By Brian Hoffman – Sports Editor
The Carolina League was founded in 1945 and Salem has been a member since the 1968 season. However, the league as we’ve known it appears to be eliminated along with teams in 40 Minor League cities after last week’s realignment by Major League Baseball.
“The Carolina League is not going to exist as we know it,” said Salem Red Sox General Manager Allen Lawrence. “I don’t know what league we’ll be in but you can look at the Low A teams and connect the dots.”
The Carolina League has been a “High A” league since Salem joined as a Pittsburgh affiliate in ’68. In the past 52 years the local team has been a member of the Pittsburgh, San Diego, Texas, Colorado, Houston and Boston big league organizations, with two stints with the Pirates. The Salem team is currently owned by the Boston Red Sox, and that was a big advantage for the local team as Major League Baseball trimmed the number of minor league teams from 160 to 120 last week.
“Being owned by a Major League team, we were never in danger,” said Lawrence. “But for the last 14 months many teams have wondered if they were going to be around.”
The cutback in Minor League teams has nothing to with the coronavirus pandemic. Talk of eliminating teams has been going on since 2019, and when the Professional Baseball Agreement ended on September 30 of this year Major League Baseball took control of the Minor League teams. Going forward every major league team will have four minor league clubs including Class A, Advanced Class A, Class AA and Class AAA. Salem and Greenville flip-flopped in the Boston organization, with Greenville now an Advanced Class A team and Salem dropping to Class A.
“It has more to do with travel than anything else,” said Lawrence. “Most of the teams in our area are going to be Class A.”
Greenville, in South Carolina, is more aligned with other Advanced Class A teams. Former Carolina League teams Myrtle Beach, Fayetteville, Lynchburg, Carolina, Down East and Fredricksburg (formerly Potomac) are also dropping to Class A and will likely be in a league with the Sox along with some other cities. Former Carolina League members Wilmington and Winston-Salem will remain in “High A,” with Wilmington moving from the Royals to the Nationals. The Frederick Keys have been eliminated.
At first glance, it appears to be a step down for Salem. However, most of the better players start in Class A and advance from there according to how they do. If you remember, when Salem had the Rockies, Todd Helton never played here, skipping from Class A to Class AA. And often players like Mookie Betts begin the season in Class A and move up to High A later in the season, then go on to Class AA the following year if they do well. Betts actually played more games in Class A than he did with Salem.
“If you look at the players who played in Greenville, the great players who came through Salem also played there,” said Lawrence. “We’ll be seeing the same guys. I actually think this will be better for us.”
The contraction from 160 to 120 teams was a move by Major League Baseball to save money. Rookie League teams like the Pulaski Yankees have been eliminated and all 30 big league teams will now have four teams. That was a tough blow for the Pulaski group, who have done a wonderful job refurbishing Calfee Park and had a lot of interest in the team as the Yankees have fans everywhere. Pulaski will still field an independent team but it certainly won’t be the same.
“We’re just glad to have a team,” said Lawrence. “2020 really put things in perspective.”
Allen is hoping the 2021 season can begin by sometime in May. The Class A and High A teams will play 132 game schedules, down eight from past years. That means four less home games for the Red Sox.
“We’ll start and end about the same time but there will be more days off, usually on Mondays,” he said. “In the past our players have gone 20 or 30 days in a row without a day off.”
Lawrence is optimistic baseball can be played in a safe environment, although he admits there’s little use of having games without fans as was the case with the 2020 MLB season.
“With the vaccine and precautions, I’m optimistic we can have an extremely safe atmosphere,” said Lawrence. “I’m feeling a little better about it every day.”
The past season has been a challenge for the Sox. They did everything from “Dining on the Diamond” to movies on the fan vision to get folks in the ballpark to consume concessions. Salem hosted high school all-star games for seniors, a 460 rivalry game with celebrities from the valley against counterparts from Lynchburg and various travel baseball tournaments.
“I never saw so many people here to watch 13-year-olds’ baseball games,” said Lawrence. “Usually it’s only parents for those games, but I saw some familiar faces of people who just wanted to watch some baseball. We’ve been able to keep our staff intact, and I’m pretty proud of that.”
Barry Stephens, Salem’s bookkeeper, credits Allen for keeping the team on the field, or at least in the front office.
“He deserves a huge amount of credit,” said Stephens. “There were only two other teams in the Carolina League who didn’t have to lay anyone off, and he’s been the main reason. He’s a good boss and he’s done a good job under trying circumstances.”