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Baseball Analysis  Mike McCann / Minor Leagues

February 2003


By Mike McCann

I'm sure that most people reading this know the difference between affiliated and independent leagues, but I'll go into some detail about the differences and what affect the two have on each other. The major league baseball teams each have farm systems that are composed of minor league teams. These teams are affiliated minor league teams, as each club is affiliated with a major league organization. Likewise, independent leagues have no affiliation with major league baseball.

Beginning in 1902, the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues was formed which basically established an agreement between the major and minor league clubs. This agreement assigned a classification to each league, and beginning in the 1920's major league affiliations started so that the team was comprised of a bunch of players that had contracts with the same major league club. Those leagues that did not fall under this agreement were independent leagues, as they were independent of the rules of the National Association and were not assigned a classification. Throughout the last 100 years, there were a number of 'independent' teams within the National Association as they were not affiliated with major league clubs. There were a few independent leagues throughout the century, but they either folded or joined the National Association.

At least this was the case until 1993, when the Northern and Frontier Leagues began play and brought back independent league baseball. By this time, all National Association teams were affiliated with major league clubs, with the exception of one Pioneer League team until 1996. The easiest way for people to distinguish the two types of leagues was to refer to them as affiliated or independent. A few years ago, the National Association officially changed its name to Minor League Baseball and owns all rights to the phrase. So all minor league teams are affiliated with major league clubs and independent teams are not. Therefore, the phrase independent minor league team is an oxymoron. Even though most people refer to any non major professional baseball team as a minor league team, it's technically not correct. But then again, it's also common for people to refer to a player going to a major league club as "going pro", even though they were professionals before they were on the major league team.

The minor league clubs have an agreement concerning territorial rights, as do each of the independent leagues. As there is no agreement between the affiliated and independent teams, this is where the business competition arises. It has been a common trend for independent teams to move into markets where affiliated teams have recently left. It is generally considered to be more prestigious to have a minor league team than an independent league team, so many cities try to get affiliated teams, but if that fails, they will often get an independent team. The minor leagues are also more stable than independent leagues at this time.

It is very difficult for two teams to survive in the same area. When the Albany-Colonie Yankees moved to Norwich, CT following the 1994 season, the Albany market was without a professional baseball team. In 1996, the Northeast League brought two teams to the area; the Albany Diamond Dogs and the Adirondack Lumberjacks. But in 2002, after the Diamond Dogs were already gone, the NY-Penn League team in Pittsfield, MA moved to the Albany area. The Tri-City ValleyCats played at a new stadium built on the grounds of Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, NY. This past year, both the ValleyCats and Lumberjacks (now in the Northern League) played the season, but attendance at the Lumberjacks games greatly suffered and the team will be moving to Bangor, ME for the 2003 season.

It isn't always the case that the affiliated team wins the battle. The New Haven Ravens play in the Eastern League, but when the Bridgeport Bluefish began playing in the Atlantic League, the Bluefish were outdrawing the Ravens. A big part of it is that the Bluefish are playing in a new stadium where New Haven was playing in one of baseball's oldest stadiums that was not maintained very well. The fans supported Bridgeport's team and not New Haven's team, so there was only one sensible business option...move the team.

For the 2004 season, the New Haven Ravens will be moving to Manchester, NH which hasn't had a minor league team since 1971. The promises of a new stadium and the hopes of becoming a Boston Red Sox affiliate in 2005 accompany the team's arrival. A few territorial issues with the teams in Boston and Pawtucket still need to be worked out though (but not with Lowell as the same person owns both teams). Still, all is not well.

There is an independent Atlantic League team that plays in Nashua, NH that isn't happy about all of this. They realize as they currently play in the smallest market in their league, that a minor league team moving in close by will definitely signal an end to their existence in New Hampshire. As they have no territorial rights against minor league teams, the powers that be in baseball can't do anything about it. Local business and political leaders are trying to use their influence to keep the Ravens from moving in, but only time will tell to see how successful they were.

Even though there are a number of people who definitely prefer one type of league over the other, both are living in harmony right now. There are a few markets where the affiliated and independent teams are struggling for control, but these situations usually resolve themselves pretty quickly. As the independent leagues have been around for 10 years now, it should be interesting to see what the future holds.

I am always looking for topics to write about, so please send me an email and let me know what would be interesting reading for you. Feel free to ask any questions or give an idea for a column.

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