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John Blanchette: Spokane Indians owner Bobby Brett prepares for inevitable changes

Major League Baseball putters with coronavirus contingencies, the latest a brainstorm to pack all of its teams off to Arizona for a no-spectators season – a dissolute lunge for a television paycheck.

In the meantime, minor league baseball, like the rest of us, must wait for the all-clear and settle for, well, doing the right thing.

But whether the baseball schedule is truncated or trashed, it’s not merely the 2020 season that waits on a resolution.

In Spokane, it’s possible that while there could be fewer baseball games this year, there could be more in 2021 and beyond.

Whether game-goers here really want them or not.

Before the coronavirus pandemic sent the world into lockdown, MLB was locked up with its minor partners in a rather contentious negotiation over the next Professional Baseball Agreement that could transform the game across the country. That wrangling is on hold for the moment while more urgent thumbs are sucked, but the parties will wrangle on.

Here’s what MLB wants the infrastructure to look like: smaller.

It wants 42 of the current 160 farm-team affiliates – those above the rookie-league complex teams in Florida and Arizona – eliminated. That involves cuts in 11 of the 14 leagues, including virtual shuttering of the Pioneer, Appalachian and New York-Penn, and trimming Tri-City and Salem-Keizer from the Northwest League.

“They don’t want,” Spokane Indians owner Bobby Brett said, “short-season baseball.”

Which is what the Indians and the rest of the NWL play. But quite possibly not for long.

MLB’s billionaire stewards have managed to prop up some worthy reasons attending this envisioned shakeup, mostly relating to taking better care of their farmhands. They want to realign some leagues to cut down on travel and set up affiliates closer to the home club’s base. They want to pay their minor leaguers more of a living wage, so they won’t pay as many. They want to dump some substandard ballparks in cities that don’t draw (and even some that do).

And if more people stay home to watch MLB games on TV, all the better, right?

In the process, the rich guys will siphon considerable goodwill out of Middle America, and throw away more chances to make fans of young people who are giving up on the game. A few lawmakers have saber-rattled to save their home-district teams, but MLB is not merely indifferent about it all but combative – as personified by commissioner Rob Manfred, who so far in his tenure has managed to display even less feel for the game’s fabric and its lovers than predecessors like Bud Selig and Bowie Kuhn.

Even in some of the survivor cities like – presumably – Spokane, change is a-comin’. Whether the NWL carries on as a six-team league or lobbyists get a stay of execution for the two teams on the chopping block, it figures to become a full-season enterprise, or so MLB proposes.

“What we don’t know yet is, are we playing 140 games, 130, 110?” Brett said. “If it’s 100-110, we start in the middle of May and usually the weather has turned a little bit, and I think that’s still fine for us.”

And if it’s a true full season?

“It doesn’t help our business model,” he conceded. “Right now, we start in the middle of June and everybody’s excited about getting outside. I can’t imagine if we’re playing April 10th that people will be saying, ‘Yeah, can’t wait to go watch the Indians.’ It could be snowing.”

He doesn’t really have to imagine. More than 20 years ago when two Triple-A franchises were opening up, Brett surveyed the Indians’ constituency – ticket buyers and sponsors – on their appetite for full-season baseball at a full-season price. Turns out short-season A suited them just fine.

But it doesn’t suit MLB’s more, uh, Machiavellian side.

It wants to push the amateur draft back to July or August, avoiding the June cluster of getting players still in high school and college seasons drafted, signed and off to their assignments – especially pitchers who may or may not have worked too many innings already. Instead, organizations can sign their newbies in August and send them off to instructional boot camp in Arizona or Florida in the fall, not to play until the following spring … and in the process, gain an extra year’s contract control since the clock will not have started on their playing careers.

Minor league owners and landlords will have to make some facility upgrades, too – everything from moving bullpens off the field of play to locker-room enhancements to the possibility of double-busing bigger rosters from city to city.

But these are all still items for haggling, and with the current crisis, resolution may take a while. Brett believes it’s possible the expiring agreement gets extended a year – but change is coming, regardless.

“I’m hoping we survive as an eight-team league because there could be some real scheduling nightmares otherwise,” he said. “But when all is said and done, it’s not going to be quite as good. We’ll shoulder more of the burden, but that’s what it’ll take to play.

“And we’ll survive – in any scenario.”

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