Mark Schnabel: Live local sports return

Mark Schnabel
The Kansan

We were finally, after nearly three months, able to celebrate the return of local, live sports — and judging by the attendance at the Newton Knights baseball games Tuesday and Wednesday out at Klein-Scott Field — many of you were, too.

The crowds were large, but mostly well-behaved, as the Junior and Senior Knights took on their counterparts from Hutchinson.

The two teams will play a slightly shortened season this year. With the American Legion canceling zone, state, regional and national tournaments this summer, a number of teams will be playing as independents.

Several of the area teams will host postseason tournaments in July to make up for the loss of the zone and state tournaments.

As expected, pitching looked a little ragged in this week’s games as pitchers haven’t thrown in a live game since last summer.

As an aside, not to be taken too seriously, one tournament some of the Legion teams should take a look at (if played as scheduled) is the Hap-Dumont NBC 18U Regional Tournament. While it’s a loaded tournament that features some top regional travel teams with some NCAA Division I and future pro prospects, it also carries a National Baseball Congress World Series bid.

The Newton Rebels open the season Saturday night against one of those travel teams – the 316 Elite — which played in the NBC last year.

The Rebels are starting the season almost three weeks late, but almost better late than never — which is what the Alaska League, the Cape Cod League, the Kansas Collegiate League and others won’t be doing.

That means the talent level is going to be a bit higher than usual. Newton will have about eight Division I players on the roster this season, including four Wichita State players.

The format for the NBC has not been set, although we are probably looking at a reduced field of no more than about 16 teams. The Sunflower League will probably get no more than two or three berths, including Cheney’s automatic berth as last year’s runner-up.

The next big topic in baseball is the MLB Draft, which was held this week.

Normally about 40 rounds, the draft was cut to five for this year with the provision that any undrafted player can sign a free-agent contract for $20,000.

The MLB cited the uncertainty of a 2020 season as the reason for cutting the draft, but there are some undercurrents in the sport that may make this the new normal.

The agreement between the MLB and Minor League Baseball (sometimes called MiLB) expires soon. The MLB wants to cut the minors down from about 160 teams to about 120. There are even proposals for MLB to take direct control of the minor-league system.

The current minor-league system has about seven levels — Class AAA, Class AA, Class A Advanced, Class A Short Season, Class A, Rookie Advanced and Rookie. That would be cut to four — AAA, AA, A and Rookie. A team that normally employs about 150 minor leaguers would employ around 100.

In the minors, the parent club pays all player, coaches and training staff salaries, along with travel expenses, while the team owner pays the rest. (Some MLB clubs own several of their minor league affiliates).

The salary savings per team would be about $350,000 for players and about an equal amount in coaches and trainer salaries (not including benefits). The teams would also save about $150,000 in meal money. That’s a savings of two players making MLB rookie minimum or about one-fourth of the average MLB salary.

Not to mention the fact that about 40 towns with affiliated minor league baseball would no longer have that.

The Appalachian League, the New York-Penn League, Northwest League and some of the smaller markets in the Pioneer League, California League and Midwest League would all be in jeopardy. Even some Class AA teams would be eliminated.

Those towns slated to lose teams would presumably have them replaced with independent ball such as what Wichita had with the Wingnuts between the time the Wranglers left and the Wind Surge came to town or summer college baseball.

The MLB even proposed sponsoring its own “Dream League” of unsigned free agents, (although reports now say that idea has been taken off the table for now) and increasing support for summer college wood-bat leagues.

The MLB claims it wants to control travel costs in the minors and try to keep affiliates as close to the parent club as possible.

The Wind Surge is probably safe for now as a first-year team in a brand new stadium, but there is talk of moving some teams up in classification, while moving other teams down. There is also talk of reshuffling leagues for better geographic balance.

The MLB wants to tighten leagues up to reduce travel costs. (Tough to do at the AAA level with the Pacific Coast League stretching from Nashville to Tacoma, Wash., and the International League stretching from Indianapolis to Pawtucket, R.I., soon to be Worcester, Mass.).

MLB also is interested in bringing in independents St. Paul from the American Association and Sugar Land (Texas) from the Atlantic League due to strong fan support in those cities (ironic since both towns were denied affiliated teams because of proximity to the Minnesota Twins and Houston Astros, respectively).

We’ll just have to see.

Mark Schnabel is the sports editor at the Kansan and can be reached at