Minor league contraction loses home

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Las Vegas Ballpark, 11 April 2019, taken by the author while watching a game between the Sacramento River Cats and the Las Vegas Aviators.

Minor league baseball is an apprenticeship rough as often as ready for professional baseball players, coaches, and managers alike. But for fans it’s a pleasure that still evokes simplicity and the absence of the country’s and the world’s cacophonies and calamities.

I’ve had that pleasure numerous times in my sixty-four years. I’ve had it seeing the Omaha Royals (long since re-named the Storm Chasers) in the 1980s; the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons (known since 2007 as the SWB Yankees) in the early 1990s; the now-defunct Fullerton Flyers (in Goodwin Field, on the campus of Cal State Fullerton) in the Aughts; and, since 2009, the Las Vegas 51s-turned-Aviators, first in creaky Cashman Field and, as of this year, in spanking new Las Vegas Ballpark.

You watch a game and its pleasures and pangs and remind yourself now and then that you’re seeing guys do something that afternoon or evening that mean the fateful phone call bringing them up to the Show. You think to yourself that, God and His servant Stengel willing, there just might be a future Hall of Famer on that field, on that mound, at that plate.

You think that a win for your team would be wonderful fun but it won’t grant them a place in the Elysian Fields’ honour roll of eternal grand champions. But neither do you think that, when your team loses, it means what it meant to too many a Phillie, a Cub, or a Red Sox fan for too many generations—“They came for our fathers, and now the sons of bitches are coming for us.”

Chattanooga, Tennessee baseball fans have had those pleasures since the year (1909) the Hudson Motor Car Company was born. A fan contest named the team the Lookouts, after adjacent Lookout Mountain. Hudson died in 1957. The Lookouts and 41 more of minor league baseball’s 160 teams may die like Hudson (the Cars film series notwithstanding) after next season if the Show has its way.

If you saw or heard about plans to exterminate those teams and you were unamused by the prospect, as many are, you may not be happy knowing the plot was another Astros brainchild. I didn’t know that, either, until I had a gander at Bill Madden in the New York Daily News, who wrote of it last Friday morning with the same lack of amusement.

Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred showed major league owners the plan “a few months ago,” Madden wrote, with the approving vote unanimous. Madden wrote that  the idea was conceived by Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and supported swiftly enough by two teams whose general managers once worked under Luhnow in Houston: the Brewers (Mike Elias) and the Orioles (David Stearns).

Brilliant. Not only are the Astros at the core of a scandal involving unlawful high-tech, electronic, from-off-the-field cheating, they’re at the bottom of a plan to vaporise 26 percent of grass roots baseball in four short-season rookie- and A-level leagues (the New York-Penn League, the Appalachian League, the Northwest League, and the Pioneer League) and several more at the A and AA levels.

“The rest of the [major league] teams,” Madden wrote, “apparently just said ‘OK’ without any discussion of the ramifications of such a drastic attack on the minor leagues and all these communities across the country.”

The Astros themselves stepped ahead of that particular curve after their 2017 World Series triumph, cutting their minor league affliated teams from nine to seven with the elimination of one of two Dominican Summer League affiliates and their Greenville (Tennessee) Astros in the Appalachian League.

Aside from those mentioned, these are the teams on the hit list:

Appalachian League (Rookie, advanced)—Bluefield Blue Jays, Bristol Pirates, Burlington Royals, Danville Braves, Elizabethton Twins, Greeneville Reds, Johnson City Cardinals, Kingsport Mets, Princeton Rays.

California League (A, advanced)—Lancaster Jethawks.

Carolina League (advanced A)—Frederick Keys.

Florida State League (advanced A)—Daytona Tortugas, Florida Fire Frogs.

Midwest League (A, full season)—Burlington Bees, Clinton LumberKings, Quad Cities River Bandits.

New York-Penn League (A, short season)—Auburn Doubledays, Batavia Muckdogs, Connecticut Tigers, Lowell Spinners, Mahoning Valley Scrappers, State College Spikes, Staten Island Yankees, Vermont Lake Monsters, Williamsport Crosscutters.

