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Appy League's demise would be a slap in the face of fans

Joe Avento • Jun 3, 2020 at 4:30 PM

It’s looking more and more as though there won’t be an Appalachian League season this summer.

And if that’s the case, we may never see our old, familiar Appy League again.

What a shame that would be.

If the Appy League is eliminated before next season as is generally expected to happen under a new agreement between Major League Baseball and the minor leagues, thousands of baseball fans in our area will be out of luck.

It’s a double whammy of sorts. As the millionaire major league players and billionaire owners squabble over money and how to restart this season when their fans need the game more than ever, the minor leagues could become an afterthought.

Several reports have indicated that the cancellation of the entire minor league season is a real possibility.

If both of those things happen, the Johnson City Cardinals would go down as the winners of the last game ever played in Appalachian League history. The Cardinals beat the Burlington Royals 8-6 on Sept. 4 to win the league championship. It capped a remarkable run which saw them win their sixth game in nine days where a loss would have ended their season.

Meanwhile, team organizers around the league prepare for a season they know will not start on time. They have to keep working, though, to be ready in case the season does begin at some point. As they go about their labors of love, they do so hoping for a miracle in the negotiations for future seasons.

Neither count is looking good these days.

How popular is minor league baseball? The numbers are staggering.

For 15 years in a row, annual total attendance at minor league games has surpassed 40 million people. Even though it’s kind of comparing apples to oranges, the fact is minor league baseball drew more fans than the NFL and NBA combined last year.

Nineteen minor league teams, including the Johnson City Cardinals and Pulaski Yankees of the Appy League, set franchise attendance records in 2019.

The lower level of the game’s popularity shouldn’t come as a surprise. Those people aren’t forced to pay the high prices of a major league stadium. Tickets, hot dogs and beer at a minor league park are generally affordable.

A few years ago as gas prices neared the $4 mark, one Mets fan wondered what the fuss was about. After all, he figured they were paying $117 a gallon for beer at the stadium.

These days, major league teams are releasing hundreds of minor leaguers rather than continue to pay them the $400 a month they were getting. They also cut the draft from 40 rounds to five. MLB, an organization whose revenues were almost $11 billion last year, is cost-cutting from the bottom.

In considering to ax the rookie leagues, MLB is said to not be taking outside factors such as attendance into account. That shows how little they think of you, the local baseball fan.

The Appalachian League’s 10 parks drew 411,189 fans last summer. Many were loyal to their teams. All were loyal to baseball.

If their teams are ripped out of their communities, those fans should perhaps reconsider that relationship. It’s tough to continue to like a sport that thinks so little of you.

The Appalachian League has served its purpose as a developmental league well throughout the years. It’s turned out numerous players who have gone on to become Hall of Famers, major league managers and even big league umpires.

Those players will continue to come from somewhere, just not Johnson City, Kingsport, Elizabethton, Bristol, Greeneville or the rest of the communities that have ponied up to have Appy League baseball.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. We’ll have some baseball this summer. A high school league will be playing at the stadiums of the Cardinals and Elizabethton Twins.

Even if the Appy League is eliminated after 2020, we still might have baseball next summer as a wood-bat college league has been discussed as a replacement.

There are more than 40 summer leagues around the country and many of them are partially subsidized by MLB. The baseball in those leagues is good and features rosters stocked with players from big-time college programs.

It wouldn’t be the same without the ties to the major league teams, but it would be a pretty good alternative. It would be better than no baseball at all.

Contact Joe Avento via email at javento@johnsoncitypress.com.

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