A new proposal from Major League Baseball would radically restructure the minor leagues, and many now fear for the future of Richmond’s beloved baseball team.
Baseball and the city of Richmond have been synonymous since the game’s introduction to the city almost 140 years ago. There have been only a few years between 1880 and today in which the city has not hosted a professional baseball team in some capacity. Richmonders have always loved their baseball, and summer nights at the Diamond are still a favorite for thousands across the city.
But a new proposal introduced by Major League Baseball that would drastically restructure the minor leagues has left many fearful for the future of professional baseball in Richmond.
The proposal would reduce Minor League Baseball from 160 teams to 120 teams starting in 2021. Those other 40 teams, all of whom are classified as lower Class A or below, would then participate in what MLB is calling a Dream League. This league would be a short-season league and would require little to no travel for the teams involved.
As it stands, the proposal also suggests that some teams would reclassify from Triple A to high Class A, and some would reclassify from high Class A to Triple A. Teams moving up to Triple A would have to pay $12 million to do so, while teams moving down to high Class A would receive $10 million in compensation.
Lastly, and perhaps most pertinent to baseball in Richmond, the proposal would dramatically rework leagues at all levels of the minor leagues. Some leagues would lose teams to geographical regrouping, while other leagues in regions with denser concentrations of teams would grow in size.
The issue at hand, which should not come as a surprise, is money. It is expensive for major league clubs to pay for their affiliated teams at lower levels to travel, house players during road series, extend leasing agreements with ballparks, and so on. However, this situation might actually favor Richmond’s current Double A pride and joy, the Flying Squirrels.
In 2016, the Squirrels agreed to a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with VCU, in regards to a new ballpark being constructed near the current Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Commission facility next to the Diamond. A new ballpark, which is desperately overdue, has been a subject of controversy and debate in Richmond for decades now. But the relationship between VCU and the Squirrels makes the situation in Richmond truly unique, according to Scott Mayer, associate director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, and author of Baseball and Richmond: a History of the Professional Game, 1884 – 2000.
“I think the Squirrels have done a lot of amazing things in the city, and have been involved in the city, in a way that other minor league teams haven’t,” Mayer said. “I think it’d be awesome to be able to do something that’s beneficial for both organizations, because neither of them can afford to build a ballpark [alone].”
A quick glance through the record books shows that since the San Francisco Giants agreed to move their Double A team to Richmond in 2010, the Squirrels have only made the playoffs twice. But as Mayer noted, at the level the Squirrels currently compete on, wins and losses are not what matters most.
“[The Squirrels] finished sixth in the last two years; slightly better the year before,” Mayer pointed out. “Yet every year, they’re the league leader in attendance, if not one of the league leaders. It’s not about who the players are or the quality of baseball, it’s about the fan experience. And that’s where I think the Squirrels excel — in delivering an amazing fan experience. Also, they’ve done a great job of becoming part of the community. They’re consistently getting out and doing all kinds of things in the community, making a presence doing different kinds of volunteer work or giving money to charitable organizations. They’ve made themselves a part of Richmond.”
Mayer, a minor league baseball historian, pointed out that baseball in Richmond has always been about the social gathering aspect of the game. During urbanization in the 1930s and 1940s, young professionals would often found social networking groups and play baseball at their events. But the game was not the main event — that was the dinner afterwards hosted by members of the club. As clubs grew larger, the need for better athletes grew and eventually, clubs began competing against one another until leagues were formed. The rest is history.
For those who remain perplexed by Richmond’s vote to name the team the Flying Squirrels, it’s worth noting that Richmond has been home to a number of teams with interesting names: Legislators, Climbers, Bloody Shirts, Crows, and Blue Birds, to name a few.
Many fans of the storied Richmond Braves franchise might be surprised to hear that the Braves were not in fact the longest tenured baseball team in the city’s history. That title belongs to the Colts, who played in Richmond from 1907 to 1953 — though they did not field a team from 1915 to 1917.
There has also been confusion for a number of years now about why a major league club in San Francisco would place a Double A affiliate 2,870 miles away in Richmond, Virginia. Mayer noted that this is actually a smart move from a logistical perspective. The Giants’ Triple A club, the Fresno Grizzlies, are nearby when the team is playing at home on the West Coast. If they need to fill a spot in the lineup for a day or two, they can call up a player from Fresno. However, if the Giants playing on the East Coast, players in Fresno are not as readily available. That is why the placement of Richmond is strategic in the management of the organization as a whole.
As for the proposal itself, as Mayer noted, it is expected for proposals of this magnitude to “aim high” upon inception. It is likely that the fierce pushback already being felt from many minor league clubs will lead to the restructuring of the proposal itself.
And as for the potential effects of MLB’s proposal on Richmond, it seems as though the proposal poses no immediate threat to the existence of baseball in Richmond or the Flying Squirrels as we know it. So “Go Nutz,” everybody.
Top Photo via Richmond Flying Squirrels/Twitter