Column: The cancellation of the 2020 minor league season is an ominous sign for baseball-starved communities

  • Dugout at a minor league baseball game on August 21, 2017, in Columbia, South Carolina. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images/TNS)

CHICAGO — The cancellation of the minor league baseball season cuts many communities as sharply as teachers and students losing a year of school, or families unable to celebrate a holiday.

For many small towns that host minor league franchises, this represents their lives.

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You can see it from the time passionate fans travel to the backfields of spring training facilities to take a peek at their summer players, to local publicists and marketing staffers who are curious to see whether an injured major-league player will perform his rehabilitation assignment in their town.

And don’t forget the young job seekers, who travel to the winter meetings on a spartan budget and are willing to work virtually for free for a chance to cut their teeth in a sport in which executives increasingly value money more than communities passionately supporting their product.

Tuesday’s announcement was simply a formality in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic that has caused a shutdown of professional baseball until recently, and Major League Baseball’s 101-page operations manual details the protocol every personnel member must follow.

Nevertheless, the loss of an entire minor league season represents a cold reality — and what could be looming for many baseball-dependent communities.

Several months prior to the coronavirus shutdown, multiple reports identified 42 minor-league teams targeted for elimination by MLB after the 2020 season.

The Great Falls (Montana) Rookie League affiliate of the White Sox was on the list, and there is a fear the coronavirus will affect more franchises not on the original list.

Minor league communities benefit greatly from opening their doors to future major leaguers. The Kane County Cougars, for example, have taken great pride in showcasing the likes of Miguel Cabrera, Josh Beckett, Nelson Cruz, Adrian Gonzalez, Sean Doolittle, Willson Contreras, Kyle Schwarber and Albert Almora Jr. at Northwestern Medicine Field in Geneva over the last 30 seasons.

There’s also an appreciation from players toward their host families, who provide them with a comfortable bed, home-cooked meals and transportation.

In some areas where the cost of living is ridiculous (such as San Jose, Calif.), host families are essential to alleviate some of the financial stress players endure.

The minor leagues also provide an affordable outlet for families to enjoy baseball at a grassroots level. Sure, nearly all major league teams have been in a sort of arms race by building new stadiums or providing more amenities for fans. But those measures can be cost prohibitive in the minors.

For many teams building for the future, the coronavirus also has stunted the development of top prospects. The satellite squads allow prospects to undergo supervised work, but they already have lost four and a half months of instruction and games this season.

And each team has placed only a select number of top prospects on their summer training roster, which is maxed out at 60 players and must include major-league players.

For every Dave Winfield, Bob Horner or John Olerud who has gone from college to the pros, there are endless examples of All-Star players who needed years of minor league seasoning.

I watched a 19-year-old third baseman commit 30 errors in 104 games at Class-A San Jose. That player batted “only” .274 but improved enough to earn three American League batting titles, earn a 1985 Gold Glove Award and get inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999.

Thank you, George Brett.

More recently, infielder David Bote spent parts of four seasons at the Class A level before joining the Cubs in 2018 and providing dramatic, game-winning home runs.

The minor leagues also serve as a humbling but instructive fallback for players rushed to the majors.

Pitcher Mark Grant, the pride of Joliet, reached the majors less than three years after graduating from high school.

But he shuttled between the minors and the Giants in his rookie season in 1984 and needed more experience at Triple-A Phoenix, where he won 14 games in 1986 and eventually retuned to the majors for good.

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When a major league player embarks on a rehab assignment, often it’s a great short-term perk for his minor-league teammates. The major leaguer often treats his compatriots to a major-league-worthy postgame spread, such as steak, instead of a more thrifty meal.

But right now the minors are starving, and they shouldn’t be forgotten when the coronavirus subsides to the point where baseball communities can be restored to full strength.

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