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Mitch Rupert on baseball: Change is coming in some form to baseball in Williamsport

Change is coming to professional baseball in Williamsport, that much is sure. But what changes are coming remain to be seen, according to Crosscutters vice president of marketing and public relations Gabe Sinicropi.

But the biggest of those changes could cost the team its affiliation with the Philadelphia Phillies through no fault of either team. As Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball continue to hash out the details over the Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) which expires after this season, it seems clear there could be a reduction in the number of minor league affiliates for MLB teams.

Current reports suggest each team will have four minor league affiliates, plus affiliates at its spring training facilities. If that turns out to be the case when the PBA is agreed upon, the Crosscutters’ affiliation with the Phillies would be a victim of the numbers.

The Phillies own at least part of each of its minor league affiliates except for the Crosscutters, which is owned principally by Peter Freund and his group Trinity Sports Holdings. And if four becomes the magic number for minor league affiliates, that would leave Lehigh Valley as the Phillies’ AAA team, Reading at AA, Clearwater at High-A and Lakewood at Low-A. The Phillies have ownership stakes in all four teams.

The match just doesn’t work for the Cutters if that is the way things turn out. No matter how much the Phillies enjoy having the Crosscutters as their affiliate — something multiple front office members have expressed over the years in public interviews — the numbers are the numbers.

It’s become clear Major League Baseball wants to cut some of its financial responsibilities despite recording a record revenue for the 17th consecutive season in 2019. And the best way it can figure to do that is to scale back on the 160 minor league affiliates. MLB justifies this option by arguing paying players at fewer minor league affiliates, teams will have the resources to pay minor leaguers more than the poverty-level salaries they currently receive.

The reality is increasing minor leaguers’ pay to even guaranteed minimum wage salaries would cost MLB clubs between $3-4 million extra per year, or basically the price of a veteran middle reliever. Major League Baseball has also spent millions of dollars lobbying members of congress to avoid paying its minor leaguers minimum wage. So this argument isn’t about wanting to pay players more, because it they wanted to, they could do so instantly. And some teams, like the Toronto Blue Jays, have already increased its minor leaguers’ pay.

But this is also about control. Major League Baseball wants to control everything it touches. Just look at how it dictates who can and can’t use Bowman Field since it helped with renovations at the 90-plus-year-old ballpark so it can host the MLB Little League Classic each summer. Major League teams want to control as much as they can, including its minor league affiliates, where they have increasingly invested in its teams to garner more control.

Now the Crosscutters are caught in the middle of a tug-of-war between being part of a system which has always operated a certain way, leading to nearly 100 years of professional baseball in Williamsport, and a new order in which money rules all. And through no fault of their own, they’re going to have to figure out how to survive not only a global pandemic which could steal the entire 2020 season, but a changing landscape of Minor League Baseball in which nobody knows at this moment which teams will still exist at this time a year from now.

“We’ve put our heart and soul into this team and this franchise since the fall of 1993,” Sinicropi said earlier this week. “We don’t want to see it go away. Sports and Minor League Baseball have been my life for 35 years. This is what I do and this is where I do it — in Williamsport. I don’t plan on doing it anywhere else.”

Freund assured a crowd of Crosscutters fans at the team’s annual Hot Stove Banquet in January the team “wasn’t going anywhere.” It’s a sentiment Sinicropi has all but screamed to all who will listen in recent months. The Cutters are preparing for baseball in Williamsport in 2021 and beyond.

What iteration of the Cutters that will be is the main question. There is talk of a Dream League for players who have gone undrafted but are looking to play while trying to find jobs within affiliated baseball. There is a possibility the Cutters could be absorbed into another league in affiliated baseball with a new parent club. That includes the potential of becoming a full-season minor league team with a 144-game schedule instead of its current short-season schedule of just 76 games.

But its best for fans to prepare for change because it’s coming. Just what those changes will be is still unknown and the Cutters are left guessing as much as fans are. And no matter what the opportunity is which presents itself to the Cutters to play baseball, Sinicropi said the team will run with it.

“We’ll make it work,” he said. “Our whole minor league baseball world is going to be different, not just in Williamsport, but all over the country. But we’ll make it work. I know our ownership group is committed to whatever opportunity comes our way in 2021.”

Mitch Rupert covers the Crosscutters for the Sun-Gazette. He can be reached at 570-326-1551 (x 3129) or by email at mrupert@sungazette.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Mitch_Rupert.

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