It’s Single-A ball or nothing for the Fresno Grizzlies, Major League Baseball has told the city.
On Saturday, the Fresno City Council will hold an emergency meeting to discuss the matter in closed session.
In a letter sent to city officials, MLB Deputy Commissioner Daniel Halem said the Fresno franchise will no longer be a Triple-A team, and if they don’t accept an assignment to Single-A and drop any threatened litigation, there will be no affiliated team at all.
“Because communications with the Grizzlies and City of Fresno have indicated they have no interest in operating a Single-A affiliate, we do not currently intend to offer any affiliation to the Grizzlies or Fresno. If, however, you inform us by no later than Monday, November 30, that the Grizzlies and Fresno will accept a Single-A affiliation and will agree to release any legal claims they believe they may have against MLB or any of its Clubs concerning the decision not to offer a Triple-A affiliation, we will gladly reconsider,” Halem the baseball executive in charge of the reorganization of the minor leagues, wrote.
The City Council is expected to schedule an emergency meeting to discuss the matter, sources say.
Mayor-elect Jerry Dyer vows that the Grizzlies will be playing in 2021 as an affiliated team.
“I’m confident that we’re going to have minor league baseball in Fresno in 2021 and beyond. We’re just going to let the process work,” Dyer said.
Dyer Disappointed by MLB Demands
“I’m confident that we’re going to have minor league baseball in Fresno in 2021 and beyond. We’re just going to let the process work.” — Mayor-elect Jerry Dyer
Dyer said he and Mayor Lee Brand are disappointed in MLB for not assigning the Grizzlies to Triple-A and the timeline to accept a Single-A team.
“Our position in the city is very simple. We negotiated a contract with the Grizzlies for the use of the stadium for minor league baseball. We’re going to continue to support the Grizzlies in their effort to maintain a Triple-A team in Fresno,” Dyer said.
Fresno Sports and Events, operated by father-son duo Ray and Michael Baker and Jim Coufos, own the Grizzlies. Team president Derek Franks also owns a portion of the team.
Dyer said he’s been in contact with Michael Baker.
“We do not want to interfere with any discussions that the Grizzlies ownership is having with Major League Baseball,” Dyer said. “We just want to be there to support them in their efforts.”
In his letter addressed to Brand, Dyer and the council, Halem said all 30 MLB teams declined to partner with Fresno at the Triple-A level. The Washington Nationals ended its two-year agreement with Fresno at the end of the 2020 season — even though the 2020 minor league season was canceled.
Halem said the Colorado Rockies were prepared to make the Grizzlies its Single-A affiliate. This somewhat confirms earlier speculation about Fresno moving to Single-A, most likely via the California League.
Halem said the owners’ and city’s reluctance to move from Triple-A to Single-A means the Grizzlies are out of affiliated baseball.
“It has become clear to us from recent correspondence with Grizzlies ownership and the Mayor’s office that the Grizzlies and the City of Fresno appear unwilling to accept this affiliation and are instead considering litigation, which we believe would be baseless,” Halem wrote.
Both Arias and Dyer said any threatened litigation has not come from their end.
Arias hopes cooler heads prevail.
“The city’s intent is to continue to have a Major League Baseball-affiliated team playing in our stadium,” Arias said. “We’re hopeful that Major League Baseball (and the owners) will come to a mutual agreement that allows us to continue to operate.”
According to the lease documents, the city pays about $3 million a year to service the stadium’s debt.
Halem, in his letter, says a move to Single-A would benefit the Grizzlies, with a decrease in travel expenses and league administration costs.
Calls and emails to the Grizzlies and MLB officials were not returned by time of publication.
Stadium Lease Vague on Next Steps
A stadium lease amendment, approved by the city in December 2018, cut the team’s rent in half, in exchange for keeping the Grizzlies at the ballpark through 2036. If the team moves away, there would be significant financial penalties.
The agreement also called for both the city and team to contributed $300,000 annually toward a capital improvement fund, starting this year.
The lease language has many reference to the Pacific Coast League and Triple-A level baseball, perhaps not anticipating the team would ever move down a level.
Chukchansi Park opened during the 2000 season, with a current capacity of 10,000 seats. During the 2019 season, new features such as a social lounge and kids water park were added.
The lease states the team would be considered under default if it failed to pay rent or loses its license with baseball “due to negligence, willful misconduct or material violation” of PCL or MLB rules.
The former may not apply because of the city’s willingness to extend rent due dates because of COVID-19; the latter would not apply either.
The Grizzlies would have a right to terminate the agreement without further obligation if the PCL or any other league the Grizzlies are in ceases operations and the Grizzlies make a good faith effort to continue playing professional baseball (Article 10.4 (c) of the lease).
According to covenants in the lease, the team shall assure it remains in the PCL and/or Triple-A, and if it can’t, “Tenant shall use all reasonable and financially feasible means to obtain membership in another such organization and maintain the status of, or equivalent to, a Triple A MiLB baseball team” (Article 14.1 (j)).
Failure to do so “shall constitute a Tenant Default.”
The city would have to determine if a forced demotion to Single-A meets the definition set out in the lease.
Drastic Minor League Overhaul
Minor League Baseball is undergoing the most drastic changes to its structure in decades. Instead of acting as an independent organization — with minor league teams free to make deals with its Big League parent clubs — MLB would take over its governance and assign parent clubs to its farm teams.
Additionally, the plan is to cut 40 teams, mostly at the lowest Rookie League levels, from affiliated-baseball. Each MLB club would have just four minor league teams at the ascending levels (usually based on experience) from Low-A, High-A, Double-A and Triple-A.
Minor league teams would still be independently owned, such as the Grizzlies. However, instead of engaging in two- or four-year Player Development Contracts with an MLB team, MLB would assign long-term licenses binding a minor league team with its parent club.
Baseball America and Ballpark Digest have long reported the Grizzlies moving to the Cal League, currently considered at the High-A level. That league would then move from High-A to Low-A.
Single-A is where players who are either top draft picks or with 1-2 years experience play. They tend to be younger and less experienced than Triple-A players. The difference between Low-A and High-A is usually the expectations of a prospect and experience level.
Grizzlies Since 1998
The Grizzlies entered the Pacific Coast League in 1998 at the Triple-A level, meaning players were one step away from the Majors. Each year, dozens of players would move and up and down between the parent Major League club and the Triple-A team.
Fresno Sports and Events bought the team in 2017. The City Council approved the amended lease agreement the following year, reducing yearly rent to $500,000 a year. The lease also called for increased city investment to improve city-owned Chukchansi Park.
Because the 2020 season was canceled, the Grizzlies have not paid rent for the past season, city sources tell GV Wire℠.
The council is expected to vote to formally extend the due dates for such rent, for the Grizzlies and other tenants that lease land from the city, at a meeting later this month.
Chukchansi Park is in the middle of the pack in the PCL when it comes to age — seven teams have newer stadiums in the 16-team league.
If the Grizzlies moved to the California League, Chukchansi Park would rank as the second-newest, and would have the largest seating capacity by far.
The Grizzlies have played as the Triple-A affiliate for the San Francisco Giants (1998-2014), Houston Astros (2015-2018) and Washington Nationals (2019-2020). Five of those teams were the top minor league club for the World Series champions.
Without an affiliation with a Major League team, the Grizzlies opportunities to remain a viable franchise would be diminished. However, organized independent leagues do exist, with one in California — the Pacific Association.