Here we are in the midst of a (mostly) baseball-free summer. It’s hard to believe that a mere four months ago, I was apparently excited about the Florida Fire Frogs playing in North Port for the season and the Inland Empire 66ers planning to play a game as the “Cherubs” in May. My, how things change.
Progress on the MLG site continues slowly and surely. It’s funny–in some ways I’ve had more time to work on the site and in some ways I’ve had less time. One factor is that over the last few years, I’ve often worked on the site while listening to MLB games. With no games, it’s rare that I put in more than one continuous hour of work at a stretch. Curious. Either way, it sure is great to have this hobby and I’m always working on something. Or several things.
Since the last OMNI, I revised some old pages, continued work on the DIA with the Rockford Reds, and spent a lot of time on the Columbus Clippers. I put together a live page called Big Four Same-Names that I’ve been meaning to do for years. I ended up taking way more time on it than intended, but I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. That project (especially the Islanders connections) spurred me to complete another long-simmering piece on what I’m calling Nesting Doll Affiliates, when minor league teams used to sometimes have their own farm clubs–such as the Hawaii Islanders and the Walla Walla Islanders. I wasn’t sure if this would be a live page or an article. I think it turned out to be sort of a hybrid of the two. Either way, fun geeky stuff.
Perhaps the most gratifying phenomenon of the last few months is that I have had several (much more than normal) readers reach out to me about various things. Some of these were questions about current minor league goings-on or people asking for help identifying the teams of various memorabilia like caps and jerseys. One fellow (Christopher) pointed out that I had erroneously used an old Buffalo Bisons hockey team logo on my Bisons baseball page. Thanks! Huge thanks to a reader named Brian who provided me with an old article about the Blue Mountain Bears that makes me move the needle from “Unsolved” to “Solved” mystery. I put Brian in touch with David, a BMB fan who emailed me back in the winter and is working on a story about the team that I can’t wait to read. I love talking about teams like the Blue Mountain Bears and it’s so cool to be a part of the inner circle of people who are curious about weird defunct minor league teams. If you’d like to send an email my way, here’s the info.
I have to say that the biggest jaw-dropper for me was getting an email from a gentleman named Don who collected a bunch of minor league caps in the 90s and had six (six!) Pro-Line caps for me to add to the gallery, including four new minor league teams. I suspected that the Drillers and Rainiers caps existed, but the Diablos and Keys were were total newbies to me. My latest revision of that page brings the total up to 83 distinct caps. Huge thanks to Don for helping to curate the MLG collection of Pro-Line dual logo caps.
Speaking of “stuff,” I added a new section that I’m calling “Oddities.” These are just weird things that I want to share with my fellow geeks but don’t really have another venue for on the site. The first oddity I posted is this mind-boggling 1980s-era shirsey made in honor of Hall of Famer Edgar Martínez . You odd-ta check it out.
News of Minor Interest (pandemic version)
As far as I know, the last time the minor leagues were the cover feature for Sports Illustrated was the July 23, 1990 issue. In other words, thirty years ago. But this June, there was the melancholy mascot of the Altoona Curve sitting on the pitchers’ mound of a dark and empty ballpark. I still subscribe to the print edition of SI, and took the time to read the article thoroughly. It mostly touches on the tribulations that minor league teams are going through as a result of the coronavirus pandemic–lost revenue, layoffs, pivoting to food delivery, stadium rental, etc. This is curious to me because even though the minors are definitely being hit hard by the pandemic, so is every other sector in sports. Why focus on the minors?
This is pure speculation, but I think that the article’s author, Robert Sanchez, began with an investigative piece on the contentious 2020 PBA, and then expanded to include the stress of the pandemic. There is a section devoted to the PBA issue, but it’s buried in the article like a marshmallow squashed between two graham crackers. Speaking of which, the timeless image from the feature is the Rocky Mountain Vibes’ s’more mascot wearing a giant mask and delivering curbside takeout at the ballpark. What better encapsulates the state of minor league baseball in 2020? Soon, the Vibes (at least the affiliated version) will be snuffed out of existence. But this image will live on in infamy.
Since April, those public conversations about the upcoming PBA/potential reduction of affiliated minor league teams have quieted considerably. This isn’t surprising given the painfully protracted negotiations between MLB and the Player’s Association about returning the major league product to the field later this summer. The minor league discussions are, well, minor in comparison and have unsurprisingly been moved to the back burner. Now that the basic framework of the season and operating protocol are more or less solidified, I expect rumors to start swirling again. After all, the PBA expires in only three months.
The 2020 minor league season was not officially cancelled until June 30–as I’m completing this post–but MiLB teams started scheduling events and making other arrangements long before the announcement. Several minor league stadiums that are geographically adjacent to major league clubs are being employed as training sites for MLB players on the fringes of the newly expanded rosters–basically places to stash guys who will probably see some big league action this year, but are kept separate from the main squad. This will be the closest thing we’ll see to affiliated minor league baseball this summer. I’m not sure if the teams will use their parent club’s name and uniforms or if they’ll suit up as the local minor league clubs. Without any audience, will they just wear shorts and tank tops? We’ll see.
Teams in markets without a local parent club are forced to get more creative. They’re renting out the ballparks for weddings, drive-in movie nights, etc., and basically doing anything to stay afloat in treacherous times. The Nashville Sounds are hosting MLB free agents to play against each other and try to make their way back to the bigs. There’s a strong sense that any and all options are on the table.
