Calling the Balls and Strikes on Major League Baseball’s Pending Factory Closure

By Stockton Grunewald
Sep 09 2021 |
Miken’s bat production is moving to China, “which flies in the face of MLB’s status as an iconic American sports league,” according to Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) Getty Images

Rawlings, which is partly owned by MLB, is planning to close a longtime factory in Minnesota. Local residents are crying foul.

Tucked away in the southeastern corner of Minnesota, nestled along the Mississippi River, the people of Houston County take great pride in their community. Over the years, hundreds of Caledonia residents furnished Major League Baseball with batting helmets, softball bats, and other assorted sports items. The Miken Sports Plant, just a drive away from the infamous “Field of Dreams”, has been a staple of everyday life in Caledonia — that is, until Miken’s new benefactor, Rawlings, informed management of the plant’s impending closure.  

In the next 18-24 months, all but a handful of Caledonians, working in customer service and support roles, could walk out of the factory doors a final time.  

The story is unfortunately an all-too-familiar one in recent American history: Rawlings, a multi-national manufactory and distributor of sports equipment, acquired the Miken Sports Plant, and now plans to move the Caledonia jobs to China. But it’s not just the corporate types at Rawlings, which is owned by private equity firm Siedler Equity Partners, who have a stake in the decision. Further up the corporate ladder, Rawlings is partly owned by Major League Baseball (and the Siedler family even owns the San Diego Padres).

As State Rep. Greg Davids told Minnesota television station KARE-11: “Think about that – the American pastime moving to China. Really?”  

This is far from the first time a community has been shuddered by a plant shutdown, of course. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Minnesota has lost a net 27,000 jobs in the manufacturing sector since 1994 – but the sting of a quintessential element of Americana moving overseas struck a nerve with many local residents.

Local, state, and national officials have banded together to seek a solution that maintains Caledonia’s premier production facility. Following a virtual city council meeting, Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith (D) penned a letter to MLB Commissioner Bob Manfred to formally lodge her protest of the decision.

Smith noted, among other items, that the MLB greatly benefited from exemption from United States’ antitrust laws, taxpayer-funded stadiums (Minnesota taxpayers, for instance, paid nearly $350 million for the Twins’ state-of-the-art Target Field), and insisted that the tacit relationship between the national government and the national pastime depends on good faith from both sides.   

“Caledonia has a population of about 2,800 and will face significant hardship from the loss of Miken’s jobs and community contributions,” Smith wrote. “Adding to my outrage is the fact that you will reportedly be moving Miken’s bat production to China, which flies in the face of MLB’s status as an iconic American sports league. I strongly urge you to reverse the planned closure of the Miken Sports production facility in Caledonia and instead commit to making long-term investments in the plant.”

When pressed, an MLB spokesman artfully dodged assertions that the move had violated the league’s “Made in America” pledge by noting that the production of baseball bats used by MLB will be folded into the operations of a St. Louis company.

“MLB does not have a role in the day to day business operations of Rawlings, particularly with respect to items that are not made for MLB use,” a spokesman for the league told CBS News. “The sole MLB product made in this facility will continue to be manufactured in the United States as are all MLB batting helmets, on-field uniforms and hats.”

Rawlings spokesperson Mike Thompson expressed mild empathy for workers, calling the decision to close the Caledonia plant “painful”, but well worth it, seeing as the bats and other equipment would be made in a Chinese facility that would save shareholders somewhere between $4-10 million.  

But for Caledonia, the impact is devastating.

The effects of COVID-19 not-withstanding, the Miken Sports Plant had employed near 100 workers at any given time, providing good pay to good people, and a great incentive for skilled workers to put down roots in the rural area. (As the Voice in “Field of Dreams” said: “If you build it, they will come.”) 

And Miken’s closure was far from inevitable. Many companies that partner with MLB share a commitment to “Made in America,” including Louisville Slugger bats (Made in Kentucky) and Schutt bases (Made in Illinois).

Then there’s glove manufacturer Nokona, which manufactures its line of top-quality gloves in Texas. This family-owned and operated baseball glove manufacturer, a favorite of Nolan Ryan, has stood firm in the face of offshoring since the early 1960s. Despite the tempting allure of what Senator Smith would describe as a “dollar first” idea, Rob Storey quotes his grandfather: “If I have to import gloves and tell my employees we’re closing up and they don’t have jobs anymore, I might as well grab a bucket of worms and go fishing.” 

It seems that at least some of the heat from public pressure has caused Rawlings to sweat, as they now appear willing to “continue discussion” on the future of the Miken plant, though no promises were made. And local officials say they’ll keep pushing the company to reverse its decision.

Tens of millions of hardworking Americans, generation after generation, have gleefully spent their hard earned money to support America’s pastime.  Kansas City Royals player Salvador Perez recently noted: You don’t know how hard people worked, or whatever they have to do to buy a ticket to come to see you. We need to respect the fans, too.”  

That’s why it’s not just Rawlings that could make things right; Major League Baseball also could step up for the people of Caledonia, too. Otherwise, like Ray Kinsella, the people of Houston County will wonder what life was like when baseball electrified their town. 

As the Mayor of Caledonia put it: “I think they’re gonna lose a lot of fans.”