Our Opinion: Major League Baseball picks winners and losers
It's official: The Hillsboro Hops are the last-ever champions of the short-season Northwest League.
Old news? Yes and no. The Hops won the crown in September 2019, after all. But that year, the team played just 76 games during the regular season, winning 48 and losing 28. In 2020, the Northwest League season was canceled. And in 2021, assuming the coronavirus is finally brought under control and minor league baseball is able to take the field, the Hops are slated to play a whopping 132 games in a title defense like no other.
Read our story from Sept. 11, 2019, on the Hillsboro Hops' victory in what will be remembered as the final game of short-season Northwest League play.
Major League Baseball took over the minor leagues this fall after decades as the "senior partner" in a business relationship. Minor League Baseball, as a separate entity, is no more.
In taking control of the minor leagues, MLB decided to reorganize the way baseball's unique "farm system" operates.
Unlike most other major professional sports, MLB teams almost never add a newly drafted player, or an amateur free agent they sign out of the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Panama, Colombia, Curaçao or wherever else, directly onto their roster. Instead, each MLB team maintains a set of "affiliates," professional teams that they either own or contract with for player development. Those are minor league teams. The Hops are one of them, a Class A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Until now, each MLB team has been allowed to manage its own minor league system — often known colloquially as a farm system, because it "grows" players. But with this reorganization, each MLB team now has four affiliates, one at each level — Class AAA, Class AA, Class A Advanced and Class A — plus a "complex" team or two for low-level players, based at their parent club's spring training home in Arizona or Florida.
As part of the change, Washington County's tradition of short-season baseball — beginning in late June, ending by mid-September — is no more.
Thankfully, at least, Hillsboro gets to keep its minor league team and its relationship with the D-Backs. Many other communities across the United States, including Keizer, aren't as fortunate.
Read our Dec. 9, 2020, story on the Hillsboro Hops being invited to Class-A Advanced minor league baseball.
This isn't the first time that minor league baseball has suffered a major contraction. In the years after World War II, with the advent of jet-powered airliners and the widespread availability of home television sets, dozens of minor league teams, leagues and even entire classifications — Class B, Class C and Class D — folded.
MLB expanded to the West Coast for the first time, with the Giants displacing the minor league San Francisco Seals and the Dodgers supplanting the minor league Los Angeles Angels (the namesake of, but not directly a predecessor to, the modern-day MLB team). The major league Oakland Athletics took the place of the minor league Oakland Oaks, while the minor league San Diego Padres gave way to a major league team of the same name and the Seattle Rainiers died off twice — first for the short-lived Seattle Pilots, which played one season in 1969 before moving to Milwaukee, and then again for the Seattle Mariners, which arrived in MLB in 1977 and have stuck around ever since.
That was different, of course. Technological advancements changed the landscape of professional sports in America. Teams in hamlets like Olean, New York, and Keokuk, Iowa, struggled as the few fans they had tuned into MLB games on television instead. Cities like Minneapolis and Houston, now connected to the more densely populated East Coast by commercial air travel, found they were able to support major league franchises instead of lowly minor league clubs.
That's not what's happening now. This is a calculated move by MLB to cut costs and scale back the size of the minor leagues to better suit its business interests. It may make sense for MLB, and there may be communities that benefit, like Hillsboro. But it's bad for baseball — a cynical, shortsighted play that will reduce the visibility of the sport in smaller towns and rural areas, with entire swaths of the country like Appalachia and the Mountain West losing minor league competition altogether. It's the Commissioner's Office choosing winners and losers.
Let's be clear: This is great for the Hops. Yes, starting the season in April will mean having to cope with more rainy, chilly home games before the sunny season arrives. Yes, they will need to share their parking lot at the Gordon Faber Recreation Complex with high school teams during the spring sports season. But more home openings means more money, and fans will get to see a higher level of competition as the Hops move up to Class-A Advanced play.
But for communities like Keizer, this is a bitter pill to swallow. City leaders were thrilled in the mid-1990s when they landed their very own minor league franchise, and they hustled to build an award-winning stadium along Interstate 5 to house it.
The Salem-Keizer Volcanoes of late have lagged other teams like Hillsboro in attendance, and their once-state-of-the-art facility looks at least a little shabby these days when compared to chic Ron Tonkin Field. But for more than 20 years, Keizer has rooted for its minor league team — a longtime affiliate of the Giants, one of the most popular MLB teams in the region — and now it's gone. MLB has promised it will keep baseball in every community that's losing a minor league team, somehow, some way, but it won't ever be the same again.
We welcome the arrival of full-season baseball in Hillsboro. Since coming to Hillsboro in 2013, the Hops have owned the best win-loss record in minor league baseball and they've reeled off six straight playoff appearances, three of those ending with championships. They've enjoyed above-average attendance and attracted a loyal fan following across Washington County. If any team and any fanbase deserves a promotion, it's this one.
But we're disappointed that Hillsboro's gain is other communities' loss. Forty-three teams, after having what would have been their last season wiped out by the coronavirus, have been unceremoniously ejected from the ranks of affiliated minor league baseball. We hope all will prosper now as independent or collegiate-level teams, and that their communities will continue to rally behind them and enjoy baseball as they did before. But we know how disappointing it would have felt to lose our own minor league team, and the joy we get from watching the stars of the future hone their skills on the turf of the Tonk.
This isn't the worst or most unjust thing to happen in 2020, a year in which the hits just keep coming. And for Hops fans, we can breathe a sigh of relief and start envisioning a return to the ballpark maybe as soon as April or May 2021, weeks before the Opening Day to which we've grown accustomed. But if baseball next year feels just a little more artificial, a little more mechanical, a little less relevant than it used to feel, wonder not the reason why.
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