The future of the Grand Junction Rockies is in the hands of two negotiating teams that appear to be far from settling their differences.
With the current Professional Baseball Agreement between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball expiring after the 2020 season ends in September, the 42 teams that MLB wants to “contract” are preparing for what could be their final seasons.
Season tickets for the Grand Junction Rockies’ ninth season went on sale this week, souvenir caps and shirts have been ordered and sponsorships and game entertainment are being arranged.
Contraction, baseball’s term for canceling a Minor League team’s affiliation with Major League Baseball, would end professional baseball in those cities.
MLB has proposed “dream leagues” to replace teams that lose their affiliation — basically, independent teams that aren’t farm teams for the majors, but would be sanctioned by MLB.
“First and foremost, our goal is to keep all these teams affiliated with Major League teams. That’s the model that’s worked for years and years and the independent league has not worked for years and years,” said Jeff Lantz, the senior director of communications for Minor League Baseball.
All costs of independent clubs are the responsibility of those teams, including player salaries. Major League teams pay salaries of their affiliates’ coaching staffs and players.
Lantz estimated players in Rookie ball make about $1,100-$1,200 a month during the 76-game season, not including their signing bonus. The payroll for a short-season team is about $600,000 a year, he said, which is the minimum yearly salary in Major League Baseball.
The attraction of Minor League Baseball is not simply attending a baseball game. Fans gravitate toward the team because it’s affiliated with Major League Baseball, following players as they climb the organizational ladder toward the big leagues.
That’s especially true in Grand Junction because of the affiliation with the Colorado Rockies. Fifteen players on the Rockies’ current 40-man roster started their careers in Grand Junction. The Rockies are one of the few MiLB teams that are owned by the Major League affiliate — Dick and Charlie Monfort are majority owners of each team.
Four reasons are at the core of Major League Baseball’s proposal to drop 42 teams: inadequate facilities, length of travel, poor pay and having too many players under contract who don’t have a realistic chance to reach the big leagues.
Lantz said MiLB doesn’t dispute issues with travel and pay, but said all 160 Minor League Baseball teams are in compliance with MLB’s current requirements, which were set in 1990. Each field is inspected every three years, with reports filed with the minor league club and the parent club.
“Most of the issues can be resolved in a few days,” Lantz said, but, he added, if MLB raises its standards, it needs to give the affiliates time to get up to par. Most fields, including Suplizio Field, are owned by cities or counties, and those governments don’t have unlimited resources for major upgrades, including larger clubhouses.
“If they want to increase the standards, that’s fine,” he said, “we’re more than happy to deal with that, but you can’t give us 12 months to get everything fixed to standards they want.”
The entire relationship between the two governing bodies could end, according to a statement issued last month by MLB.
“If the National Association (of Minor League Clubs) has an interest in an agreement with Major League Baseball, it must address the very significant issues with the current system at the bargaining table. Otherwise, MLB clubs will be free to affiliate with any minor league team or potential team in the United States, including independent league teams and cities which are not permitted to compete for an affiliate under the current agreement,” the statement read.
When Grand Junction joined the Pioneer League in 2012, it created longer road trips than when the Rookie club was in Casper, Wyoming. That travel increased even more when the Brewers moved their team from Helena, Montana, to Colorado Springs last summer.
The league took steps to cut some travel last year by eliminating one interdivisional series — the Rockies, in the South Division, won’t play Great Falls and Billings in the North Division this season.
Should Major League Baseball prevail and the Pioneer League is disbanded, it’s likely the GJ Rockies would become the Arizona Rockies in the Arizona League. The Rockies are the only Pioneer League without an AZL club. Manager Jake Opitz doesn’t see that as a detriment.
The Rockies have made the playoffs four times in their first eight years, reaching the Pioneer League Championship Series in 2018.
“For us, it hasn’t been a huge deal not having a team in Arizona,” Opitz said. “We seem to start a little slow getting guys accustomed to what we’re doing, guys new from the draft and the first-year Latin guys, the high school players, it takes them awhile to get comfortable.
“The college guys it’s more this is pro ball, the day-to-day grind.”
As the two entities slug it out, Mick Ritter, the president of the GJ Rockies, and Opitz are focusing on what they can control — the 2020 season.
“With (the next round of negotiations) hopefully we’ll hear some more about it,” Ritter said. “For the 2020 season, we’re still going, it’s business as usual. We’re excited for another fun season and hopefully we’ll get another good team.”
Opitz, who will be Grand Junction’s manager for the third year this summer, isn’t commenting on the discussions that could eliminate his club after this season. He’s waiting to hear from Colorado’s front office what the plan will be once negotiations have determined the Rookie Rockies’ fate.
“This year’s set,” Opitz said. “We’ll have a team and we’ll be ready to go.”