LOWELL — Tuesday began with the community of Lowell gathering to protest Major League’s Baseball proposal to replace the Red Sox-affiliated minor league team Spinners with an unaffiliated independent “Dream League” team.
By nightfall, the prospects for affiliated baseball sticking around Lowell had already brightened — but at a cost that could include severing ties with the Red Sox after 25 seasons.
An industry source said Tuesday that the current thinking from Major League Baseball is that it would retain Lowell as a full-season Single A affiliate, but that it is too early in negotiations between MLB and Minor League Baseball to declare if the Red Sox or another big-league club will be that affiliate.
For US Representative Lori Trahan, who organized and facilitated the afternoon meeting with 40-plus civic and business leaders in the home clubhouse at LeLacheur Park, where the Spinners have played since 1998, the thought of a minor league team in Lowell that is not associated with the Red Sox is not a pleasant one.
“I am in this fight so that come 2021 and beyond, Lowell has a Boston Red Sox affiliated team,” said Trahan from Washington, D.C. “That affiliation is critical culturally, and geographically. Maintaining it — and the integrity of the entire minor leagues — is my goal.”
Dave Heller, owner of the Spinners, saw a glimmer of hope in the potential development of keeping affiliated baseball in Lowell, although he was qualified in his support if it negatively impacted Minor League Baseball somewhere else.
“Our immediate goal in Lowell is to protect the Spinners and continue having affiliated baseball in Lowell, that’s our top priority,” said Heller. “And if that means going full season, so be it. We want to make sure the Spinners exist, first and foremost. But we also believe very strongly that contraction is a terrible idea on many levels, and if this plan is simply, ‘We’re going to take one of the teams that is on the 120 list and move it into the discard pile, and replace them with Lowell,’ well, that’s good for Lowell, but it’s not really good for baseball.”
The “120 list” refers to the 120 teams MLB sought to keep after eliminating or de-affiliating 42 teams, a contraction plan that was leaked last October.
Lowell was on that list, with the initial proposal signaling Lowell and LeLacheur Park as a site for a deaffiliated team that would be an MLB-supported “Dream League” team.
Dan Halem, MLB deputy commissioner and lead negotiator in the contentious talks with MiLB, said in San Diego last month and again on Tuesday that the list of 42 teams, initially presented last March, is factually incorrect now.
“The list leaked by Minor League Baseball is inaccurate, and Major League Baseball is committed to keeping baseball in Lowell,” Halem said in an e-mail.
The Red Sox have to date been limited in public statements about MLB’s proposal, citing ongoing negotiations. On Tuesday, president Sam Kennedy texted the following regarding communications on the matter: “I have been in direct contact with Congresswoman Lori Trahan and [owner] David Heller given how much we value our affiliation with the Spinners and our relationship with the City of Lowell.”
At the afternoon meeting, Spinners general manager Shawn Smith spoke of how the threat of losing the Spinners after this season — the Professional Baseball Agreement expires in September — has already created a downturn in business.
That’s one reason why the Spinners have rolled back bleacher seats prices to 1998 levels, $4 apiece, for every home game this season, plus instituted an “All-You-Can-Eat” promotion.
Smith said that he has heard from too many people already saying: “ ‘Sorry this is your last year.’ They’ve already started to write this off. So if we have a bad 2020, it makes it a very difficult case to argue for 2021 and beyond. Unfortunately, you have people that don’t know and people that think that this is a fait accompli when nothing could be further from the truth.”
Mayor John Leahy spoke briefly but was direct.
“We do not want to lose the Spinners,” Leahy said. “We want to keep them here. It is very important to the community. We’re going to fight like hell to keep them here.”
City manager and former mayor Eileen Donoghue spoke of how the Spinners are synonymous to what is summer in Lowell.
“It’s more than a game,” she said. “It’s about coming here, it’s about bringing people to recognize what Lowell has to offer and especially in this park, it’s very special. To put a value on it, it’s almost impossible. But culturally, civically, the pride that this community has is really second to none. The suggestion that all this could come to an end is truly heartbreaking.”