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Four years ago, Fresno Grizzlies fans were shook when the San Francisco Giants chose to end their affiliation with the team after a long and successful partnership. The Houston Astros took their place. People didn’t understand why. They threatened to stop supporting the Grizzlies. Some asked why another California team couldn’t come in, like the A’s or the Dodgers.
Me? I got on my laptop and started typing like mad. I wrote a quasi-viral post for FresYes titled, “My Love Letter to the Fresno Grizzlies,” with an impassioned plea as to why we should support our boys no matter what. It ended up landing me a spot on the Grizzlies’ Community Advisory Board, where I’ve been serving ever since, getting an up close look as the team flourished in their partnership with the Astros, winning a Triple-A National Championship and sending players on to win a World Series.
In those four years, the Grizzlies firmly established themselves as a quintessentially Fresno brand. Meaning, no matter what happens, no matter what Major League team the Grizzlies are affiliated with, Triple-A baseball is here for the Central Valley to enjoy, with great young players, fabulous promotions, and a community-centric mindset.
So when it was announced a couple weeks ago that the Astros would be leaving Fresno to return to Texas, and the Washington Nationals had signed a two-year deal to send players to Fresno, I wasn’t concerned. But fans were once again left with a lot of confusion. Reading their comments on social media reminded me that not everyone has the inside track on minor league baseball and understands how all of this works. It can be complicated. So I’m setting out to answer some of the biggest questions, with help from Grizzlies President Derek Franks.
Question: How does all this affiliation stuff work?
Answer: The Pacific Coast League (PCL) franchise that is owned by Fresno Sports & Events, LLC, gives the Grizzlies a guaranteed right to have a Major League Baseball affiliation. MLB and Minor League (MiLB) clubs sign what are called Player Development Contracts (PDCs) on a two- or four-year basis.
“The system was set up in a way that the contracts are up for renewal in even years, so that is when you will typically see change,” Derek says. “The financial terms of the PDC relationship is set forth in the contract that binds the MLB and MiLB together, called the Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA). Those terms state who pays for what in the day-to-day operation of the MiLB club. The MLB club supplies the team and coaches, and pays the salaries. The MiLB club pays for the travel up to a max number of players and coaches, and so on…”
It’s worth noting that when Fresno Sports & Events, LLC, took over ownership of the Grizzlies this past spring, they signed a lease agreement at Chukchansi Park through 2036. So I’m not kidding when I say that baseball is here to stay in Fresno.
Question: Why did the Astros decide to leave Fresno?
Answer: There was always a strong possibility the Astros would leave town at the end of the season, and the reasons had nothing to do with Fresno or any sort of ill will towards our city or the Grizzlies. In the end, it all boiled down to geography and family. The Astros naturally embraced the idea of returning to Texas to partner with the Round Rock Express. Paving the way for the move was the fact that Round Rock is owned by Ryan-Sanders Baseball. Ryan as in Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan. He is an executive advisor to the owner of the Astros, and his son, Reid Ryan, is the president of the Astros.
“We respect their decision and understood when we first signed with them it was likely the relationship would last only four seasons,” Derek says. “We are indebted to the Astros for the great quality of teams we’ve had the last four years.”
It’s worth noting that of the 15 other cities currently in the PCL, nine have had multiple MLB affiliates during Fresno’s time in the league. Five cities have had three or more affiliate changes in that time. In other words, this is all kind of normal!
Question: Why didn’t the A’s come to Fresno? Or the Dodgers?
Answer: MLB and MiLB relationships are a complicated dance with lots of moving pieces. Or as Derek describes it, “The process is like musical chairs, but nobody can pull away a chair. Everyone gets a seat.”
First, only the MLB teams whose PDC contracts were up this year could consider Fresno and vice versa. The Dodgers were not one of them. Furthermore, they own a share of the Oklahoma City Dodgers minor league team that they are affiliated with, so a future move is highly unlikely.
It’s not just one entity or the other who gets to make the decision. According to Derek, “I think the MLB clubs carry more weight, but at the end of the day, the process allows for mutual agreement on the PDC.”
So why did Oakland decide to go to Las Vegas instead of Fresno? We can all only speculate, Derek included. The Las Vegas 51’s just built a brand-new stadium that was likely a draw. And Vegas has a much bigger airport. It’s not always just about the physical distance between the MLB and Triple-A teams.
“The PCL is a brutal travel league—toughest in the MiLB—and Vegas has many direct flights to almost every PCL city,” Derek says.
That’s not to say Fresno is not a great place to play ball. We still have one of the nicest stadiums in the MiLB (trust me, travel to some of the other cities and you’ll see)! And the new ownership team is committed to making tons of upgrades and improvements in coming years.
“Chukchansi Park is a world class ballpark that plays more neutral for pitchers/hitters in a hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League,” Derek says. “We also play in a city that has baseball weather. People look at me cross-eyed when I say that because of the heat, but the lack of rainouts helps managers and farm directors keep players on the field and in their routines.”
(Side note: You only have to look at the combined number of rainouts and delays in the recent PCL playoff series between the Memphis Redbirds and Oklahoma City Dodgers to know Derek is preaching #TRUTH. Who wants to play a double-header at the end of a make-or-break series?!)
Question: But the Washington Nationals? Really? Why should I care or keeping going to games?
Answer: First of all, the Nationals are an excellent ball club with a strong farm system—the same one that developed players like Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. Although they didn’t make the playoffs this year, they still finished second in their division. It’s not like we suddenly became the affiliate of a sub-.500 team. Expect the Nats to be contenders in coming years, with some real players to watch coming through Fresno.
“The Nats have at least two prospects in MLB.com’s Top 100 Today and have seen two others that were ranked high—Juan Soto and Victor Robles—see time in the big leagues in 2018,” Derek says.
But way more importantly, being a Grizzlies fan is about supporting Fresno and loving baseball. The players may be different, but the passion for the game is the same. You will still get to experience professional baseball in a way more up close and far less expensive manner than going to a Major League game. And keep in mind, there are 30 cities in the entire country who have a Triple-A baseball team. I think we as Fresnans forget how lucky we are to have the Grizzlies.
The Grizzlies staff remains committed to bringing some of the best entertainment in the city to the ballpark as well. Expect to see even better promotions and bigger events than ever before. I can’t wait to see how many of their theme nights end up on ESPN next year.
So come out to the ballpark. Buy those ticket packages. Cheer on our home team. Because that’s who they are. Not the Giants. Not the Astros. Not the Nationals. The Fresno Grizzlies. And I for one can’t wait to see what they do next.