To me, the most interesting phenomenon are the instances in which MiLB sites/teams are being used by or combining with summer collegiate teams in geographic “pods.” The Texas Collegiate League announced that it will be fielding four of its current teams along with six new additions from minor league markets in Texas and Oklahoma. The Texas League’s Frisco RoughRiders and Tulsa Drillers will join as is, while the Amarillo Sod Poodles will be fielding two teams in their sparkly new-ish stadium. Two teams from the Pacific Coast League–the Round Rock Express and San Antonio Missions will join as well, though both are forsaking their usual nicknames in favor of alternate identities they have used in recent years. Round Rock’s team will be called the Hairy Men–one of their “what could have been” nicknames revolving around local legend about a man with lots of hair. San Antonio will play as the Flying Chanclas, their popular Copa de la Diversión alter ego. The rosters will be composed of regional collegiate players instead of the non-existent minor league players.
The lines between the affiliated minor leagues and other “minor league” teams are being blurred in ways that we’ve never seen before. The MLB/MiLB industrial complex has generally ignored the independent and collegiate organizations until some cracks in the wall starting forming last year. First there was MLB’s experiemental partnership with the Atlantic League (robot umps, pitch clock etc.) as well as the long-simmering rumors about independent teams being added to the affiliated ranks. The Sugar Land Skeeters recently left the Atlantic League, perhaps presaging their addition to MiLB. We could chalk this up to a pandemic anomaly (they are fielding a one-park, independent pod with four Sugar Land teams this summer) but the breakaway from the Atlantic League is likely permanent.
The lovable Lansing Lugnuts are launching the two-team Lemonade League for college players. The two teams are the Lugnuts and their Copa alter ego Lansing Locos. One fun touch–they’re using bright yellow baseballs. Kudos to Lansing for having some light-hearted fun. In fact, the Lemonade League sounds wonderful! (Checks Google Maps) Say, Lansing is only a nine and a half hour drive from my home. That’s less than ten hours! (No. No. Put it away. The second wave is coming!)
One pressing question in any discussion about minor league baseball this summer is: what happens with all the players? I won’t go into any talk about the nuts and bolts of prospect development–definitely not my forte–but as long as we’re talking about the fringes of the affiliated minors, I’ll mention that there are hot rumors about the Arizona Fall League significantly expanding and the possibility of a “Florida Fall League.” Basically, the top prospects in given farm systems would have a place to get some reps and continue their development. The AFL currently has six teams that draw from five MLB teams each. Would expansion balloon the league(s) up to single affiliation? Would it just be a bloated late-season version of the Arizona (AZL not AFL) and Gulf Coast Leagues? Would each team have its own unique identity? Would it qualify as “minor league baseball” as we know it? I’ll be keeping an eye on this one.
As for other non-top prospect players, you know, the guys who make up the lion’s share of minor league rosters? They are free to play indy ball if they’d like, though there aren’t many teams to go around. With Covid-19 cases spiking in a number of places around the country this summer, it seems like a lot of logistical rigmarole without much benefit. But there will be plenty of players taking this course. If you lived in Texas, for instance, maybe it’s worth it to join up with one of the four Sugar Land teams and try to keep the dream alive. That’s what we’re all doing, right? Let’s keep the dream alive.
Odds and sods
Beloit has begun construction of a new baseball park. This may be enough to save them from losing their PDC in the new PBA. We’ll see. I’ll dig into that (among other news tidbits) in my next PBA post.
Here’s a cool video compilation of minor league local television commercials from the 80s and 90s. The Baseball Hunter put that one together and it makes for a fun watch.
Here’s a great article about how the Mets logo used to be altered to fit their minor league affiliates. This was one of those articles where I felt a tinge of “I could’ve done that,” but the feeling was quickly washed away by how thoroughly Marc Viquez presented the materials. I’m sure I’ll be referencing it many times as I dig deeper into the DIA. Great stuff.
The new edition of Topps Pro Debut was released. I sure get a lot of joy from getting my one or two hobby boxes each year.
The last thing I’ll share is a cool factoid I happened to come across. I think this came to mind while I was working on the Columbus Clippers page and considering how lucky they were to be affiliated with the Yankees during the 90s. I was thinking about how when an MLB team wins the World Series or has a dynasty, the affiliates sort of get a shimmery trickle-down effect that that can use for promotions for years. I thought I’d look back on who the Triple-A affiliates were for past World Series winners, and I was immediately hit with a startling fact. In the past decade, one Pacific Coast League team was the top level farm club of five (5!) of the ten championship clubs. Even more startling is that they did that with three (3!) different teams. It’s rare enough that a Triple-A team has three parent clubs in ten years, period. This is just wacky. You know the team, right?
That’s right, it’s the Fresno Grizzlies. They were with San Francisco as the Giants won the Series in 2010, 2012, and 2014. Then in the Fall ’14 open PDC season, the Giants harshly abandoned the Grizzlies (in favor of the Sacramento River Cats) and Fresno was stuck with the Houston Astros. Well, then the Astros won their first series in 2017. In the 2018 PDC signing period, Houston abandoned the Grizz in favor of Rock Rock, and the Washington Nationals were notoriously stuck with Fresno. In their first season together, the Nats won the Series. And now, the Grizzlies are expected to be demoted to the California League. Ain’t life a bear sometimes?
That’s all I got for now. Be well.