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Norwich could strike out in plan to overhaul Minor League Baseball

Norwich — The city and the Connecticut Tigers are settling into a new 10-year lease and pending name change for the team that plays at the Thomas J. Dodd Memorial Stadium, but all of that would be shattered in a proposed dramatic overhaul of Minor League Baseball that would eliminate the Norwich team's affiliation with the Detroit Tigers, as well as the league in which it plays.

According to media reports of the overhaul, first reported by Baseball America and the New York Times, the 81-year-old short-season Single-A New York-Penn League in which the Connecticut Tigers play, would be disbanded. Some of the league’s 14 teams with adequate stadium facilities would be shifted into a new “Dream League,” not affiliated with specific teams but co-owned by Major League Baseball for undrafted, noncontract players hoping to catch the eyes of major league team scouts.

The proposal, reportedly in the works since June, would be part of the new Professional Baseball Agreement that would take effect before the 2021 baseball season. The current PBA expires Sept. 15, 2020.

Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom learned of the proposed overhaul Saturday morning and said he would contact Connecticut Tigers officials to discuss the plan.

Nystrom said he was “disappointed” and very concerned about the proposal. He called it short-sighted by Major League Baseball to eliminate affiliated minor league teams in some 40 cities and towns, saying it would hurt baseball’s fan base and connection with people at a personal level.

“I understand economics driving issues, but they are forgetting the human part of the game,” Nystrom said. “They are hurting the sport in the long run. This is how young families get exposure to the game. ... It isn’t only about the players. It’s about the fan base. They are destroying their fan base in a way that’s remarkable.”

Nystrom said Norwich and likely many other affected cities could consider legal action for the loss of valid lease agreements with teams.

“In addition to legal issues with the teams, does Major League Baseball realize they would have major league troubles with the cities and towns?” Nystrom said. “I’m not one that likes litigation, but the way this is being handled is really poor.”

According to the New York Times story, the proposal would eliminate major league affiliations with short-season leagues, rookie leagues and low Class-A leagues, and would cut the amateur draft rounds in half, which would reduce the number of drafted players by about 600. Currently, the Connecticut Tigers and other short-season teams receive many players drafted out of college in mid-June, along with many international signed free agent players.

Short-season and rookie ball teams not selected for the Dream League either would be disbanded or could convert to summer wooden-bat college teams, media reports said.

The Connecticut Tigers and the city of Norwich signed a new 10-year lease on Aug. 1 that takes effect in January to keep the Detroit Tigers’ affiliated team in Norwich. The Connecticut team’s Player Development Agreement with the Detroit Tigers runs through the 2020 season and normally is renewed on a two-year basis.

The New York Times reported that Pat O’Conner, president and chief executive of Minor League Baseball, recently sent a letter to minor league teams warning them of a pending overhaul and recommending they not sign long-term financial or lease agreements or set schedules beyond next season.

Tigers Senior Vice President C.J. Knudsen said Saturday the team would have no comment on the proposed overhaul. He said team officials are watching developments closely and had no information on how Dodd Stadium would fit into the plan.

“It’s part of ongoing negotiations between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball,” Knudsen said Saturday.

Reports said part of the motivation for the change is to reduce minor league travel times, reduce and upgrade the minor league stadiums and training facilities, noting that many host cities and towns are reluctant to upgrade substandard low-level minor league ballparks, some described as minimal high school or college-type fields.

The Norwich City Council last year approved $800,000 for upgrades to Dodd Stadium, built in 1994 for $10 million for the then-higher level Double-A affiliated team. The original stadium lights, which no longer met Major League Baseball standards, were replaced with LED lights at the start of the 2019 season. The stadium is slated to receive a heating and ventilation system replacement, and extended protective netting along the foul lines with the funding.

c.bessette@theday.com

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