Northwest League (A, short season)—Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, Tri-City Dust Devils.

Pioneer League (Rookie, advances)—Billings Mustangs, Grand Junction Rockies, Great Falls Voyagers, Idaho Falls Chukars, Missoula PaddleHeads, Ogden Raptors, Orem Owlz, Rocky Mountain Vibes.

Southern League (AA)—Jackson Generals.

South Atlantic League (A, full season)—Hagerstown Suns, Lexington Legends, West Virginia Power.

Madden wrote that that, according to calculations from minor league baseball itself, would amount to disappearing over two thousand combined years of minor league baseball history. Peabody and Sherman never bypassed that much of the world’s doings and undoings on their Waybac Machine travels.

What made the Astros think about it in the first place? Analytics. The very thing that helped turn them from also-rans to the powerhouse they are. They’ve exposed the side of analytics that its critics abhor and makes even supporters of sabermetrics (like me) cringe. I can find no better description than that from Field of Schemes writer Neil deMause:

As the Astros execs’ thinking went, advanced analytics (i.e., grading players based on such things as using high-speed cameras to measure body mechanics) could replace watching young players play actual baseball, saving the trouble of having to pay so many of them to do so. (Not that this is a huge expense — an entire single-A roster can be had for about $600,000 a year—but again, the Astros are all about exploiting every advantage.) And . . . why should they have to compete against teams like the New York Yankees whose owners were willing to keep minor league teams stacked up like cordwood?

The common good of the game is seen too often as making money for it. Now comes a curlicue once the reserve of science fiction, the common good of the game reduced to applied science and reducing the volume of actual baseball games. This isn’t exactly what Hall of Fame manager John McGraw had in mind when he rhapsodised about “scientific baseball.”

Applying advanced analysis toward helping players improve their games and thus teams improve their competitive standings is one thing. So is applying it sabermetrically toward giving you, Joe and Jane Fan, the most complete possible view of players and games you didn’t get to see. (Ponder: 2,430 major league baseball games are played every season. Maybe five times that many are played in the minors now.)

But they won’t tell you about the people playing those games. They won’t tell you why baseball isn’t really a game of seventy percent failure (seek and ye shall find, I promise you) and, most important, why some baseball players know how to shake away their shortfalls and others don’t. Lessons learned or re-learned in the minor leagues, most of the time.

Minor league crowds are a far more accepting, far less judgmental lot than Show audiences tend to be. And you may also think, above and beyond the game you watch on the field, that the guys on those teams are learning things other than the play itself. Things like why some minor league teachers miss when it comes to teaching players what minor league fans usually understand, that failure isn’t mortal sin.

A minor league team that doesn’t teach those things in hand with the play of the game is a minor league team that gets overhauled, not contracted. And when they don’t teach those things, it means disaster in the Show, where to err is human but to forgive isn’t always Joe and Jane Fan’s (or Journalist’s) policy.

Do you remember Calvin Schiraldi? Once a Met, then a Red Sox. Promising relief pitcher. Came back up late 1986 as the Sox’s bullpen stopper. Imploded fatefully in the World Series. Hung with the no-heart label.

When Mike Sowell wrote One Pitch Away: The Players’ Stories of the 1986 LCS and World Series, one of the players Schiraldi, as textbook a case of self-punishment for failure as you can find from his time. Sowell probably should have won some sort of prize for getting Schiraldi to talk at all, considering the former righthander liked reporters as much as Donald Trump likes criticism.

Sowell got Schiraldi to own up to his wounding flaw, the one flaw above all that kept him from sustained pitching success: “I liked it when I did well. But when I did bad, I took more things to heart than just blowing games off. I mean, if you lose, I took it to heart. Or, if I blew a save for a starter, I took it to heart. That’s probably what hurt me the most.”

