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Will Congress save the game?

As America’s pastime is left reeling from the pandemic’s financial curveball, a Virginia U.S. senator steps up to the plate.
Published: Jul. 1, 2021 at 7:02 PM MDT
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FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (Gray DC) - In small cities across the country, there are signs that the national pastime is coming apart at the seams. Some U.S. lawmakers are hoping colleagues in Congress will rally behind the home teams.

The first pitch Thursday at the home of the Fredericksburg Nats isn’t a fastball or slider, but a plan from Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) to save the minor leagues from a major league squeeze.

“These teams might disappear and never come back,” he said if Congress does not step-in.

Most minor league teams are not owned by the parent club and are coping with the financial fallout of a cancelled 2020 season and attendance restrictions that stretched into this year. Warner’s bill would provide up to $10-million each to teams without a big-league safety net. The payments would come out of leftover COVID relief from earlier stimulus packages.

Unlike concert venues and restaurants, minor league teams were not eligible for previous COVID relief funds. Warner said opening up the opportunity is a matter of fairness, adding that he hopes he can get it signed into law by November at the latest.

“Minor League ball, it is about jobs, it’s about economic activity, but it really is one of the things that make a community tick,” Warner said as he argued that it value cannot simply be measured in dollars and cents.

Major League Baseball cut ties with dozens of minor league teams for this season, forcing those ball clubs to join independent or college summer leagues if they were to keep playing.

Those that went independent, like the Lexington Legends, would qualify under Warner’s plan.

But most teams that converted to college players, like the West Virginia Black Bears or the Vermont Lake Monsters, would not. One league would be eligible: The Appalachian League. It’s made up of former minor league teams based in Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia, and Tennessee.

Warner said he would be open to leveling the collegiate summer league playing field if it earned his idea more support in Congress, noting he was not a fan of MLB’s decision to reduce the number of MiLB teams.

Spokespeople for the senator were not able to provide a complete list of his colleagues backing the proposal. However, Warner said Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) are signed onto the bill.

In Virginia the AA Richmond Flying Squirrels and AAA Norfolk Tide would see the biggest checks, as payments pegged to a percentage of what they made in 2019.

But, assistance may make the biggest difference in the financial box scores of smaller clubs.

Fredericksburg Nationals G.M. and Executive Vice President Nick Hall said when the pandemic hit, they could no longer afford to finish their brand-new stadium or keep half their full-time staff. A check from Congress would fix both problems, a bit of late relief to save the game.

Hall said they have run the numbers but would not offer a ballpark figure other than to say that they would not come close to reaching the $10-million limit. In prior years the club played in Woodbridge, Va., and Hall noted it would be much better for the team’s potential payout if the formula were based on this year’s attendance.

The team may not be winning much, but it’s sold out almost every game. The lost season, ”just made Fredericksburg want it that much more,” Hall said of all the community support.

Fans should not expect any relief teams do receive to affect its chance on the field. Along with restrictions in Warner’s bill about how cash could be used, Major League affiliates are responsible for supplying the player and coaches; local ownership takes care of everything else.

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