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Minor league ‘contraction’ could fan the Fuego

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Santa Fe Fuego Eric Maria awaits a pitch during a 2016 Pecos League game at Fort Marcy Ballfield against the Roswell Invaders. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Santa Fe Fuego fans could get to see a better brand of baseball played at historic Fort Marcy Ballfield in 2021 if a proposal by Major League Baseball to dramatically change the structure of its developmental minor leagues goes through.

Professional baseball officials are in San Diego this weekend for the annual winter meetings, where between trade talks and discussion of rules changes, there will be debate about MLB’s proposal to “level the playing field” in minor league by standardizing the number of teams and players within each big league organization’s minor league system.

The proposal – only a preliminary plan, officials say – would downsize the minor leagues by about 40 teams from about 160 to 120. And that would have a trickle-down effect for the Pecos League, an independent league not affiliated with MLB that the Fuego has been a part of since 2012.

Andrew Dunn founded the Pecos League – considered the bottom rung on the ladder for young players with big league dreams – the year before Santa Fe joined the league. He said that, if approved, the proposal would “drastically” change the composition of the league.

“The talent level will be higher,” he says. “There will be fewer (minor league) teams for players to play with, and they’ll be looking for a place to play.”

Dunn says hundreds of players would potentially be shut out from the MLB-affiliated minor leagues under the contraction plan.

For players unwilling to give up on their big-league hopes, “We are an option,” said Dunn, who owns all but one of the franchises that make up the 12-team Pecos League, including the Fuego.

The Pecos League would also be an option for managers, and pitching and hitting coaches for the dozens of teams that would be eliminated under the MLB plan, Dunn said. Even front office people hoping to carve out a career in baseball could find sanctuary in Santa Fe, the City of Holy Faith, and other independent league cities.

Not only that, Dunn said minor league contraction could open up new markets for the Pecos League in cities that lose their minor league teams.

Six independent leagues

The Pecos League, which spans six states in the Southwest, is one of six independent leagues that operate outside MLB’s minor league framework. Unlike minor league players who are under contract with a big league organization, Pecos League players are paid by the team they play for, and the pay a mere pittance compared to what MLB-affiliated minor leaguers make, which isn’t very much, either.

A player toiling at the lowest levels of the affiliated minor leagues earns about $1,100 per month, though that is likely to increase under the new plan that’s being negotiated. Dunn said Pecos League players have to get by on $220 per month and the charity of their host cities. Teams conduct clinics, hold fifty-fifty raffles during home games and engage in other fundraising activities to help pay players. It’s become a tradition at Fort Marcy Ballfield to pass a hat around the grandstand to collect donations to reward a player for hitting a home run.

A Santa Fe Fuego player warms up before a 2017 Pecos League game against the White Sands Pupfish at Fort Marcy Ballfield. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

In Santa Fe and elsewhere, players save money by staying with host families for the length of the season, which runs from late March to mid-August.

Yvonne Encinias, the Fuego’s general manager, said in Santa Fe there are five or six host families, some of them taking in as many has five players.

“They’re only in town for about three months, so it’s hard for them to get an apartment,” she said.

And earning $220 per month, cost prohibitive, too.

Encinias said many of the Fuego team members are high school or college players passed over in the MLB draft who still haven’t given up on becoming big leaguers.

“Some are married with kids who come back to give it another try,” she said. “And we have some players in the Pecos League recovering from injuries and are working their way back up.”

They’re all young, as the Pecos League is only for players 25 years old or younger.

Moving up the ladder

Few of them get to the big leagues, but some do.

Former Trinidad Trigger Eric Yardley made his major league debut with the San Diego Padres last season. Another right-handed pitcher, Jon Edwards, now with the Cleveland Indians, played for the Alpine Cowboys.

A greater number of Pecos League players do end up signing minor league contracts with MLB clubs, including former Fuego players Omar Artsen, a second baseman who has since been released by the Detroit Tigers organization, and pitcher Jesse Stinnett, who hung up his glove in July after two seasons in the Colorado Rockies farm system.

The Pecos League website says that, in its first nine years, 412 of its players went on to play at higher levels, either with an MLB-affiliated farm club or a higher independent league.

Should MLB’s minor league contraction proposal go through, Dunn says the number of Pecos League players catching on with pro teams and ultimately the major leagues is likely to increase.

Alex Teal of the Santa Fe Fuego reacts after giving up one of four home runs in the second inning of a 2015 Pecos League game at Fort Marcy Ballfield against the Roswell Invaders. (Eddie More/Albuquerque Journal)

Another result of minor league contraction would be the opening up of markets for the Pecos League, Dunn said.

The league, which started with six teams in three states, has doubled in size to 12 teams and is now in six states – Arizona, California, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico and Texas.

Dunn didn’t say what cities the league might be looking at either to expand or replace an existing franchise.

“You can look at a map and draw your own conclusions,” he said.

