Norfolk Tides join newly created Triple-A East as part of minor leagues restructuring

·4 min read

The minor leagues have undergone a major overhaul, and the Norfolk Tides are in a whole new league as a result.

The Tides, the Triple-A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, will apparently no longer play in the 137-year-old International League. Norfolk is now part of the newly created Triple-A East league, Major League Baseball announced Friday as part of a complete restructuring of baseball’s player development system.

The Tides, an IL member since 1969, will compete in the Southeast Division of Triple-A East, along with Durham, Charlotte, Gwinnett, Jacksonville, Memphis and Nashville.

The overhaul, MLB said in a release, was designed to “create many improvements to the experience and lifestyle of Minor League players,” including pay increases, modernized facilities, improved amenities, reduced travel and better geographical alignment.

“In modernizing our Minor League system, we prioritized the qualities that make the Minor Leagues such an integral part of our game while strengthening how we develop professional athletes on and off the field,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said. “We look forward to demonstrating the best of our game throughout local communities, supporting all those who are working hard to grow the sport, and sharing unrivaled technology and resources with minor league teams and players.”

When the working agreement between MLB and Minor League Baseball expired last year, MLB effectively took over its player development system. The minors were reduced by 40 teams, and 120 remaining affiliates were invited to sign a binding and secretive Player Development License that would keep them affiliated with their respective major league teams for the next 10 years.

All 120 teams signed agreements. Tides president Ken Young submitted the club’s document late last week.

In addition to the 20 teams in Triple-A East, including all 14 former IL members, 10 teams will compete in Triple-A West. The new structure includes 30 teams each in Double-A, high Class A and low Class A. Former Class A, Rookie and short-season levels were eliminated.

Potential logistical changes for Norfolk remain to be seen, though more could be known next week, when MLB is expected to release 2021 schedules.

Many in baseball believe the new league names are mere placeholders. They could be renamed with corporate sponsorships.

The future of the International League, founded in 1884, remains unknown for now.

“I wouldn’t say it’s dead,” Tides GM Joe Gregory said. “It’s probably too soon to make that call. It’s been around for so long. I feel like it’s got to live on somehow. But there used to be an American Association of baseball as well.”

Full-season minor league teams typically start their seasons in early April, which would present a number of challenges for the Tides.

The club reduced its front office staff from 17 to eight in June, though Young expects to hire more people once a schedule is announced.

With no 2020 season played due to the COVID-19 pandemic, sponsorship agreements and season tickets were left in limbo.

The Tides can’t, for instance, sell billboards on the outfield wall or ads in their game program. The value of a billboard can’t yet be defined, and there is no way to know how many programs to print.

On-field promotions, long a between-innings staple of the minors, can’t go on normally in the age of COVID.

Further complicating things, it is not known how many fans would be allowed into Harbor Park once a season starts. Current capacity at sporting events in Virginia is limited to 250, which is not a viable long-term option for the Tides.

Gregory said he hopes to see capacity limits based upon a percentage as more people receive COVID vaccines. Harbor Park seats nearly 12,000.

“Ideally, I think 25% would be pretty reasonable,” Gregory said, “and we could still do it safely and pay some of our bills.”

Gregory added that regardless of structural changes in the minors this season, things will almost certainly be different in subsequent years.

In baseball terms, it might be best to consider the 2021 season a get-me-over fastball, with more changes to follow once the COVID crisis plays out.

“Business-wise, promotion-wise, sponsorship-wise, it’ll evolve going forward,” Gregory said. “This year is such a unique situation. The important thing is getting the games in.”

David Hall, david.hall@pilotonline.com

Triple-A East

Midwest Division

Columbus Clippers*

Indianapolis Indians*

Iowa Cubs

Louisville Bats*

Omaha Storm Chasers

St. Paul Saints

Toledo Mud Hens*

Northeast Division

Buffalo Bisons*

Lehigh Valley IronPigs*

Rochester Red Wings*

Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders*

Syracuse Mets*

Worcester Red Sox*

Southeast Division

Charlotte Knights*

Durham Bulls*

Gwinnett Stripers*

Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp

Memphis Redbirds

Nashville Sounds

Norfolk Tides*

*Former International League member

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