COVID relief money eyed by NJ minor league baseball teams
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After a COVID year that saw the entire 2020 minor league season canceled and 40 teams disbanded under a new Major League Baseball takeover of the lower teams, there may be some help on the horizon.
The bi-partisan Minor League Baseball Relief Act was introduced last week in Congress and could steer some $550 million in COVID relief to dozens of eligible teams, the Jersey Shore Blue Claws among them.
“While the BlueClaws are certainly excited to be back playing this year, the last 16 months have been extremely challenging financially for our team and everyone across the industry,” BlueClaws President Joe Ricciutti stated in an online plea for support of the legislation. “Passage of this bill would go a long way to helping out teams such as the BlueClaws and we thank everyone for their continued support.”
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His message noted that “the bill repurposes leftover COVID-19 relief funds for an emergency grant program designed to help teams recover from the tremendous economic impact of the last 16 months.”
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, introduced the legislation June 28 during an event at Dunkin Donuts Park in Hartford, home of the Double-A Hartford Yard Goats, a Colorado Rockies affiliate.
“Essentially, as a lifeline, this money would go to the teams to compensate for their past losses in revenue,” Blumenthal said, according to the Hartford Courant. “The shortfalls of when ballparks were closed will be compensated, just as it is for live entertainment, concert halls or clubs or theaters and stages, museums. Minor league baseball was left out.”
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Maximum bailout $15 million
All 120 minor league teams would be eligible based on their specific financial needs, with up to $15 million available for each club. It’s co-sponsored by Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee. Supporters hope it will be included in the next federal infrastructure bill.
“Baseball is America’s pastime & brings communities together,” Blumenthal tweeted after the introduction. “The bipartisan Minor League Baseball Relief Act will be a lifeline to so many minor league teams across the country — like the (Yard Goats) who were forced to close their ballparks due to the pandemic.”
Minor League Baseball has created a special webpage to promote the legislation, including sample letters to fans to download and send to their congressional representatives urging them to pass the proposal.
“Urgent action is needed to safeguard MiLB’s vital contribution to local economies across the country, driving revenue and economic growth and serving as pillars of the community,” the webpage stated. “MiLB is essential for local businesses, as many nearby businesses are built around ballpark traffic, and MiLB Clubs are key customers of local suppliers and vendors. This is especially true for local hotels, gas stations, restaurants, and bars, all of which thrive during baseball season.”
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It includes an interactive map offering the names and contact information of senators and House members in each team’s home area.
“COVID hit at the worst possible time for Minor League Baseball – just before the MiLB season – so MiLB Clubs were not able to cut expenses meaningfully and suffered the full brunt of the loss,” the webpage added. “Two-thirds of clubs took on additional debt to survive the pandemic (with an average increase of over $1.25 million). Absent financial relief, nearly 75% of Clubs will need to take on even more debt, which is further complicated by the fact that nearly one-third of MiLB Clubs are currently in violation of their loan covenants.”
A year of contraction for MiLB
Minor league baseball has undergone some of the biggest changes of any industry during the pandemic, and even before.
During the dormant 2020 season, Major League Baseball reorganized teams and took a more direct hand in operations, but forced 42 teams to disband, including the Staten Island Yankees.
New Jersey did not lose any teams, but the Trenton Thunder were dropped as the Double-A affiliate of the New York Yankees, who moved their players, coaches and batboys north to Bridgewater and the Somerset Patriots.
Hundreds of players, coaches and support staff lost jobs, not to mention the related commerce in local communities like Auburn, New York and Burlington, Iowa.
But players who remained received standard raises of 38% to 72%, according to the Associated Press, which noted the weekly minimum increased from $290 to $400 at the rookie level, $290 to $500 at Class A, $350 to $600 at Double-A and $502 to $700 at Triple-A.
“For players on 40-man rosters on optional or outright assignment to the minors, the minimum is covered by the Major League Baseball Players Association collective bargaining agreement and rises from $46,000 to $46,600 for a player signing his first major league contract,” AP reported. “For a player signing a second or later major league contract, the minimum increases from $91,800 to $93,000.”
Those changes were in the works before COVID shut down most businesses and schools in March 2020, sparking congress to act even then.
The first opposition from Washington, D.C, came in a letter to MLB signed by more than 100 members of Congress in Dec. 2019. Those included New Jersey’s own Rep. Chris Smith, R-Monmouth; Rep. Any Kim, D-Ocean; and Rep. Bonnie Watson-Coleman, D-Mercer.
“The abandonment of minor league clubs by Major League Baseball would devastate our communities, their bond purchasers, and other stakeholders affected by the potential loss of these clubs,” the letter said. “We want you to fully understand the impact this could have not only on the communities we represent, but also on the long-term support that Congress has always afforded our national pastime on a wide variety of legislative initiatives.”
In early 2020, House members introduced a resolution to save the minor league system and oppose the team reductions, along with a proposal for an audit of the minor league operations by the Congressional Budget Office. Neither was ever approved.
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Teams take their case for relief online
But the latest congressional effort seems to have more life than those previous attempts, with dozens of teams – from the Midland (Texas) Rockhounds to the Chattanooga (Tennessee) Lookouts – taking the cause to their fans online and with reminders to let their Congress members know they need relief.
“The average Minor League Baseball Club (MiLB) lost more than 90% of its revenue from 2019 to 2020. Though MiLB Clubs have resumed play, they will continue to lose money throughout the 2021 season and remain at severe financial risk,” the Rockhounds plea states. “Urgent action is needed to safeguard MiLB’s vital contribution to local economies across the country, which includes not only driving revenue and economic growth, but also serving as pillars of the community.”
Notebook: What’s in a name?
This week’s team name of note: Rocket City Trash Pandas of Madison, Alabama.
The Double-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim dates back to 1997 when it launched as the Mobile (Alabama) BayBears and played there until the end of 2019 as an affiliate of the San Diego Padres and Arizona Diamondbacks before signing on with the Angels in 2017.
The Baybears were sold to a California group in 2017, made plans to relocate to Madison after the 2019 season, and open in 2020 in their new location. But with the COVID shutdown that re-launch was delayed until this season.
The Trash Pandas’ media guide has two pages upfront devoted to the unique name, citing the team’s close proximity to nearby Huntsville, which is known for several aerospace-related businesses, as well as NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.
As for Trash Pandas, a slang term for raccoons, the media guide contends the name is a tribute to the “determination and ingenuity of raccoons” that apparently populate the area at a big rate.
The name was also the top choice among fans who picked it in a 2018 survey that drew more than 28,000 responses. It beat out the Army Ants, Comet Jockeys and Glo Worms, among others.
The Trash Pandas push their space-age connection in several promotions, including a Top Gun T-shirt giveaway, space-themed Jersey night and a bobblehead giveaway devoted to mascot Sprocket, whose favorite call is “To The Moon!”
Joe Strupp is an award-winning journalist with 30 years’ experience who covers education and Monmouth County for APP.com and the Asbury Park Press. He is also a die-hard Yankees fan when not checking out the marvelous minor leagues.
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