Baseball for me has always been about the stories, and one of the game’s best, archetypal story is the ballplayer out there in some dusty ballpark in some small American town, who gets discovered by some world-weary scout who takes a chance on the kid. The no-bonus baby pushes his way up the minor league ladder until finally, he bursts onto the major league scene in a blaze of glory. That story is so appealing in part because as a fan, I can give myself a little bit of credit for his success: I can say that I was one of the few people in that dusty ballpark, sweating in the heat of a July afternoon, sitting on a warped bleacher, cheering him on before you even heard of him.
Yes, I’m a baseball romantic—after all, I did write Fathers, Sons, & Holy Ghosts: Baseball as a Spiritual Experience, and I can promise you that there is no mention of oWAR on any single page nor even in a footnote. With all that said, I will also say that the proposed contraction of the minor leagues makes complete sense, and is probably long overdue, and for all the reasons already cited in the proposal first revealed in Baseball America.
Take our former hometown team, the Hagerstown Suns of the South Atlantic League. Our first-born daughter’s first game was in Municipal Stadium in Hagerstown, a game which she attended in a stroller. Eventually, she became part of the promotions crew while in high school and even threw out the first pitch one night when the Suns honored her for becoming Williamsport High School’s valedictorian. I love Municipal Stadium and cherish the memories it contains.
Even through rose-colored glasses, however, it is easy to see that Municipal Stadium is a dump.
The clubhouse is cramped and the field is rough. This past August, we went to a game there to see the Delmarva Shorebirds, and Orioles’ affiliate play the Suns, primarily because we wanted to see first-round draft pick, Adley Rutschman play. The Orioles invested $8 million in this young man only to have him play on a field that was not as good as most of the high school fields in Florida. And what good does it do Adley Rutschman or Casey Mize or Bobby Witt, Jr. to compete against teams that are comprised largely of suspects instead of prospects?
Adjustments to swings and arm slots are now being made—quite successfully—in laboratories. Independent hitting coaches armed with the latest technology certainly improved Justin Turner’s swing, and turned Cody Bellinger from a good player into a Most Valuable Player. Travis Sawchick raises this point in his September 9, 2019 piece for FiveThirtyEight in an article aptly titled, “Do We Even Need the Minor League Baseball?” Time in “the lab” is time away from meaningless games against inferior competition. Interestingly, however, by reducing the number of minor league players, more attention can be given to those players who will remain in a team’s system, resulting not only in more efficient development, and hopefully, an increase in major league-ready talent, but also higher quality of play throughout the remaining minor leagues.
As the original Baseball America story indicates, the money saved by paying fewer players would be used to increase the salaries of minor leaguers. Major league baseball should have addressed this years ago, but it seems MLB is finally realizing that it is being penny-wise and pound-foolish to invest millions in its most valuable commodity, i.e. the players, and then pay them poorly, feed them poorly, and have them play in decrepit ballparks.
The part of the new proposal that deserves far more attention than it has received is the effect it will have on college baseball, particularly the wooden bat summer leagues. I love college summer baseball, having served on the Board of Directors of the New Market Rebels of Virginia’s Valley Baseball League, and webcasted their games for four years. I wrote a book about that, too. (For the record, it is Safe at Home: A Season in the Valley.) There’s no place like Rebel Park to take in a game, unless it’s League Stadium in Huntingburg, Indiana, the home of the Dubois County Bombers. Such leagues abound with “dusty ballparks” in which some discovery may take place. Nevertheless, as much as I love the wooden bat leagues, college summer ball might be an idea whose time has passed. There are now over 60 leagues and the talent is so thin that the rosters on most teams in most leagues feature only the occasional Division I player, a few Division II players, and a great many local Division III and junior college players. The coaching is sometimes suspect and the facilities are often lacking, as is the umpiring. Teams often struggle to find host families to provide room and board for the players who come to play for their town.
Leagues keep proliferating because owners of college summer teams have one great advantage over the owners of minor league teams—their players command no salaries whatsoever, and they are not on the hook for workman’s compensation insurance. In fact, in the vast majority of leagues, the players have to pay to play. Maybe the best of these leagues, such as the Cape Cod League and the Northwoods League (where an expansion franchise will cost you a cool $1 million) will survive or become part of the Dream League, an idea which is also part of the MLB proposal. Rounding up undrafted college players and paying them, however modestly, to play in what would essentially amount to a showcase league makes eminent sense. The competition would be even and a certain coaching standard would be established. This ultimately benefits the players, which in turn, benefits their potential future employers. Critics may deride the Dream League as the Last Chance League, but that sure beats playing in the No Chance League.
And can we all agree that the current practice of holding the draft in June, before the College World Series has barely begun, is ridiculous on its face?
Today’s major league players go about their craft in vastly different ways than did the generations who proceeded them. Conditioning, strength training, diet, skill-drills, and video study have become a staple of the modern players’ training methods, and it only makes sense that Major League Baseball wants to bring such modern methods to its developing players as well. After all, hot dogs, beer, and Marlboros are no longer part of the post-game spread.
The purpose of the minor leagues is not to entertain the citizens of Hagerstown or any other minor league city. It is to develop players into major leaguers. Given the fact that the players represent a team’s greatest asset and, ultimately, its greatest expense, it is only natural that teams want this talent to develop in the most profitable manner possible, which is to say efficiently and quickly. The entertainment provided to us fans of the minor leagues is a by-product of this development. The only surprising thing about this new proposal is that it hasn’t been proposed sooner.