Appalachian League’s future past next season in question

      It is not time to panic, but it is time for concern, and I’m sure the powers than be in the Pulaski Yankee organization are very concerned. David Hagan has put together an outstanding franchise in the Appalachian League, and his efforts, expansion, and quality development in all areas have more than matched the remainder of the Appy. The only other franchise that rates with Pulaski in most areas might be the Greeneville Reds.
     But the story has broken in many publications around the country. “Baseball America” is one of the bibles of baseball. That publication says major changes are coming to baseball, and make no mistake, there is great reason for concern in a number of areas.
    The Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) between minor league baseball teams and Major League Baseball could come to and end at the conclusion of the 2020 season. If a new proposal becomes reality more than three dozen minor league affiliations will lose their teams and thousands of people involved with baseball will be out of work. MLB wants to cut franchises back to from 150 to a maximum of 200 players in their farm systems.
      MLB’s demands are understandable, and apparently such discussions have taken place before, and now MLB thinks its time minor league franchises met their demands. Those demands center around better facilities, the majors taking control of how the minor leagues are organized as far as franchise affiliations and league geography. MLB wants to reduce the number of minor league teams from 160 to 120, or something along that scale. If adopted, more than 25% of minor league franchises would be eliminated.
     If the new plan is adopted, and it appears fairly that certain that even if not in its entirety, changes are coming. After the reduction of teams, the minor league franchises left would be reworked with some leagues getting smaller, and some others maybe bigger. There could also be some changing of classifications for different minor leagues around the country.
    Major League Baseball wants a lot, and feels it has waited too long for movement. It wants an upgrade in facilities, working conditions, compensation, better transportation, better hotel accommodations, better geography to cut down on travel and distance between minior league affiliations and parent clubs. The rub? Minor League Baseball is basically happy with the current arrangement, but MLB is not, and they control the players and obviously a lot more.
     The major concern for Pulaski County and the New River Valley is how does this effect the Pulaski Yankees, a member of the short season Appalachian League? MLB obviously wants to reduce its number of player development contracts. It wants to spend less. The reduction would completely eliminate the four, none rookie level short-season classifications from the minor leagues.
     That would not only eliminate the Pulaski Yankees, but also the Bluefield Blue Jays, Princeton Rays, Danville Braves, Burlington Royals, Elizabethton Twins, Johnson City Cardinals, Kingsport Mets, and Greeneville Reds.
     Basically what MLB wants in the opinion of “Baseball America” is for minor league clubs to add $300,000 to $400,000 in cost for salaries, workers compensation, and staffing in addition to improved facilities.  “Baseball America” believes that would kill the Appy which has been in business under its current format since 1937. It would also eliminate the other short-season leagues. There would be no short-season professional baseball.
     It seems that MLB would encourage Appy teams and other short-season franchises to then have wooden bat amateur teams with the hope that even though towns would no longer have a team, they would still have some sort of association with baseball which likely sounds like a terrible idea to all involved.
     So what does all this mean to the Pulaski Yankees? It means just what it says. There is reason for concern. However, since 2015 the Pulaski Yankees have drawn 380,000 fans. The franchise has won some of minor league baseball’s top honors for Calfee Park as a facility and for all the franchise provides. Hagan has done a terrific job. He has elevated Calfee Park and the local franchise to heights I doubt many in this area ever imagined possible, and it continues to improve with each passing month. A new deck will open next season to go along with all the other advancements. Calfee Park is a great and comfortable way to spend a summer evening. All aspects, the game, and all the things around the game, are top notch. To lose it would be a huge blow to Pulaski.
    But it is also not time to assume anything either. Betsy Haugh, Pulaski Yankee General Manager, says she cannot comment directly on the negotiations, and she moves along confidently. “I can’t say anything and it’s much  too early anyway, but right now it’s business as usual. We’re getting ready and looking forward to next baseball season,” said Haugh.
      That brings us to Jeff Lantz, Senior Director of Communications for Minor League Baseball. Lantz can’t say much on the record at this point either, but make no mistake, discussions are serious, and these are discussions that concern a variety of levels of professional baseball in numerous areas around the country.
     In conversation with The Patriot, Lantz was as open as he could be at this time. “We certainly understand how important this is to the people involved and fans of the Pulaski Yankees. Mr. Hagan has been super in every way. We could not be happier with the improvements and plans for that franchise.  We should also remember that while these discussions are serious, they will continue on and nothing is final at the moment. There will be an exchange of thoughts, ideas and many things. We all want the best for baseball and that goes from the top of baseball all the way down the chain. We are working hard on this, but everybody needs to focus on one thing, and that’s that we’re playing baseball next season,” said Lantz.

     And that is the one absolute fact. There will be Yankee baseball in Calfee Park next summer. But changes are coming. Will they be drastic for Pulaski? I’m not sure anybody knows that right now. It’s also still a bit early. The demands of Major League Baseball are on the table, but are they the final demands? We don’t know that yet. It has been made plain to me that MLB wants its minor league players to at least play in facilities equal to that of collegiate baseball. That’s understandable, but the Pulaski Yankees already play in a facility that exceeds most of college baseball.
      But during inquiries I could not help but get the feeling that the Pulaski franchise will benefit from the vision of David Hagan, his tremendous improvements to Calfee, and the support of baseball fans in the area. What has happened in Pulaski has not gone unnoticed in the world of professional baseball.
     Maybe down the road there is no Appalachian League as we know it today. But that does not mean there will not be baseball at Calfee Park. Maybe it will be another league, or a different level, but at least at this stage, it’s hard to imagine that the franchise in Pulaski will not be rewarded for being the outstanding aspect of minor league baseball that it is.
By DAN CALLAHAN, The Patriot