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Ogden mayor Caldwell goes to bat for Raptors as Major League/Minor League contraction feud rages

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In this Sept. 8, 2018, photo, Ogden Raptors outfielder Niko Hulsizer (12) signs autographs for fans at Lindquist Field in Ogden.

As the two governing bodies of professional baseball in the United States continue to trade jabs over a contentious proposal to boot 42 minor league teams from major league affiliation, more lawmakers and public officials are joining the fight to keep professionally affiliated baseball in cities across the country.

That includes Ogden City Mayor Mike Caldwell, who has become active in trying to keep the Raptors connected to Major League Baseball and future pro stars like Cody Bellinger, Joc Pederson and Corey Seager rolling through the city on their way to greatness.

The Raptors — and the entire Pioneer League, Minor League Baseball’s short-season rookie league in the West — are on the list proposed in October 2019 to be cut off from MLB affiliation after 2020. That would mean either becoming an independent-type club or, if that isn’t feasible, ceasing to exist.

For a proud franchise that wins more games than not and a city that has helped it lead the league with Double-A-like attendance for 23 consecutive years — welcoming its 3 millionth fan through the gates this past season at the city-owned Lindquist Field, nestled in a newly vibrant downtown — such a turn of events would leave a hole, perhaps figuratively and literally, for The Junction City.

“It’s a really important part of a downtown and a community, it really does bring people together,” Caldwell told the Standard-Examiner. “We want them to know that those kinds of decisions have big, sweeping impacts on communities like ours.

“Here you have, I can’t remember the exact cost but it’s certainly millions of dollars, in terms of a downtown asset that could go, for the most part, dormant. Nobody wants to see that in any community.”

Caldwell has joined the “Mayors Minor League Baseball Task Force” and also recently sent a letter to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred to voice his opposition to the proposal.

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Mike Caldwell, Ogden City Mayor, speaks during a roundtable discussion at the Weber County Commission Chambers on reorganizing the Department of Interior on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018.

“We felt protective enough of our ballparks and our stadiums and everything else to get involved. We contacted Rob Bishop’s office asking him to be supportive. We just want people to know these ballparks really matter to our communities,” Caldwell said.

“And I think it’s short-sighted by Major League Baseball. Most people fall in love with baseball by going to games, you get pulled into the excitement and you fall in love with it,” he said. “That trickles all the way up. In this day and age when you have so many competing interests, to take that tangible exposure to baseball away from dozens of communities in the United States is short-sighted because you’re probably going to lose them for good.”

Caldwell’s letter, as well as platforms outlined in task-force documents provided to the Standard-Examiner, pitch the importance of family entertainment and economic presence teams like the Raptors provide their cities.

In the letter to Manfred, dated Dec. 19, 2019, Caldwell writes that low-level affiliates like the Raptors give kids an entry-point to baseball to see future stars, inspiring “a connection to the game that will last a lifetime” — people who will grow up, buy media packages that support MLB and take road trips to see their favorite players at the major league level.

“MLB’s rural footprint is critical to growing the sport into the 21st century,” he writes.

He writes, similar to many cities on the list, that Ogden recently bonded more than $800,000 to upgrade stadium lights and make other stadium improvements to keep with MLB’s standards. Other franchises are in the middle of undertaking even more expensive renovations to remain viable, both as a baseball team and a consumer product, that are now threats to communities suddenly facing wasted financial investments with no say in the matter.

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In this July 14, 2017, photo, a near-record crowd watches the Ogden Raptors and Missoula Osprey at Lindquist Field.

The mayors task force is led by Andy Berke of Chattanooga, Tennessee, Steven Benjamin of Columbia, South Carolina, and Nan Whaley of Dayton, Ohio.

Lawmakers in Washington have been involved as well. Most recently, the “Save Minor League Task Force” in Congress — led by Republican and Democrat representatives from Massachusetts, West Virginia, New York and Idaho — introduced a Congressional Resolution in support of Minor League Baseball in the fight.

“Minor League Baseball teams have had a major impact on small communities. These teams provide an enormous cultural and economic benefit to the communities they call home,” Congressman David McKinley (R-WV) said via news release. “The goal of our involvement in this fight is to ensure a level playing field in the negotiations between Major League Baseball and MiLB. Doing away with 42 teams is not a reasonable solution.”