That wasn’t exactly uncommon knowledge before Sowell. But it came second hand, so far as I knew. Months after that 1986 Series ended, Thomas Boswell ultimately revealed there was one Red Sox determined not to let Schiraldi sink himself after an earlier playoff loss. “It’s Schiraldi who got so down on himself that it worried me,” said fellow Red Sox (and fellow ex-Met) reliever Joe Sambito. “After he lost . . . I told him, ‘Calvin, you’re the best we have. Put it out of your mind. You can be the hero tomorrow.’ And he was.”

Sambito referred to Schiraldi’s blown save in Game Four of the ’86 ALCS against the Angels. The following night, Schiraldi nailed the extra-inning save set up when ill-fated Donnie Moore—whose eventual suicide came from far more than just one unforgiven (by Angel fans or himself) game failure—surrendered a tying two-run homer to Dave Henderson when the Angels were a strike away from going to the Series.

With the Red Sox an out from winning Game Six and the ’86 Series, Schiraldi gave up three softly-hit Mets singles in a row, the third of which brought the Mets to within a run of tying. Schiraldi was lifted for Bob Stanley. Stanley threw the wild pitch that should have been ruled a passed ball to let the tying run score. And then came the grounder heard ’round the world, skipping through Bill Buckner’s ankle-ruined legs to score the winning Met run. “So what happened after Schiraldi’s defeat in [World Series] Game Six?” Boswell wrote the following February in spring training.

He came back the next day ready to redeem himself. And it rained. He had a day to sit in a New York hotel room and think. When Schiraldi took the mound in the seventh inning of the seventh game, score tied, he was a wreck. Ray Knight, the first batter, hit a home run.

Things like that usually get tended, treated, and re-tended and re-treated in the minors, before you get to the Show—if you get there. Bad enough that Schiraldi’s minor league coaches may have missed them. Things like that are beyond the pay grade of the most deft analyst, technician, or applied scientist, on the Astros’ or any other baseball organisation staff. If the ’86 Red Sox were that advanced, they still couldn’t have saved Schiraldi from himself.

Maybe that’s why Ken Giles went from outstanding closer to 2017 World Series failure to wreck and to Toronto during the following season. The Astros could and probably did give him every analytical edge possible to take to the mound. When Corey Seager, Justin Turner, and Cody Bellinger ruined him in World Series Game Four to break a one-all tie in the ninth, Giles was shattered.

And, maybe alone, no matter that no less than George Springer sprang to his defense after the game. “This game’s hard. They’re not out there trying to fail,” Springer said after that game. “I hope [manager A.J. Hinch] keeps giving ’em the ball. I have the utmost confidence in them, and I’m glad they’re on my team.” Springer might have but Hinch didn’t. Giles was never seen again in that Series.

The following season, a couple of bad outings turned into a couple of bad meltdowns and Giles’s trade to the Blue Jays (for, controversially, Roberto Osuna), where he regrouped and posted an enviable 2019 despite a couple of injuries.

Don’t make the mistake of saying the pressure of the games or the postseason themselves got to either Giles or Schiraldi. Young men who don’t get taught or re-taught that failing in a game isn’t a mortal sin beat themselves no matter whether it’s a season opening series or the World Series.

Maybe Henderson was onto something when he once said, “This is a game. It’s not life and death. It should be fun.” Hell, he’d had to remind himself in that very ALCS Game Six: earlier, before his dramatic bomb, he tried snagging Bobby Grich’s fly with a flying leap, but the ball tipped off his glove and over the center field fence for a two-run homer.

Henderson wasn’t really the superstar he appeared for brief moments in that postseason; he was a useful journeyman in a respectable fourteen-season major league career. But he endured precisely because he knew failure didn’t have to be the end of the world as he knew it. And just maybe the easygoing Hendu got the proper reinforcement on that approach in the minors.

If you think that’s just a voice from the grave (Henderson died of a heart attack two months after a kidney transplant in 2015), maybe you’ll listen to Casey Mize, 2018’s number one draft pick overall. “I think failure is part of it and needs to be part of it,” said Mize—after throwing eight shutout innings at the Bowie Bay Sox for the Erie Sea Wolves (AA, Tigers affiliate)—about player development. “I see positives in being forced to fail.”

