Ogden, Orem could become lost cities in Minor League Baseball if MLB proposal eliminating 40 teams is approved

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Spectators take in the game and views of the Wasatch Range as the sun sets on a Raptors baseball game at Lindquist Field in Ogden on Wed. July 25, 2018.

Ogden • Near life-size posters of former players who didn’t just make it to Major League Baseball but made it big there line the red brick walls inside Lindquist Field. Corey Seager, the 2016 National League Rookie of the Year, called the stadium home in 2012, when he was playing Rookie League ball for the Ogden Raptors. Six-time All-Star first-baseman Prince Fielder and Olympic gold-medal-winning pitcher Ben Sheets also began their brilliant careers there, as did Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda.

Rivaling their grandeur is the view that greets the more than three thousand fans who walk past the posters and up the ramps into the main bowl nightly when the Raptors are at home in the summer. The purple Wasatch Mountains seem to be peering over the fence as players take their positions around the meticulously manicured, lush green outfield lawn and terracotta-colored basepaths.

Sponsors’ signs pinned to that fence range from Talisman Brewing to Lucky Slice Pizza and even Social Axe Throwing, which is just what it sounds like. Amid them, right below the scoreboard, a blue banner with white text proclaims: “This is my town. Dodgertown, Utah.”

Yet in less than a year, Dodgertown, as the people of Ogden know it, could be wiped right off the map. A proposal sent from the MLB to Minor League Baseball (MiLB) in August reportedly recommends eliminating 42 minor league teams, including all short-season leagues, by the year 2021.

Orem, Idaho Falls and Billings, Montana, could also join the ranks of Minor League baseball’s lost cities as the entire Pioneer League, a short-season league that runs from June to September, faces extraction from affiliated baseball. If cut from the minors, the league could conceivably reconvene as an independent league made up of undrafted players — dubbed a Dream League in the MLB proposal — but at considerably greater expense to team owners.

Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner, in an interview last week with The Athletic, called the plan radical. He said those 42 teams would be “basically given a death sentence.”

“Those communities will lose their baseball as a result of the economics,” O’Conner said. “This is not strictly about facilities and player health and wellness. I think it’s a matter of [MLB] wanting to exert more control over the minor leagues.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jonathan Hall, 9, keeps an eye on the game and his glove ready in hopes of a ball as the sun sets on the Raptors game at Lindquist Field in Ogden. The general admission section along the first-base line offers an unique and intimate experience as young fans can be close to the action.

A league shakeup

The MLB’s proposal lays out a new blueprint for minor league baseball. At its crux is a push for improved facilities, more geographically sensible leagues and better pay for players.

If MLB is to fulfill those goals, though, it’s going to have to either find a new source of revenue or become more economically efficient. One suggested way of achieving the latter is to move the MLB Draft, currently held in mid-June, to August and cut it from 40 rounds to 25. With fewer players in each team’s farm system and less time between the draft and the upcoming season, that could eliminate the need for short-season Rookie Leagues, which usually consist of just-drafted players. It would also eliminate the salaries and worker’s compensation insurance that would have to be paid for those players and their coaches, a tab typically picked up by MLB teams. And it would eliminate some of the teams with the worst facilities.

The proposal won’t just affect short-season leagues. Other minor league teams could be axed as the MLB strives to equip all 30 of its teams with an equal number of farm teams. Some of the remaining teams could be assigned a different level, meaning Triple-A teams could be reduced to A, or vice versa.

Aware of the feathers it would ruffle, MLB submitted the proposal 11 months prior to the September 2020 expiration of its current contract with minor league teams. The sides have already met three times in the last six months and are scheduled to come together again at the Winter Meetings in December. Meanwhile, O’Conner is meeting with team presidents around MiLB.

“We knew there would be some negotiation on this one,” said Jeff Lantz, MiLB senior director of communications. “We wanted to start early and it’s a good thing we did.”

Players feel the pain

Brett de Geus would prefer to forget most of his stint with the Ogden Raptors in 2018. The right-handed pitcher concedes his opening foray into professional baseball was less than stellar. His souvenirs included a 4-5 record and a 7.26 ERA.

