LOWELL – The Lowell Spinners have always had reason to believe their franchise was in good stead.
Not only do they have a snazzy ballpark with the Merrimack River as a backdrop, they are only 30 miles from their parent club at Fenway Park, have nearly filled up the park every night over 22 years (4,100 per game in 2019), and have won a bevy of awards for their promotions.
In fact, those characteristics led David Heller to pay more than $10 million in 2016, adding them to his three other minor league franchises in Wilmington, Delaware, Billings, Montana, and Davenport (Quad-Cities), Iowa. His “Main Street Baseball” operation was named the 2016 Minor League Organization of the Year.
“Lowell is an amazing place for a team, and if you asked me to pick anywhere to put my minor league team, I would say Lowell,” Heller said in 2016.
Three and a half years later came the announcement from Major League Baseball that some say was out of “left field." It plans to "contract" its list of 160 minor league franchises by 42 teams, or 26%, in the year 2021, and the Spinners are on that list.
“We were not prepared for this,” said Heller, who went to Washington, D.C. on Tuesday to meet with members of Congress along with several minor league officials and franchise owners. “There was no warning -- nothing.”
While MLB didn’t cite cost-cutting as an objective, its move would save an estimated $17 million, which includes the estimated operating costs – $400,000 per minor league team – that big-league organizations pay for each franchise.
MLB has implied that the goals of the plan are to upgrade minor league facilities, living conditions, security and travel of its future players.
LeLacheur Park has always earned kudos from players and fan. The Spinners have doubled the square footage in their clubhouses. As far as living, Spinners players are a football field away from the park on the secured UMass Lowell campus.
The Spinners appear to check all of MLB's boxes.
But with the proposed elimination of all short-season leagues, which play from mid-June through August -- the N.Y.-Penn, Northwest, Appalachian and Pioneer leagues – those positives don’t seem to matter.
Five of 14 teams in the Spinners’ New York-Penn League were spared contraction in the MLB plan, with four of those joining full-season A-league and another, the Brooklyn Mets, moving to Double-A.
“Our facilities compare favorably to the five franchises that would move up to full-season,” said Heller. “Why wouldn’t Lowell?
"Tell us what we would need to do," he said. "Do they want us to get a bigger weight room? Do they want us to add hitting cages? Just tell us what it would take. This isn’t fair.”
The Spinners' impact on the area's economy is estimated at $13 million per year. The fact they employ about 200 people and have beefy contracts with a local bus company and five area hotels aids their argument.
Heller, who also owns a Democratic political consulting firm, stands to lose a lot if the plan comes to pass. Three of his four minor league franchises -- Lowell, Billings and Quad Cities -- would lose their MLB affiliation.
“I take it very personally,” he said. “I have over 500 employees, people I love, people who work really hard to entertain families. The idea that Major League Baseball would capriciously put them out of work is something that is very difficult to accept. In fact, I won’t accept it.”
In its plan, MLB has offered the “contracted” franchises an opportunity to run a team in a proposed “Dream League,” which would offer playing opportunities for un-drafted players.
But the franchises would have to abide by MLB rules and incur most of the expenses, including finding talent.
If that were indeed an option, Lowell would only have two or three possible teams to play, including Vermont and Connecticut. Any teams that would want to join the Dream League in western or central Massachusetts would need permission from the Red Sox new Triple-A team in Worcester, the Woo Sox.
“In a perfect world, we want to keep Lowell in the short-season format it is currently under,” said Heller. “Baseball is a summer sport. It’s meant to be played from June through August when the weather is opportune in the Northeast.”
Heller said the best thing to come out of the MLB’s “strong-arming” plan is that he has come to realize this isn’t about 42 franchises being contracted, but all of the 160 franchises.
“If Major League Baseball can do this, what stops them from contracting another 30 teams in five years?” he said. “We’re all in this together fighting for what’s right. A lot of people around the country would be affected by this. Trust me, we are going to fight for this.”