Minor leagues facing reality that 'probably 40 teams have played their last game'

Children from the YMCA Westside and Salvation Army high-five Looie the Lookout before a shopping spree at Academy Sports and Outdoors on Thursday, July 18, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Academy partnered with the Chattanooga Lookouts to give the children each a $100 gift card for back-to-school shopping.

Several months before the coronavirus outbreak altered everyone's way of life, Major League Baseball announced it would be altering the minor league landscape by contracting roughly one-fourth of the teams.

That has led to a gruesome reality as the calendar flips to July.

"Everything is pointing to the fact that there are probably 40 teams that have played their last game," Chattanooga Lookouts team president Rich Mozingo said this week. "Everything that you've read and I've read says that we are going down to 120 teams."

A 2020 minor league season that never started was officially canceled Tuesday, with teams having been operating under that assumption for weeks.

Mozingo and his fellow Lookouts employees have been furloughed given the revenue missing this year from those usual fan-friendly nights at AT&T Field, though there was federal government assistance provided through the Paycheck Protection Program. It's a challenging predicament playing out across the country in communities large and small, with Mozingo admitting the COVID-19 pandemic will leave minor league baseball forever changed.

Minor league baseball games last year drew more than 41.5 million spectators, marking the 15th consecutive year in which attendance surpassed 40 million. That consistent clip was shattered by the coronavirus, with many minor league franchises now looking for ways to get any kind of activity to avoid a 100% revenue loss.

"We're looking into socially distanced baseball showcase events," Mozingo said. "We're looking at ways to animate the facility to hopefully bring in some kind of revenue."

The Lookouts were on the contraction list obtained last November by the New York Times, but MLB quickly responded that the list was inaccurate. MLB officials have sought to trim the farm system as a measure to lower travel costs and to ensure that developing players have respectable facilities in which to practice and compete.

AT&T Field opened in 2000 and is the Southern League's second-oldest facility, trailing only the Ballpark at Jackson, which was built in 1998. The Lookouts and Generals were the only Southern League teams on the original contraction list, but Lookouts co-owner Jason Freier repeatedly has said Chattanooga is appealing with its central location within the league and just a five-hour drive from its parent club, the Cincinnati Reds.

Freier also cites tradition, with the Reds having played their first game in May 1869 as the Red Stockings, and with professional baseball in Chattanooga dating to 1885.

"The team in Chattanooga is not likely to and certainly should not be contracted," Freier said in the spring. "We have a fabulous market in Chattanooga."

Said Mozingo this week: "There is no concern in my mind that we're going to be contracted - none whatsoever."

Freier co-owns the team with John Woods, who has been quick to credit his business partner for his work on the contraction front. That has included Freier taking trips to Cincinnati to enhance the relationship with the Reds.

"Jason has worked really, really hard," Woods said. "I truly believe that they want to stay in Chattanooga."

The optimism Chattanooga harbors of moving forward does not seem to be shared across the state in Jackson. Generals general manager Marcus Sabata told Sports Illustrated recently that a final countdown for his franchise may already be taking place.

Sports Illustrated, citing unnamed sources, reported MLB officials are not considering a postponement of the contraction amid this pandemic.

"It's really disappointing," Sabata said. "Without a season, the team might not even get a chance to say goodbye to its fans."

MLB and the minor leagues typically operate under a Professional Baseball Agreement, with the last PBA having been extended in 2011 but set to expire in September. Should no new PBA be established during the coming months, there is not a provision in which MLB would be required to supply players to minor league teams for the 2021 season.

"That is true, but minor league baseball has played some years in the past without a PBA in place," Mozingo said. "There are talks and negotiations still going on, and nobody who I've talked to thinks that this is the end of minor league baseball. Minor league baseball is going to continue, and it's going to continue for a long time.

"The big question is what it looks like when it continues."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.