Still, de Geus, 21, appreciates getting to start his career with the Pioneer League affiliate of the Dodgers, the MLB team that drafted him in the 33rd round in 2017. Now wrapping up a stint in the AZL short-season league, where he was named a FallStar, he said playing for the Raptors was a good introduction to the travel and the rhythm and, yes, the drudgery of life as a pro.

“It was a first taste,” he said. “In Ogden, you get your boots on the ground. It’s easier to feel out. ... It’s a good spot to get your feet wet in affiliate ball.”

In Ogden, de Geus got to play for a successful team with a loyal following in what he deemed the best facility in the Pioneer League. The Raptors won the league title in 2017, reached the semifinals when de Geus was there in 2018 and returned to the final this summer. Grounded in Ogden since 1994, they play in front of an average of 3,951 fans and have drawn the most spectators of any Pioneer League team since 2005, the first year attendance records were available. In addition, Lindquist Field, which was built in 1997 just a couple blocks from Ogden’s vibrant downtown, underwent a major renovation in 2008 to add more seats and concession areas.

The Raptors seem to be doing everything right, but that might not be enough to keep them off MLB’s chopping block.

Raptors president Dave Baggott said he doesn’t think the MLB fully realizes the value of the lower leagues in indoctrinating players in the systems and values unique to each Major League team.

“Lower-level minors are the most important in my eyes,” Baggott said. “You want to teach kids organizationally how to play baseball.”

De Geus realizes that if the MLB had made its proposed moves prior to 2017, he probably wouldn’t have been drafted. That wouldn’t have stopped him from pursuing a career he has dreamed of since he was a kid, he said. And now that he’s in the system, he said he’s in favor of anything that will help raise the pay of minor league players, especially in light of a bill recently passed in Congress that classifies them as seasonal workers and exempts them from most overtime and minimum wage laws.

“It’s really a hard line, especially for me,” said de Geus, who estimated he makes $2-3 dollars an hour without counting the actual baseball games. “I wouldn’t have been drafted if it didn’t go past 25 rounds, but I think the type of living you have in the minors — If there’s any way to get a pay bump across the board, that would be huge for all the players.”

Lantz said he hopes it won’t come down to an either/or situation.

“Hopefully the negotiations go well and the draft stays where it is and we can still provide short-season baseball,” he said. “That’s the goal.”

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fans watch during the Orem Owlz game against Great Falls Voyagers at Brent Brown Ballpark Thursday July 11, 2013.

‘We’re in the top of the first’

Wait and see seems to be the prevailing attitude around the Pioneer League.

Jim McCurdy, the league’s president, said most teams are focused on the 2020 season, which will go on as planned.

“We’re in the top of the first and there’s much of the game to be played,” he added, using an apt baseball analogy.

Even Orem Owlz owner Jeff Katofsky said he isn’t panicking.

The Owlz have been on the low end of attendance in the league, drawing a league-worst 1,231 per game this past summer. Still, their facilities at UCCU Ballpark on the campus of Utah Valley University are generally up to par and they’ve had their share of success. Though the Owlz finished last in the league this season, they won a title as recently as 2016, when they set the record for reaching five Pioneer League titles the fastest.

“It’s too early to tell what will happen,” Katofsky said in a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune. “Negotiations are ongoing and are on the national level. I would expect a lot of movement over the next several months until something shakes loose. It is certainly our goal, and the goal of Minor League Baseball, to continue to provide high-level, reasonably priced family entertainment to all of our communities.”

The Salt Lake Bees, the Triple-A team of the Anaheim Angels for the past 20 years, seem to have no reason to sound the alarm, either. General manager Marc Amicone said he had been asked by MiLB not to comment. However, Lantz, the league’s communications director, pointed to the Bees and Angels’ longstanding relationship as well as the city’s proximity to an airport in saying “I don’t know that I would be worried.”

Baggott, the Raptors president, said he isn’t worried either. The banner proclaiming Ogden as Dodgertown, Utah, may not still be in Lindquist Field in 2021, but baseball, he said, will be.

“Am I concerned about playing baseball?” he said. “No. There will be a team.”

He added, “We’ll be playing professional baseball in Ogden in 2020 and we’ll be playing professional baseball in Ogden in 2021 and hopefully for a long time after that.”