Earlier this month, a plan to eliminate the affiliation between 42 Minor League Baseball teams and their parent clubs was leaked. The proposal would reduce the current number of MiLB teams by roughly 25%. Given the number of teams listed, it is no surprise that an Orioles affiliate was mentioned. The Class A Frederick Keys of the Carolina League will lose their affiliation with the Orioles if this plan goes into place before the 2021 season.
MLB’s rationalization behind this proposal is to facilitate an upgrade of all MiLB facilities and to improve minor leaguers’ travel and living conditions. There is speculation that it could end up leading to higher pay for minor league players, an issue that has been the topic of conversation recently. Owners of the potentially impacted clubs have voiced their concerns and those municipalities surely will as well. Last week, over 100 members of the United States House of Representatives signed a letter asking Rob Manfred to reconsider and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has spoken out against the proposal. For a more detailed look at the big picture of this situation, SB Nation has you covered.
Leaving aside political and economic impact, affiliated Minor League Baseball has a wide array of benefits to baseball and MLB clubs. While the plan doesn’t impact most minor league affiliations, it will cut off fans in many markets and geographic regions from affiliated baseball. In the Orioles’ situation, having a team in Frederick helps connect and build fans during a losing stretch for the parent club.
Broadly speaking, MiLB gives fans the opportunity to better engage with the sport and their favorite teams. Frederick’s inclusion on this report caused me to think about my visits to Nymeo Field at Harry Grove Stadium. It is the closest minor league team to my home and I’ve always enjoyed checking out in person the prospects that I’ve read about. My trips to see the Keys play deepen my fandom of the Orioles, Major League Baseball, and baseball in general. Seeing a few thousand fans there who are also dressed in orange leads me to believe that others feel the same way. This is something that MLB should encourage, not look to reduce.
When first learning of this proposal, my mind initially went to the young fans. Baseball has a well documented problem with winning over and keeping young fans. A Nielsen Scarborough study concluding in 2017 found that baseball is less popular among younger demographics as opposed to older ones. Declining attendance at Major League stadiums is making organizations and the industry consider how to attract younger fans. The Orioles are on the forefront of that with their “Kids Cheer Free” initiative.
Minor League Baseball games notoriously attract families and cater to young fans and reducing affiliations at this time would be counterproductive to their stated goal. There are a variety of reasons for this. First, the experience is quite a bit cheaper than going to an MLB game. Tickets and concessions are less expensive, and the more rural settings of these teams mean that parking is often free (like in Frederick). It is easier for a middle class family to enjoy an evening in Frederick as opposed to Baltimore.
Also, the atmosphere at minor leagues isn’t just about the on-field play. There are interactive games and activities in between innings, some stadiums have a carousel or something similar, and mascots have the opportunity to interact with fans. Admittedly, I don’t love being told to “shake my keys” or having Keyote try to give me a high-five while attempting to see how repeatable a prospect’s delivery is. But it is obvious that the children in attendance love it.
The minor league experience also caters to young fans by allowing them to sit very close to the action. The Orioles Dugout Club offers kids a great opportunity to attend games at Camden Yards for an affordable price. (Former Dugout Club member, here!) But the Dugout Club sections are in the left field upper reserve, several stories in the air and seemingly closer to the Bromo Seltzer Tower than home plate. Being that far away from the action may not be exciting for young fans. In contrast, most minor league stadiums offer only a lower bowl of seating that runs between the bases. You’re on top of the action and can clearly hear the crack of the bat and snap of the glove.
So Minor League Baseball is good for established fans and young fans. This is good for both Major League Baseball and the sport in general. But from an Orioles perspective, having a minor league team in Frederick at the current moment is perhaps more important than ever. The major league team 40 miles away from Camden Yards and 50 miles from Frederick is still celebrating their World Series championship. Meanwhile the Orioles are bracing for their third consecutive 100-loss season.
While reports of the Orioles considering a relocation were unfounded and eventually squashed by the Angelos family, a loyal fan base is important. While Camden Chat readers are likely to bleed orange until they die, there are casual sports fans in the greater Baltimore/Washington metro area that may want to spend the time they invest in sports rooting for a winner. More importantly, there are young fans all over the area that are just getting into baseball and will soon be casting loyalty towards an MLB team. Which team is more attractive: the Nationals with their World Series trophy and Juan Soto or the Orioles with.....? Maintaining and growing the fan base with a World Series champion also in the region has to be on the minds of the Orioles’ marketing department.
A Baltimore minor league club remaining in Frederick is not a magic bullet that will transform every mid-Atlantic resident into an Orioles fan. But it absolutely gives fans in Frederick County, western Maryland, parts of northern Virginia, the West Virginia panhandle, and parts of southern Pennsylvania a connection to the Orioles. An affiliated team in Frederick gives hardcore fans like me the opportunity to stay engaged with the team and follow exciting prospects during a rebuild. It gives casual fans a reason to attend a game and think about the Orioles. And it gives young fans a reason to dress in orange and become connected to the club during their formative years. With the parent club in Baltimore expected to struggle for another couple of years, having that team in Frederick is very important.
I found it troubling that Mike Elias apparently joined with his former boss, Astros’ GM Jeff Lunhow, to formulate this plan. He has not commented on this and, if true, his level of involvement is unknown. Did he offer up Frederick as one of the teams to lose MLB affiliation? Unknown for now. If Elias will be successful in this current role, it will be because of his data-driven approach. He likely has little interest in fans like me enjoying a night of baseball in Frederick. But for the reasons laid out here and more, Minor League Baseball has an important role to play in America’s baseball fandom and keeping a team in Frederick will keep the Orioles connected to outposts of Birdland.