CALEDONIA, Minn. — Employees of Miken Sports, maker of the baseball helmets used by Major League Baseball players, have been notified that the manufacturing plant will close in the next 18 to 24 months, delivering an economic blow to this small rural community. Some of the jobs will stay stateside and other jobs will head to China.
Miken Sports is one of the biggest employers in this Houston County town, currently employing 59 full-time and 10 part-time workers, said Mike Thompson, Rawlings Sporting Goods' chief marketing officer. But prior to the coronavirus pandemic, a Caledonia official said, Miken employed more than 120 people from the region.
In addition to baseball helmets, the Caledonia plant makes composite bats used by youth baseball, girls softball and adult slow pitch players. The operations and jobs employed in the making of the bats will be moved to a facility in China, and the helmet operation will be shifted to a facility in Washington, Mo.
Currently the shells of helmets produced in Caledonia are shipped to the Missouri facility where MLB team logos are painted on them.
What will remain in Caledonia after the plant closure is a Rawlings' sales and marketing team of about seven people, a legislator said.
Caledonia City Administer Adam Swann called the impending closure a "double whammy" for this 2,800-person community. It is poised to lose both a major two-decade employer and significant property tax generator, as well as an active and valuable community member.
"Not only do they employ a lot of people, but they're really good community partners," Swann said. "They're really supportive of community events, particularly from the local park and rec teams."
Miken is owned by Rawlings Sporting Goods, which in turn is owned by a private equity firm, Seidler Equity Partners, and MLB Properties.
Last year, Rawlings acquired Easton Diamond Sports, a leader in non-wood bats. At the time, officials touted the acquisition as creating a "leading baseball and softball equipment provider." But the combination boded ill for Miken in Caledonia. Easton produces its bats in China under an "exclusive arrangement," and it made sense, both for cost and manufacturing reasons, to move Miken's bat-producing operations to China, Thompson said.
"These kinds of decisions are really never easy, especially when you've got really great employees like we do in Caledonia," said Thompson. "And everybody in the company really liked the operation there."
"(But) you've got a worldwide leader that you just acquired with world-class manufacturing, and you wrestle with all of these decisions. And unfortunately, it just made better sense for us to utilize the factory (in China)," Thompson said.
Rawlings officials are aware of how badly the optics of the move look. Baseball is America's national past-time, a billion-dollar industry. And here is a company, of which Major League Baseball is a partner, sending jobs to China, at a time of geopolitical tension when the world is battling a pandemic virus that originated in China.
"For whatever the reason, they've run the numbers and think it's better to move (the helmet operation) to Missouri. I can't get it out of my head: America's pastime is outsourcing jobs to China," said Rep. Greg Davids, a Republican legislator from Preston whose district includes Caledonia.
"I get it. Listen, it's a political world right now," Thompson said. "I understand the viewpoints there. It simply boils down to a business decision."
Within the last several days, Davids and state Sen. Jeremy Miller of Winona have met with Rawlings' officials via tele-conference call to explore whether there is any wiggle room in their decision to close the plant — and whether a package of financial incentives could be offered to induce Miken to stay. The response from Rawlings has so far not been encouraging.
Thompson didn't get into exact numbers in terms of potential savings for Rawlings from the move, but said it ranged from between $4 million and $10 million. Thompson said Rawlings is always open to listening to proposals, but doesn't want to give a false sense of hope.
"The decision is well down the path," Thompson said. "It's a multi-million dollar decision. We're always open for opportunity. But we don't want to waste each other's time."
The notices were sent out to Miken employees two weeks ago. Swann said he is not only disappointed in the decision, he thinks it's the wrong decision for Rawlings in an era where social considerations — not just financial ones — are weighed by companies.
"You think about how many billions Major League Baseball is worth. You got baseball players getting paid $300 million to play baseball, and a company is going to be eliminating 100-plus jobs in a small community to save what they're saying is millions," Swann said. "It's crazy that they're going to do that."
"Caledonia is an awesome town," Davids said. "But, man, this is a hit to them."