Baseball Ink

Baseball The Way It Was Meant To Be

Decline of the Minor Leagues

by Gareth J. Von Kallenbach and Paul Zevgolis

On a balmy June evening, the local minor league baseball team drops a tough game in a fierce battle for the division lead. The nightly attendance figure, however, belies the importance of the contest; given the number of empty seats, one would guess that the team was fighting to stay out of last place.

The fans weren't the only thing missing. Also absent were: the enjoyment of a fun, family atmosphere and an affordable summer evening out in the intimate confines of a small town ballpark; an "at home" feel of relaxed players carrying on conversations with fans along the baseline before and during the game; "old timers" congregating with old friends and "discussing" the state of affairs concerning the team and the town.

After riding a long wave of popularity, the minor leagues—once known as "true baseball"—appear to be losing their appeal...and their fans. Not so long ago, people came in droves to the old ballpark—whether to witness the quirky promotion or to cheer loudly and proudly for the home team—and most parks were at or near capacity on a nightly basis. Now the inviting atmosphere that once defined and separated minor league baseball has been replaced by half-empty stadiums with teams struggling to stay in business—a sad microcosm of professional sports (more business than sport, unfortunately) in America today.

Why the decline in the game?

The trend of some major league ball clubs practically holding their cities at gunpoint for new venues has worked its way down to the minor league system. New ballparks mean that money must be raised, and with most minor league teams being located in smaller towns, locals are often opposed to tax initiatives. To compensate, the clubs have raised prices on tickets and concessions. Gone is the former minor league mantra of "affordability"—a night out that once cost a family of four about $30 now approaches $70 after tickets, parking, and refreshments.

Along with the increased costs of attending a game at these newer, "more modern" stadiums is the decreased sense of character that permeated the ramshackle ballparks of yesterday. This charm used to be part of the allure of attending a minor league game.

Another culprit is major league expansion. Expansion has placed some major league teams virtually in the same market as some minor league teams. This makes it less desirable for some fans to go to a game featuring lesser quality of players (another byproduct of expansion—more players are required to fill the major league ranks, thus necessitating the need for early player call ups) when they could attend a more star-studded event nearby for maybe only twenty or so dollars more.

Most minor leaguers play with a passion that embodies what baseball should be all about. However their efforts go largely unnoticed and often only get mentioned on the back page of the local sports paper. This lack of coverage contributes to the lack of awareness and interest.

The landscape of baseball has changed forever. At all levels of baseball, skyrocketing payrolls and power struggles between players and owners have caused the fans to become jaded.

The traditions that helped make minor league baseball a success seem to be long gone. Greed is tearing the heart out of the game and driving fans away from the pure form of baseball. One has to wonder what can be done to remedy the situation and restore baseball to its former glory—those summer "days of old" spent in enchanting ballparks filled with families and fans rooting on the hometown boys with a passion for a game that so desperately needs it.

Gareth J. Von Kallenbach and his brother-in-law, Paul Zevgolis, host a weekly baseball radio show on KGHP FM in Gig Harbor, Washington. They are also starting their own local sports publication called the Puget Sound Sporting News.