The minors aren’t anywhere near perfect. There’ll always be those players who don’t advance for assorted reasons and those reasons don’t all include analytic failure. There are injuries that curtail careers, there are boundless external issues, and there are mindsets that let the sense of fun die too soon when they realise professional baseball is the serious work of play.

One of the issues believed to be animating the contraction plan is ballpark conditions. As in, ballparks not up to major league standards. As in, the distinct whiff of potential litigation from minor league towns where taxpayers got the bill for upgrading the parks or building new ones entirely. But as Madden observed, if so many minor league parks aren’t up to snuff, why did the Show let the Cubs and the Pirates play a regular-season game in Williamsport last year? And why would they let the Red Sox and the Orioles do likewise next year?

Another may well be minor league conditions. The Show’s spinning, as Madden calls it, includes that the contraction plan is also aimed at “improv[ing] ‘wellness’ for the minor leaguers in terms of travel and living conditions,” though noticeably not in terms of their salaries, which should be redressed.

Many of the teams targeted for contraction, Madden added, “are grass roots baseball towns where most of baseball’s biggest stars passed through (and developed a forever fan base) on their way to the majors.”

An official from one of the teams in the Pioneer League, where most of the teams are in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, put it to me this way: “This is the only way people in these towns can see baseball. They can’t afford to drive a thousand miles to Seattle. And you’re talking about young fans . . . You take their teams away and baseball has lost them forever.

Dodger pitcher Walker Buehler thinks one key minor league issue is too many players there. “At any affiliate, there are three players who have a chance to play in the majors,” he told FiveThirtyEight. “The rest of the players are there so they so they can play. I don’t think that’s fair. You are preying on their dreams.”

It may not be as simple a scenario as Buehler seems to think, that minor league teams and their major league overseers prey on too many dreams unlikely to come true. And speaking of dreams, the Show has a plan for those minor league owners who lose their teams if the contraction plan flies: what it calls a Dream League, an independent league operated by the Show at minimal cost.

Madden, however, noticed a big problem with that idea:

In addition to stadium maintenance and taxes which they’re already paying, the cost of players, managers, coaches, trainers, and equipment people’s salaries and workers comp insurance would now all fall on the owners—between $350,000-$450,000 per year. When it was pointed out by minor league negotiators there was no way these minor league owners, after losing all the equity in their teams, could then afford to own a “Dream League” team, the MLB response was: “Well, they didn’t pay all that much for their teams in the first place, so it’s only paper money.” Tell that to David Glass, who bought the Kansas City Royals in 2000 for $96 million and recently sold them for $1 billion. Or as one minor league negotiator told me: “I guess that means it’s OK they should be punished for being good business operators.”

They and their fans will be punished just by losing their teams at all. Bristol, Tennessee has been in business in the minors since the sinking of the Lusitania. (1918.) Assorted South Atlantic Leagues (known colloquially as the Sally Leagues) have existed since Hoover Dam. (1936, though the dam was born as Boulder Dam.)

The Jackson Generals were once known as the Memphis Chicks—born with the Southern Association in the year (1901) New York became first in the nation to mandate license plates and the American League declared itself a major league; producing the Southern Association’s one-armed league Most Valuable Player, Pete Gray, in 1944.

That’s just a peek at the history that stands to be lost, in hand with the pleasures of baseball itself on the field, for millions of fans who can’t reach the Show except on television or radio or the Internet.

“Baseball is quintessentially American,” wrote A. Bartlett Giamatti before he became a baseball official himself,

in the way it tells us that much as you travel and far as you go, out to the green frontier, the purpose is to get home, back to where the others are, the pioneer ever striving to come back to the common place. A nation of migrants always, for all their wandering, remembers what every immigrant never forgets: that you may leave home but if you forget where home is, you are truly lost and without hope.

The Show’s minor league contraction can be taken, then, as evidence that those who run it forget where home is for millions of fans, and that it takes more than scoring runs to come home.

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