are also trying to remedy the compensation for players, a problem posed by 45 former players in a 2014 lawsuit against the league.

In a statement provided to the registry, the MLB contends that the contraction of affiliates is not its objective. The league also says it has plans for each affected team, but what that could mean for local clubs losing their membership in a major league is unknown.

Iowa team leaders say they know the biggest concerns of the MLB, but have not been made aware of specific problems with their operations.

"I don't know what their program is because they didn't give us any reason," said Parker.

Life in the minor leagues has been romanticized over the decades: long bus rides, playing in small towns in front of dispersed crowds, low wages, the dream of luxury that has just been called to the Show.

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Neut Teut, who briefly played in the majors and previously worked at the front office for the Des Moines-based Chicago Cubs' AAA affiliate Iowa Cubs, said the sacrifice was worth playing in the big leagues.

"I would do it again without even thinking twice," said Teut.

But compensation in the minor leagues has received intense scrutiny from former players.

Players earn just over $ 1,100 per month, in addition to any signing bonus received initially. For a high-level MLB draft choice, a signing bonus can mean millions. For others, it’s a few thousand dollars and a little money spent on college later.

Remuneration for minor league players is a key element in the upcoming PBA negotiations. If the MLB teams increase the monthly wages of minor leaguers, it means more salary expenses - and motivation to cut costs elsewhere.

Affiliate reductions could take place after the 2020 season, at the end of the current agreement.

The other two MLB affiliates, the Iowa Cubs and Cedar Rapids Kernels, both appear to be safe. But rumors of contraction also have their attention, especially in Iowa, where it takes three hours or more to see a major league team.

"This is scary for our business," said Iowa Cubs president and CEO Sam Bernabe. "We don't want to be in a position where we take baseball away from fans, let alone fans who are unable to have baseball regularly available to them. "

A potential economic blow

Before the LumberKings season, Cindy Brackemeyer, general manager of the local Candlelight Inn, enters a schedule and records the time of each home game.

His restaurant, which is located about 100 feet from the fence of the stadium's outdoor field, sees business resumption on match days. Its staff must therefore prepare for the increase in the number of customers.

"We certainly have an impact on (the games)," said Backemeyer.

The LumberKings and Bees are one of the main entertainment options in their cities. Heller River Bandits are the key to renovating downtown Davenport.

"I grew up going to the bee games, and now I see generations after me going to the bee games during the summer," said Burlington Mayor Jon Billups. "This is where they fall in love with baseball. Whether they are athletic or not, they fell in love with the game. I think MLB would make a huge mistake when it comes to game growth. "

According to the LumberKings, visiting teams spend more than $ 75,000 on hotel rentals each summer, $ 60,000 on food and beverages and $ 15,000 on goods and services in the community.

A report by the Iowa Economic Development Authority has determined that bees directly and indirectly support $ 4.7 million in wages in Des Moines County.

In Davenport, Heller said his club spends nearly $ 2 million a year on local suppliers.

"How do you replace almost $ 2 million a year in spending in a community the size of Quad Cities?" Asked Heller. " You can not. "

Congress could get involved

The fight to keep affiliate baseball in the three cities began moments after this October meeting in Indiana.

During LumberKings chief executive Ted Tornow's five-hour return to Clinton, he grabbed his phone, turned on the voice recorder, and began to take notes on the arguments against the MLB proposal.

"One was about how these original New York ideas figured out that the Twins' branch at Cedar Rapids was going to get screwed up (on a trip)," said Tornow.

The biggest problems against minor league clubs across the country that could lose their affiliations? Travel, facilities and assistance.

Prior to the announcement, Tornow said he plans to renovate the visiting clubhouse in his park and that a $ 50,000 pump system will be installed to help prevent flooding.

Parker said she spoke with her affiliate, the Los Angeles Angels, about reducing commuting. The Bees drive back and forth for some of their road games without staying overnight, which the Los Angeles Angels told Parker they would like to see cut.

Heller said he has invested heavily in his stadium, which will launch a new ribbon and video board this season. Since purchasing the team in 2007, Heller estimates that he has invested more than $ 7 million in facilities.

The Minor League Baseball told the teams not to do anything drastic until further negotiations with the MLB took place, Parker said..

Meanwhile, heads of government get involved.

US officials Lori Trahan, David McKinley, Max Rose and Mike Simpson have become co-chairs of the Save Minor League Baseball Task Force task force. US Senator Chuck Grassley also joined the mix.

The Iowa Republican said he recently met with MLB Deputy Commissioner Dan Halem to highlight the importance of minor baseball in the state.

