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Nevius: Minor league baseball needs a reality check

Like running away to join the circus or selling everything and moving to the south of France, there is an undeniable romance to the concept of life as a minor league baseball player.

We picture “Bull Durham,” where guys play ball, crack wise and await the call to “the show.”

It’s Americana. It is comforting to imagine the young bros, taking a four-hour bus ride to play the Rumble Ponies (actual name) in some cute small town.

The reality is a lot grittier. It’s four men to a room, sleeping on air mattresses. Minor leaguers exist on a poverty-level wage that have them bingeing on cheap fast food. A shot at the big league? More like a moonshot.

As it happens, there’s a lot of talk about the minor leagues now because they’ve been hit with a double whammy.

First, no season. Minor league franchises are run on ticket sales and concessions. And with the pandemic, baseball may be played this year, but there won’t be fans in the stands.

No fans. No money. No season.

It’s the second point that may be more significant. To howls of protest from the baseball traditionalists - two words that may be redundant - Major League Baseball has announced it will cut a reported 42 minor league teams.

Wow. Forty-two teams. That’s a big cut. How many minor league teams does that leave?

One hundred and twenty.

Wait. What? How many?

One hundred and twenty.

And you math majors will note that, since they haven’t trimmed the 42 teams yet, the current total is 162.

You will not be surprised to hear that some deep thinkers in the game look at that number and think: this is nuts. Why are we clinging to this antiquated model? Do we really need the minor leagues?

The answer is yes. But a qualified yes. Say we have Triple-A and a Double-A league. Plug players into one of those two, evaluate them and pick the best prospects.

Because the current system is bonkers. Run down the designations: Triple-A, Double-A, Class A (advanced), Class A (low), Class A short season and Rookie (which has two subsets).

How many players is that? Hard to say. But under the latest proposal, each team would be limited to 150 minor leaguers. With 30 teams, that’s 4,500 hopefuls. Under the old rules, with no limit, teams like the Yankees had over 200.

So safe to say this is a pool of some 5,000 young guys chasing the dream. And their chances? Honestly, the odds would have to improve to be considered a long shot.

Studies have been done that show only roughly one out of 10 actually makes it all the way through to the majors. The vast majority kick and scuffle their way through an endless stream of small-town ballparks.

Critics say the minor leaguers need to confront an honest truth. Walker Buehler, an All-Star pitcher, laid it out for FiveThirtyEight.

“At any affiliate, there are three players who have a chance to play in the majors,” he said. “The rest of the players are there so they can play.”

So it is more like summer camp for jocks. You hang in there until you approach the big three-oh, and then accept reality and step away. You can still tell everyone that you played a little professional baseball.

But whose interest is being served here? Not baseball. You can bet that if they didn’t think every purist would scream bloody murder, MLB would have shut down even more teams.

And honestly, the conditions for the players are inexcusable. The website Quora calculated that the average Class A player makes $290 a week. Players share rooms or live with host families. That may have been romantic once, but imagine a college-educated player from a powerhouse program like Vanderbilt, living that life for five years.

The you-are-ruining-baseball crowd is quick to crank up the calliope for the fabric of America. They lament the possible closing of such storied minor league stalwarts as the Chattanooga Lookouts, the Bristol Pirates and the Binghamton Rumble Ponies. (Told you it was a real name.)

Nice stories. But the Chattanooga ballpark is 20 years old and singled out for much-needed improvements. Bristol, Tennessee, is a Class A team that averaged 586 fans a game last year, according to Appalachian League records.

And Binghamton, in New York, has ranked last in attendance for nine of the last 10 years. The exception was the year they had Tim Tebow.

The harsh reality is these teams aren’t on scholarship. They have to make it work financially. Model franchises, like the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats, are doing it. They have a nice fan base, a winning team and a new stadium.

So in the new world, we’d keep those new-age minor league teams as part of the Double-A/Triple-A proving ground. Nobody needs to climb through five levels of hell to reach the majors. You can play or you can’t.

There’s even a school of thought that says it isn’t helping your top prospects to play against inferior competition.

After all, every year NFL teams bring the best 100 guys into training camp and pick the best 53 by the start of the regular season. Nobody has to ride a bus to Pulaski.

But what about those diamonds in the rough, who have talent but just need to have it refined with smart coaching? We have that covered.

In fact, it is already underway. Teams, like Houston, think it is more valuable to install young players in baseball academies, where state-of-the-art metrics and technology produce measurable results.

Laboratories like Driveline Baseball can literally add mph to a fastball and juice to a batter’s swing. In the new world, maybe players would start in the lab to refine techniques, then be plugged into minor league games to use their new skills.

It makes too much sense not to try it. Particularly now when the entire minor league system is shut down. It’s the perfect time for a change.

And the romance of small-town ?minor league baseball?

Rent the movie.

Contact C.W. Nevius at cw.nevius@pressdemocrat.com. Twitter: @cwnevius

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