According to Minor League Baseball President Pat O’Conner, there is a significant difference between “unable” and “unwilling.” It’s that distinction, along with a few other factors, that has kept minor league ball in Beloit.
“I look at cities in two ways,” O’Conner said. “Those that are unable, and those that are unwilling. I have little patience for those that are unwilling. I have a great deal of tolerance and respect for those that are unable. The difference is that they want to do things better, they just aren’t able to given the circumstances.”
O’Conner, in town for the Beloit Snappers’ annual Hot Stove Banquet, places Beloit firmly in the “unable” category as it relates to procuring a new or updated facility. After finishing ahead of only Burlington, Iowa, in the 16-team Midwest League in attendance for the past decade, the Snappers drew an average of 939 fans in 2013, last in the 16-team league.
“It’s a critical time for Beloit, not today, but in the next few years,” O’Conner said. “It’s not something that’s imminent, but it’s something that they are going to have to sit down and talk about what they want to do as far as their baseball future.”
The current agreement with Minor League Baseball runs out in 2020, and given the evolution of the game recently, changes are expected.
“We’ve had minimal updates to the agreement in the last 27 years, and my instincts tell me that the next one is probably going to have some changes, because the last three haven’t,” O’Conner said. “We haven’t touched the facilities agreement since 1991. As the landscape of minor league baseball changes, the teams have to keep up as well.”
The central question as to the long-term survival of the Snappers is what to do with the current ballpark. Pohlman Field enters its 32nd season of use, and though there have been several renovations throughout the years, O’Conner said it falls short of certain standards.
“This ballpark is compliant, with a few variances granted,” he said. “There comes a time, though, when we will update those standards. Most of our ballparks are above or well above compliance. At what point do a handful of clubs continue to get an antiquated variance?
“That shouldn’t send tremors through the city of Beloit, but what it ought to do is register that if we are talking about making an investment in a current ballpark or in a new ballpark, what do we do? Do we just do compliance, or do we keep pace with the current industry? Now, I’m not suggesting Beloit build a $50 million ballpark. But it’s our job to keep them informed on things that may change in that regard.”
O’Conner was unwilling to give any personal council as to what the Snappers must do to remain in Beloit beyond the terms of the current agreement, but did set forth some guidelines.
“There are situations that Major League ballclubs run to, and there are some that they run from,” he said. “And you don’t want to be a team that they run from. As a club, you have to look at the situation and be brutally honest. What you can do, what you can’t do, what you will do, and what you won’t do. That’s not a question for me to answer. That’s for the community to answer. Our charge is, as long as they are willing, to help them in whatever way we can. But I’m also going to be honest with them. I’m going to give them a read on where they are at, and give them some things they could be doing, just as advice from someone that has the benefit of seeing 160 profit and loss statements.”
The Midwest League was formerly comprised of smaller towns like Kenosha, Waterloo, Iowa, Wausau and Springfield, Ill. Beloit is one of the last remnants of the “old guard”, as shiny new ballparks have sprung up in places like Dayton, Ohio and Lansing, Mich.
“They have managed to survive in this new era by sheer grit and determination,” O’Conner said. “As long as they are compliant and are following the rules, there are no grounds to revoke the franchise.”
While the changes have been abundant in the Midwest League and throughout Minor League Baseball in the past few decades, O’Conner said that the smaller market teams remain important to the baseball landscape.
“I can tell you that the Beloit’s of the world, geopolitically, are very important,” O’Conner said. “These places are now the exception instead of the rule. When we go to Washington and talk to a senator about Beloit, that registers. It’s a big deal. So there is a political advantage in staying in towns like this. That’s why we’ve been very judicious in allowing teams to relocate. To me, that’s a last resort, only made after it’s been made abundantly clear that the market is unwilling to make the changes necessary to remain compliant.”
O’Conner believes that the coming seasons are critical as it relates to the future of baseball in Beloit.
“This community has had its challenges, and we understand that,” O’Conner said. “We will never demand anything. We don’t put guns into rooms when we have negotiations. The one thing I can tell you is that there is a tremendous sense of pride and spirit, in a positive way, about this ballclub. It needs to be rejuvenated a little bit, but sometimes you run into situations where complacency sets in, and you have to re-focus. And that’s the job of community leaders and team leaders.”