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How the contraction of the minor leagues casts a shadow over baseball

The entire baseball landscape in this country is changing...

Paw Sox Quietly Depart From Pawtucket Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

In a sport where young talent was on display across the country, baseball suffered a massive loss recently. With Major League Baseball’s contraction of 42 minor league baseball affiliates, towns across America lost their greatest point of connection to the big leagues. For the Washington Nationals, that means a team like Class-A Short Season Auburn Doubledays are looking for some type of resolution, a sentiment common among low level minor league clubs.

In the Appalachian League, which consisted mostly of teams in or around the Tri-Cities area, a combination of three cities on the Tennessee and Virginia border, uncharted territory is ahead. Whereas many places are losing only a single team, the Tri-Cities is seeing multiple teams disbanded and reformed in a way only slightly resembling what once was. The Johnson City Cardinals, Kingsport Mets, Elizabethton Twins, Greeneville Reds, and Bristol Pirates — all within about an hour of each other — have been cast aside.

Though residents in east Tennessee and southwest Virginia weren’t all enthralled by minor league baseball — they prefer our local college basketball team, East Tennessee State University, or, more broadly, the University of Tennessee or Virginia Tech — the teams did play a part in the community. Perhaps one of the most unique things that comes from the minor league model is bearing witness to young players beginning their careers on the small stage, hopeful to propel themselves to the show. It seems fans were proud to be privy to that development and that journey.

Take, for example, the Kingsport Mets, a Rookie league club up until recently. They’ve seen the likes of A.J. Burnett, Jacob deGrom, Dwight Gooden, Carlos Gomez, Dale Murphy, Darryl Strawberry, and David Wright pass through the small Tennessee city. Locals became attached to players’ journeys — they also become attached to the affiliate itself, taking pride in being a step on the path to the major leagues for teams like the St. Louis Cardinals, New York Mets, Minnesota Twins, Cincinnati Reds, and Pittsburgh Pirates. Those teams helped kindle a cult following of sorts in pockets of the country far outside the big league club’s residence.

Now, all of those clubs have had to shift gears. They’re no longer beholden to a major league organization, which might have its own perks, but they also won’t have the name and brand recognition they once did. As for the Appalachian League, they’ve managed to transition into a summer league for up-and-coming talent who expect to be drafted and put on a roster elsewhere. That will likely garner some attention, especially for the die-hards hoping for a glimpse of what might be coming next for their organization of choice.

But baseball in small towns, if that model holds, will start to feel a lot more like summer travel ball tournaments and less like players trying to hone their craft and climb the ranks of baseball. But with the passage of time, all will be forgotten. Of course, there will come a period in the future where nobody really remembers professional baseball in those small corners of the country.

All this is without even mentioning the hundreds of players who will now be without jobs, and the hundreds more who would’ve otherwise been picked in the draft. Because with the dwindling of the minor league landscape, though cost cutting and more efficient as it may be, roster spots will be much more limited. Therefore, the draft will continue to shrink, likely more closely resembling the five rounds we saw this year than the 40 or more rounds we’ve seen in the past — and likely landing somewhere near the middle.

So when fans start to file back into ballparks, whenever that may be, for some attending the sport’s lower rungs, it’s going to look much different — like in the Appalachian League. For others, there might not be any game at all to attend. As for the players on the fringes, they just might be in attendance rather on the field.