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Mapping a baseball future outside of MiLB

Lexington LegendsFor most teams not invited to be part of the 120 MiLB licensees, the options for 2021 and beyond are sliding into independent baseball or going the summer-collegiate route. Both will involve plenty of change.

Of the 42 teams cut from the MiLB ranks, most have already ended up in new summer-collegiate leagues (MLB Draft League and the new Appalachian League) or the new independent Pioneer League. There are still teams from the NY-Penn League seeking a landing spot for 2021 or 2022, while the futures of the 11 teams not invited last week still need to be determined. And, sadly, at least one team–the Staten Island Yankees–have folded operations.

Most of the 11 teams booted from MiLB are expected to continue in some form, but what that form takes remains to be seen. Most of these teams issued some sort of statement last week about seeing what MLB can offer in terms of continuing operations, but realistically there will not be new leagues to accommodate 11 teams scattered across the eastern half of the country.

So that means working with existing leagues. For the Lexington Legends, formerly of the Class A Sally League, that could mean joining the Frontier League. This would not be a surprise: when MILB shut down in 2020 due to COVID-19, the Legends played a slate of games against the Frontier League’s Florence Y’alls. And Lexington joining the Frontier League makes sense, according to Florence owner David DelBello:

Legends President and CEO Andy Shea confirmed that the team would no longer be affiliated with the Royals but said the franchise would still exist in a form yet to be determined and that the club plans to play baseball in Lexington in 2021….

Very much to be determined here in Lexington is whether the absence of a direct tie to the major league baseball feeder system will make local fans less inclined to sample the ballpark experience.

Because the Lexington Legends’ affiliation was with far-away Kansas City (and Houston before that), he does not think the impact on attendance will be great.

We see the same situation with the Tri-City ValleyCats, formerly of the NY-Penn League. Team president and part-owner Rick Murphy says he’s already talked with three MLB Partner Leagues–the Atlantic League, the Frontier League and the American Association–and expects to decide on a course of action in early January. Going summer collegiate apparently isn’t an option for the ValleyCats, but an independent league could be a challenge because of travel. The Atlantic League has the economic structure most like MiLB, but with a plethora of teams both north and south of Troy and a membership model, the Frontier League does offer advantages. From the team’s statement issues after the 120 teams were announced:

In looking ahead, the Tri-City ValleyCats are committed to providing professional baseball to the Capital Region and will remain an active member of this community.  We are grateful for the continued support of our fans, partners, and the community as a whole. It is that support that has consistently placed our franchise near the top of the league in attendance over the past decade. That support is also the reason that we did not feel as though MLB’s proposal to convert the New York-Penn League into an amateur, collegiate-showcase league was an acceptable alternative for our fans, franchise, and market.

For the three teams not incited to be part of the Midwest League — the Clinton LumberKings, Kane County Cougars and Burlington Bees–the future route is undermined as well. Here’s part of the statement issued by LunberKings General Manager Ted Tornow:

We have been doing extensive work and are considering several options for the future of the LumberKings franchise. We will announce our plans for the franchise in the very near future, but our great fans can rest assured that there will be baseball played at NelsonCorp Field in 2021 and beyond.

We are working with MLB on making sure that Clinton has baseball in the future. We will have a different relationship with MLB moving forward. MLB’s announcement, while disappointing, does not signify the end of baseball in Clinton. We want to thank our loyal fans for all of their support and encouragement since the news broke that we may lose affiliated ball in Clinton. We know what this team means to this community and we look forward to coming back better than ever in 2021.

The choices: independent ball in the form of the American Association or the Frontier League, or summer-collegiate ball in the form of the Northwood League or the Prospect League. Neither summer-collegiate league is MLB affiliated, but that may not be a big deal to fans of either team. The bigger issue: decisions about the 2021 season will likely need to be made very quickly.

Here’s the most up-to-date information about the current affiliation status.

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