Spinners owner cites ‘human cost’ of baseball’s contraction plan

Lowell Spinners owner Dave Heller chats with young fans on Opening Day at LeLacheur Park last spring.
Lowell Spinners owner Dave Heller chats with young fans on Opening Day at LeLacheur Park last spring.mark lorenz for the globe

As Dave Heller begins to list each of the losses he sees coming, the owner of the Lowell Spinners sounds more and more upset.

If the Spinners are put out of business by Major League Baseball’s contraction proposal, that means no more crowd-loving dances atop the dugout by LeLacheur Park usher and Vietnam veteran “Dancing Bob Moore.”

No more hugs and smiles in Section 114 from 89-year-old usher Dottie Gendreau.

No more all-expense tuitions paid by the Spinners for Middlesex Community College competition winners.

No more donations to other charitable and nonprofit groups by the Spinners.

And no good answers to the children and staff at nearby Lahey Hospital who will wonder why Spinners baseball players stopped visiting their ward.


What, Heller wonders, is he supposed to tell the sick kids?

“ ‘Sorry Billy, the Spinners don’t exist anymore — Major League Baseball wiped them out,’ ” said Heller. “There’s a real human cost here and I hope MLB remembers that.”

The negotiations between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball over a new operating agreement to begin next September contain a proposal to strip 42 teams across the country of their big-league franchise affiliation.

The plan has sparked considerable pushback, and last week spilled into political waters when 100-plus bipartisan members of the House of Representatives, spearheaded by US Representative Lori Trahan, whose district includes Lowell, sent a scathing letter to MLB commissioner Rob Manfred.

On Monday, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders penned his own angry missive to Manfred.

Heller has been personally stunned and professionally flummoxed by what he sees as the capricious inclusion of the Spinners on the 42-team list. He said he has yet to receive a satisfactory answer for what criteria the Spinners have failed to meet in the eyes of Major League Baseball.


In its defense, MLB has said it wants to contract because the system is bloated (too many minor leaguers without a shot at reaching the majors and too many underpaid players), poorly designed (too much travel, and teams too far from their big-league affiliates), and in disrepair (too many cramped and crumbling ballparks).

Yet since buying the Spinners in 2016, Heller said, he and the city have made every change requested by the Red Sox, and he cannot fathom where Lowell falls short.

“In the four years that I have owned the team, there has never been a single instance where the Red Sox have asked for something and we have said no,” said Heller.

He mentioned installing new energy-efficient LED field lights that make it easier for the players to see the ball, and a new irrigation system so the field can drain better. Those two improvements alone cost almost $1 million, said Heller, and were paid for by him and the city of Lowell. The partners are sitting on $835,000 in a ballpark improvement fund for future enhancements that may never be needed.

“We now today have the best playing field in the New York-Penn League, and then we get put on the contracted list and told that our facility is not up to standard?” said Heller. “Really?”

Five of the 14 teams in the New York-Penn League are not on the contraction list. One of them, the Brooklyn Cyclones, is owned by the New York Mets themselves. The Cyclones are being sent to the Double A Eastern League to replace the privately owned Binghamton Mets, who, like the Spinners, would be stripped of their affiliation.


A major league source said last month that MLB considered the Spinners’ facility to be up to snuff enough for it to be part of one of the new independent “Dream Leagues” that MLB has proposed without much specificity.

Heller is not warming up to the idea of being the owner of an independent team overseen by MLB. “That doesn’t sound like a Dream League; that sounds like a Pipedream League,” he said.

“The Spinners employ nearly 150 people every summer, from pizza makers to ticket-takers to ushers to janitors to ice cream scoopers and merchandise sales people, and it would be heartbreaking if the Lowell Spinners were to be killed off by Major League Baseball and those 150 people would have to be told that they were being fired.

“There is a very real human cost here, and I hope that Major League Baseball will take that into account.”

Sanders’s letter to Manfred decried the cuts by billionaire owners and included the threat of having Congress reexamine baseball’s antitrust exemption.

“Shutting down 25 percent of Minor League Baseball teams, as you have proposed, would be an absolute disaster for baseball fans, workers and communities throughout the country,” the letter said. “Not only would your extreme proposal destroy thousands of jobs and devastate local economies, it would be terrible for baseball.”


Michael Silverman can be reached at michael.silverman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeSilvermanBB.