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Monday, Jan 30, 2023
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Out of Innings

Opening day of next year’s baseball season may be months away but the Lancaster JetHawks are already looking forward to taking the field in the Antelope Valley. But if Major League Baseball has its way, the team may not be around after next season. The JetHawks are among 42 minor league teams to be eliminated under a plan by the majors to consolidate the farm team system. Tom Backemeyer, the team’s executive vice president, said that the Lancaster Single A-Advanced franchise of the Colorado Rockies, was not told why it was included on the list. “We are shocked and disappointed, but we have not been given a reason as to why we’re one of the 42 teams,” Backemeyer said. Lancaster is the only team in California on the list. Other teams scheduled to be cut include the Hagerstown Suns, Jackson Generals, Florida Fire Frogs and Erie SeaWolves. In a statement, the team’s ownership said it was also disappointed that the list of teams set for elimination had been leaked last month. “While we are both very disappointed and surprised at this negotiating tactic, we also understand this is a long negotiation that will result in many rumors and much speculation,” the statement said. There are 160 teams in Minor League Baseball divided into three classes – A, AA and AAA – that prepare players for a career in the majors. The major league teams handle all aspects of the players, managers, coaches and training staff and pick up half the cost of equipment. Single A players on average pull in about $1,500 a month, which is paid by the big-league teams. Indeed, what players are paid is among the reasons why the major leagues are considering such a radical reorganization. Other reasons given in a statement from the league include “upgrading the facilities to Major League standards… reducing travel time between affiliates for road games, improving transportation and hotel accommodations, increasing the number of off days, and providing better geographical affiliations between the MLB clubs and affiliates.” Backemeyer bristled at the idea that the JetHawks’s stadium, The Hangar, which the team leases from the city, is below standards. The city has put a lot of money into upgrading the stadium and it is in the top half of facilities in the California League, he said. “Nobody would argue that,” Backemeyer added. “It doesn’t do justice to the hard work that everybody has put in here to maintain this facility over the years.” Bruce Gillies, director of the sports management program at California Lutheran University, in Thousand Oaks, said that having a minor league team in the Antelope Valley can be a point of pride for the residents. “Throughout the country, there are opportunities for people to attend professional baseball, and they have pride in that,” Gillies said of the impact in eliminating teams. Lancaster Mayor Rex Parris said that the proposal would get rid of an activity that families can do together and that is safe, fun and ends at a reasonable hour. “If Major League Baseball starts shutting those avenues out, those kids don’t get habituated to going to ballgames. And when they’re adults, they’re not going,” Parris said in an email statement to the Business Journal. “If there is no minor league baseball, what do you do with the stadium? Maybe concerts … or maybe let semi-pro soccer teams use it.” Antelope Valley impact Baseball all but didn’t exist in the desert communities of north Los Angeles County until the mid-1990s. The Antelope Valley Ravens of the Golden State League lasted all of one week before the league folded in 1995. The team played at a field in Rosamond and continued as part of the short-lived Southwest Baseball League for the 1996 season. The Lancaster Stealth won the first and only championship of the California Fall League in 1999 before it folded. The Jethawks moved to Lancaster and the new $15 million Lancaster Municipal Stadium for the 1996 season from Riverside County, where the team had been known as the Pilots. The name change reflected the Antelope Valley’s aerospace history, as does The Hangar nickname for the stadium and the full-size fighter jet on a pedestal outside the front gates. The team finished third in the California League this season with a record of 68-70. It last won the league championship in 2014, when the team was affiliated with the Houston Astros. The Rockies signed a two-year affiliate agreement in 2017 and extended it through the 2020 season last year. The team’s owners are Jake Kerr and Jeff Mooney, a pair of Canadian businessmen who took over in January 2015 after buying the team from the Carfagna family of Cleveland. Backemeyer said that he has not spoken with anyone from the Rockies about the consolidation plan. “Our support and our efforts have so far been within the community and the other 160 minor league teams that are trying to come together to bring this to the best resolution possible,” he added. The support the JetHawks receive from the community is “second to none,” Backemeyer continued. When it comes to the city, the sponsors and season ticket holders all have a lot of passion for the team, he said. “It is appreciated and we will use that to the best we can to try and resolve the situation,” he added. Political opposition The situation, as Backemeyer calls it, was started by Major League Baseball as the contract between it and the minors expires in September. Commissioner Rob Manfred was quoted in a New York Post story as stating the four issues being discussed had to do with outdated facilities, player salaries, long travel times to games and there being too many players to make it to the majors. The 42 teams that would lose their affiliations with the majors would have the option to become part of a new league, the “Dream League,” that would be owned by the minor leagues and MLB. They could also join independent baseball leagues that have no affiliation with the majors. To Gillies, from Cal Lutheran, the teams on the chopping block should do economic impact studies to show how many people are employed by them and by ancillary businesses. “It is not just the ballplayers. It is also the support, the marketing, those kinds of things,” Gillies said. “It brings in a lot of business. Unless there is a team that is losing a lot of money, they need to take a significant look at that.” Backemeyer said the JetHawks have received much support from the city and the community at large. Sponsors and season ticketholders have called asking what they can do to help the team, he added. “The JetHawks are important to a lot of people and there is going to be a lot of opposition locally,” Backemeyer said. “With the support we are getting on a national level, I think it is so far so good.” Federal officials and at least one Democratic presidential hopeful have taken a stand on the issue. More than 100 members of Congress from both parties signed a letter sent to Manfred last month expressing their disgust with the proposal. “The abandonment of Minor League clubs by Major League Baseball would devastate our communities, their bond purchasers and other stakeholders affected by the potential loss of these clubs,” the letter said. Democratic candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders also weighed in, first with a statement and then with a letter sent Nov. 25 to Manfred. In the statement, Sanders specifically mentioned the Lancaster team. “Closing down Minor League teams like the JetHawks would be a disaster for baseball fans, workers and communities across the country,” Sanders wrote. “We must protect these teams from corporate greed.” Backemeyer said that the more support behind the issue, the better, wherever it comes from. “Whether they are politicians or business leaders, the more people that get behind the issue and bring it to light the better,” he said. Baseball is America’s pastime for a reason and seeing so many people oppose the proposal speaks to the strength of baseball in general and minor league baseball is a huge part of that, Backemeyer continued. “I think that it’s encouraging how much momentum this topic has gotten over the past couple of weeks,” he added.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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