And if the MLB position continues to threaten the future of baseball in these Iowa communities and elsewhere, Grassley said Congress could intervene.

"You always have some sort of shotgun behind the door that you can embarrass baseball by bringing them to congressional committee forums or if there is legislation that gives them a special exemption for baseball, you could threaten this kind of things, "said Grassley.

Minor League Baseball leaders are also asking fans to write to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred.

"I hope that seeing what it does for these cities will help influence the position of the MLB and I hope we have a chance to save baseball," said Jeff Lantz, an Iowa native and chief executive. communications for the Minor Baseball League.

Lantz said minor league leaders have heard that the original list of 42 teams may have been reduced. Grassley said Halem told him the River Bandits were gone. An MLB spokesperson declined to comment on Wednesday if this is true.

Heller has heard of Grassley's office about this conversation with Halem, but his concerns have not yet been resolved.

"I am cautiously optimistic," said Heller on Wednesday.

According to the MLB statement, he does not plan to drop the cities from the list. There was talk of creating a "Dream League" made up of players not drafted or cut by clubs.

Tornow laughed at such a proposal and pointed out the travel problems it would create because the teams would be spread across the country.

"It was renamed" League of Nightmares "," he joked.

If a team loses its affiliation, it could become an independent league team. But that can be a difficult environment, according to a study by the Minor League Baseball. Since 1993, the average lifespan of an independent league team has been 6.49 years. Ninety-seven of 202 teams have played less than four seasons, the study found.

And a "Dream League" or an independent league team would not have the potential potential star of affiliate baseball.

A number of baseball legends have spent time with Iowa minor league teams. Paul Molitor has adapted to Burlington. Kris Bryant of Chicago played Des Moines. Defending American League player Mike Trout took the field at Cedar Rapids. Sensations in Houston Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa played in the Quad Cities. One of the most beloved skippers in the game, Jim Leyland, succeeded once in Clinton.

"It was just a comfortable place," said Leyland, who has won 1,769 games and a World Series title in 22 seasons as an MLB manager. "I really enjoyed my stay there. "

The best minor league marketing management tool to attract fans is to see the superstars of tomorrow, said Parker.

"If they came and asked me to move from an affiliated team to an independent team, we would have great difficulty surviving," said Bernabe of the Iowa Cubs.

Lantz said the goal of minor league teams at the start of negotiations is to keep each team affiliated with an MLB club. He anticipates that some minor leagues will be restructured and said he would not be surprised if a PBA requires that minor league teams meet higher installation standards.

Tornow, Parker and Heller said they are complying with current requirements, but they may need to update their facilities and adjust their travel arrangements.

Everyone said it was okay. They just want the chance to save their teams.

"My biggest fear is ... not having the opportunity to make the changes," said Parker.

But officials from the three Iowa teams have yet to start preparing for the worst-case scenario.

While Tornow was sitting in his office overlooking the lobby of his stadium in Burlington, he said he believed minor league teams would survive this threat and remain affiliated.

Let the game, as we know it, continue.

"The moment I start to think we are not going to be successful, I concede defeat," said Tornow, "and I refuse to concede defeat."

Notable alums

Burlington bees

Vida Blue: Six-time All-Star who has won three World Series titles and a Cy Young Award.

Mark Buehrle: Five-time star and world series champion who threw a hit in 2007 and a perfect match in 2009.

Paul Molitor: Totaled 3,319 career hits, was a seven-time star, won four Silver Sluggers and is a member of the Hall of Fame.

Larry Walker: seven-time winner of the gold glove, five-time star and 2020 Hall of Fame class member.

Billy Williams: Six-time All-Star, NL Rookie of the Year Winner and Hall of Fame.

Clinton LumberKings

Orel Hershiser: triple star player who has 204 league victories and broken an MLB record 59 straight scoreless innings.

Jim Leyland: Won 1,769 games as a major league manager. Was triple manager of the year and World Series champion in 1997.

Denny McLain: triple star, double winner of the Cy-Young prize and MVP AL in 1968.

Mike Scioscia: twice star player as MLB player and double coach of the year.

Dave Stewart: three-time World Series champion, sole All-Star and AL winner in 1987.

Quad Cities River Bandits

Jim Bunning: Won 224 games, was nine-star and pitched a perfect, no-hitting game.

Jim Edmonds: Eight times winner of the gold glove, four times Silver Slugger and winner of the World Series in 2006.

Joe Maddon: triple manager of the year and double World Series champion, including skipper of the Chicago Cubs championship in 2016.

Joe Mauer: Totaled 2,123 hits, was a triple batting champion and six times a star.

Billy Wagner: counted 422 saves and was a seven-time star.

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