Previously, 103 members of Congress, including Bishop and Chris Stewart from Utah, signed a letter sent to Manfred in “firm opposition” to the “radical proposal.”

The Associated Press reports Congress may lean on having provided antitrust exemptions to help baseball flourish in the United States as a way to move MLB off the proposal.

“That antitrust protection is worth far in excess of whatever they feel is the expense of minor league baseball,” Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT) told the Associated Press. “Our hope is that they are really paying attention. Major League Baseball is really testing their congressional good will.”

Major League Baseball says the proposal is about cutting costs, eliminating undesirable travel and keeping its players out of subpar playing conditions.

In December, Raptors team president and part owner Dave Baggott called facilities concerns a “made-up excuse” because, he said, even Las Vegas’ new stadium in Triple-A baseball failed to meet secretive new standards.

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The Ogden Raptors announce a new Spanish name, logo and uniform, Los Carnivoros de Ogden, on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019, at Union Station. The Raptors will take the field wearing the new uniforms every Sunday home game in the 2020 season.

Monetarily, major league clubs would stand to save about $600,000 per year, or reinvest it to pay underpaid players at the higher levels of the minor leagues.

On Jan. 23, Minor League Baseball sent a letter to Manfred outlining some arguments, saying that level of savings for franchises, all valued at more than $1 billion, amounts to “less than 1/10th of 1 percent of MLB’s revenues.”

Manfred said this month that Minor League Baseball should stop playing at a public information campaign and get back to the negotiating table. Minor League Baseball says MLB is misrepresenting its positions and that MiLB has provided “numerous substantive proposals” to address MLB concerns over facilities and travel.

Under the current agreement between MLB and the minor leagues, major league franchises sign and pay players, and minor league affiliates essentially carry the rest of the expenses.

The contraction proposal was initially pushed by the Houston Astros, now officially sanctioned and punished by MLB after being caught in a vast sign-stealing scandal by improperly using video technology to spy on opponents during games in real-time. The Astros claim players at the lower levels could be better served by training with major league teams at compounds in Arizona or Florida instead of riding buses and playing game schedules.

Travel-wise, the Pioneer League is more condensed than in years past — around the year 2000, a trip from Medicine Hat, Alberta, to Provo was the longest trip in all of minor league baseball. Now, one division all resides in Montana and Idaho, the other in Utah and Colorado.

Three of the Pioneer League’s eight teams averaged less than 2,000 fans per game in the last season — though owners of the Helena Brewers moved the team to Colorado Springs, going from 840 fans per game in 2018 to 3,923 in 2019. AP reports six of the 10 teams in the Appalachian League, a rookie-level league on the mid-Atlantic coast, averaged less than 1,000 fans.

But it hits fans and ownership particularly hard to see Ogden included on that same chopping block.

The Raptors, fresh off the highest-attended season in the franchise’s 27 seasons with 146,201 fans in 37 games, an average of 3,951 per game.

The Raptors, who invested in their first-ever rebranding in 2016; a team that finally won its first Pioneer League title in 2017 and, in the last three seasons, has torn through the league with a combined record of 147-81 (.645).

The Raptors, who, with Ogden City in 1997, helped begin downtown revitalization and outclassed much of Minor League Baseball by building Lindquist Field — and then expanding it in 2008 — orienting the park so fans face a stunning vista of a city downtown, a temple, and majestic mountains that change colors as summer evenings progress to darkness.

Those Raptors could be gone?

“If that gives us a bigger voice, we’re more than happy to use that platform to advocate for keeping things how they are,” Caldwell said of the Raptors’ success. “Whatever role we need to play, we’re happy to do it.”

The 2020 season will go on as planned, with the Raptors fielding a team of Los Angeles Dodgers-affiliated players and competing in the same Pioneer League. It starts June 19 with a six-game homestand, and Baggott has publicly pleaded for fans to continue their record-setting support lest a dip in attendance be used against them.

As for 2021 and beyond?

“We’re in the second inning of a nine-inning battle,” Baggott said.

Contact Brett Hein at bhein@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter @bhein3/@WeberHQ and at facebook.com/WeberStateSports.

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