The list of cities currently with minor league teams that are subject to contraction under the MLB proposal includes Colorado Springs, which two seasons ago hosted a Triple-A team. Another Colorado city, Grand Junction, could also be an option.

Both cities last season fielded teams in the rookie Pioneer League, which also has teams in Idaho, Montana and Utah.

Dunn said a new team in California will join the Pecos League next season to replace the High Desert franchise in California that is converting its baseball diamond into an all-grass soccer pitch.

“We need dirt to play baseball,” he said.

Cutting back

The proposal by MLB comes as its Professional Baseball Agreement with Minor League Baseball is set to expire after the 2020 season. MLB cites better alignment of teams, reduced travel and payroll costs as reasons for its contraction proposal, which would limit each of the 30 big league clubs to five minor league teams and the number of minor league players under contract to 150.

With eight farm teams, the New York Yankees, for example, have about 285 players under contract, according to an article in Baseball America, meaning it would have to turn loose roughly 135 of its minor league players.

Most of the teams scheduled for contraction are at the lowest levels of the minors – rookie league and short-season Class A – though some teams would be shifted to higher or lower classifications.

The Albuquerque Isotopes, a Triple-A team one step below the major leagues and considered one of the premier minor league clubs in the country, are in no danger of leaving the Pacific Coast League.

Santa Fe Fuego’s pitcher Dan Karasinski delivers a pitch take on the White Sands Pupfish at Fort Marcy Field Santa Fe, Friday June 9, 2017. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

According to various media reports, the idea to reduce the number of minor league teams grew out of that advanced analytics that MLB teams now use to evaluate talent. More and more player development departments are using high-speed cameras to record body mechanics, exit velocity of batted balls and pitched-ball spin rates to measure skills, and are relying less on what scouts see by watching players play baseball games.

Many baseball administrators are skeptical the proposal will go through. One argument is that MLB would be opening itself up for a bevy of lawsuits from cities that have put money into stadiums to accommodate minor league baseball.

Even Congress has weighed in on the issue. Last month, more than 100 members of Congress sent a letter to MLB and its teams urging them to scrap the idea.

“If enacted, it would undermine the health of the minor league system that undergirds talent development and encourages fan loyalty,” the letter read. “It would particularly be felt in areas far from a major league team or where tickets to a major league game are cost-prohibitive.”

Entertainment for Santa Fe

Immune from the contraction plan, Santa Fe is glad to have a team it can root for.

“Baseball is America’s sport and we are so fortunate to have baseball in Santa Fe. It helps make summer feel like summer,” Mayor Alan Webber said, adding that Pecos League baseball and the Fuego are an asset to the city.

The Fuego provides Santa Feans with a much-needed summertime entertainment option, said former City Councilor Ron Trujillo, one of the Fuego’s biggest fans and who pushed to get the team here.

“We’ve had some good teams and some not-so-good teams, but what it has brought is entertainment. To me, that’s something that has been lacking in Santa Fe,” he said. “For all those people back in the day who thought this wasn’t a good idea, they have been proven wrong.”

Encinias said the Fuego averages about 350 fans per game.

Former City Councilor Ron Trujillo collects dollars from fans after a Fuego player hits a home run. The money helps players who are paid a paltry salary for playing the game they love. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Trujillo, who is often the guy who passes the hat after a Fuego hits a ball out of the friendly confines of Fort Marcy Ballfield, says the city should do more to promote the Fuego, which won the Pecos League championship in 2014.

“I’d love to see higher quality baseball. But I would also love to see the city step up and help out,” he said. “There are other cities within the Pecos League that do a lot to promote their team. We don’t promote them at all.”

Ballpark improvements would be nice, too.

Encinias said the city does a great job of maintaining the field. But the 83-year-old ballpark could use some upgrades.

“It would be wonderful if we had a clubhouse,” she said. “And a revamp of the dugouts would be great.”

The ballpark is also not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act “and we have several individuals with disabilities that come to our games,” she said.

She also mentioned short field dimensions. The centerfield fence is only 355 feet from home plate, compared to a minimum of 400 feet in MLB-affiliated ballparks, and less than 300 feet down the right field line. At 7,000 feet altitude, the ball carries well in Santa Fe, so home runs are common. And it’s not uncommon for teams to score 20 and occasionally even 30 runs in a game.

City Parks and Recreation Director John Muñoz said the city is gradually making improvements to the facility, but “We’re still catching up on years of deferred maintenance and staff shortages.”

He said the city hopes to make improvements to the grandstands, concession stand, restrooms and irrigation system in the future.

Santa Fe is lucky to have a baseball team, even if it’s at the bottom rung of the ladder.

“I definitely encourage all residents to come support this team and this program,” Muñoz said in an email. “It’s a gem in our city.”

The Fuego is scheduled to open its 2020 season on May 28 at home against Alpine.

“This will be the ninth year of Fuego baseball in Santa Fe,” said Commissioner Dunn, whose league will be celebrating its 10th year in 2020. “It’s going to be a great year.”

And if minor league contraction happens, it could be better in 2021.


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