Sports Illustrated 

July, 1990

 

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The dawn of the nineties was a fascinating time for the minor leagues, as the entire system was in the middle of a rapid transformation. Though the eighties saw something of a revival in fan interest in the minors, creative branding/promotion, etc., it took time to shake off the “Subsistence Years” in the sixties and seventies, when the minors as we know them were close to simply being quashed out altogether in favor of instructional complexes in static locations.

This revival was given a shot in the arm in the later eighties, due in no small part to the success of Bull Durham, as well as a general uptick in interest in baseball history. By the mid-nineties, the minors were well on their way to the level of vitality that we see today. Sports Illustrated took note of this surge, and in the summer of 1990, devoted essentially an entire issue to the minor leagues.

In the issue, various writers hit all the familiar minor league beats: profiles of prospects struggling to make the Show, older players struggling to hang on to their dream, wacky promotions, stadium negotiations, spinning turnstiles, nostalgia, and even a rudimentary form of the sort of prospect prognostication that baseball fans are saturated with today. There are many photos, long-form articles, info boxes, editorials, etc. On this page, I’ll go through the issue and share some MLG observations.

The teams that are featured prominently in articles include the Medicine Hat Blue Jays, Durham Bulls, Charlotte Knights, Salinas Spurs, Toledo Mud Hens, and Pittsfield Mets. Other teams who are briefly mentioned or appear in snapshots include the Madison Muskies, Clinton Giants, Buffalo Bisons, Columbus Mudcats, Albany-Colonie Yankees, Martinsville Phillies, Reading Phillies, Wausau Timbers, Quad City Angels, El Paso Diablos, London Tigers, Gastonia Rangers, St. Petersburg Cardinals, Portland Beavers, Tacoma Tigers, and Greenville Braves. There are even more teams mentioned peripherally, but in those cases, the team is secondary to the player or the situation described.

Let’s go through it.

 

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A Medicine Hat player is shown on the table of contents page.

 

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The opening article has this amazing photo of the Madison Muskies and Clinton Giants squaring off in a good old fashioned Wisconsin cow-milking contest.

 

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Here’s a close-up of the Muskies being watched by some young fans.

 

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Look at those smiles on the Clinton farmhands in the background.

 

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A shot of the then-shiny, Populous-designed ballpark in Buffalo, now known as Sahlen Field.

 

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Snapshot of a team at the leading edge of the 1990s branding revolution. The article mentions “news” of the team relocating from Columbus, Georgia to North Carolina. The Carolina Mudcats still use that timeless logo today.

 

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Interesting attendance table showing how overall attendance was approaching a mark set in the fifties, when there were 324 teams in 43 leagues. That number seems quaint today, as total attendance perennially tops 40 million.

 

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Oh, the promotions of that era.

 

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And…she’s OK!

 

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Eastern League action between Albany-Colonie and Reading.

 

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In the first article, much of the ink is used on the Durham Bulls, especially their efforts to secure a new stadium in the wake of their exposure from Bull Durham.

 

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The article ends with a quote from Miles Wolff‘s book.

 

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Mike Lieberthal in Rookie ball

 

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A board showing Reading alums who would go on to the majors. That kid’s hat is outstanding.

 

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Peter Gammons evaluates MLB team farm systems.

 

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Martinsville Phillies of the Appy League, playing against the Huntington Cubs (I think).

 

 

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This section is a highlight. A scrapbook of photos from random teams of that time.

 

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The Wausau Timbers were an Orioles affiliate at the time.

 

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Quad City Angels, just a few years before they became the River Bandits

 

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Zeitgeisty giveaway at a Diablos game.

 

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Modern Woodmen Park, then known as John O’Donnell Stadium

 

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The Diablos got more exposure in a 1991 National Geographic feature

 

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Stack of awesome London Tigers shirts.

 

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Wahconah Park hasn’t hosted affiliated ball since 2001. These days, a summer collegiate team uses the stadium, which is now on the US National Register of Historic Places

 

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The long-defunct Gastonia Rangers of the Sally League.

 

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This kid is probably in his forties now.

 

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Great group shot in Gastonia

 

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Some St. Petersburg Cardinals shake it like a polaroid picture

 

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Bagpiper at a Tigers game in London, Ontario

 

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Brewers prospects in El Paso

 

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Medicine Hat Blue Jays story.

 

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Feature story about a 30-year-old named Jamie Nelson trying to hold onto the dream with the Portland Beavers. This shot is taken at Civic Stadium, and the iconic statue of the Jantzen Lady is still displayed at the now soccer stadium. If a ball landed on the lady, the umpire decided how many bases the hitter would get.

 

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Nelson in action

 

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Feature story about Joe Buzas

 

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At that time, Buzas owned the Salinas Spurs of the California League.

 

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The Spurs were a co-op team, and several Japanese players were on the roster each year.

 

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Buzas counts the cash

 

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Scott Chiamparino of the Tacoma Tigers never amounted to much, but plenty of the other players listed in this article did. “With 16 homers, Frank Thomas of Birmingham in the White Sox system may be the best power-hitting prospect in the minors.”

 

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Greenville Braves

 

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Bill Murray had to make an appearance, of course.

 

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Teams mentioned here are the San Bernardino Spirit, Columbia Mets, Bakersfield Dodgers, San Antonio Missions, Stockton Ports, Riverside Red Wave, and Albuquerque Dukes.

 

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A Rochester Red Wing who is descended from Daniel Boone

 

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There was a nice article about the past and present of the fabled Toledo Mud Hens

 

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I love that little mud hen graphic

 

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Cryptic poem in the Toledo locker room

 

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In those days, it was more common to fill out Triple-A rosters with older players who would return year after year.

 

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The issue ends with a write-up about the Pittsfield Mets and Wahconah Park by Daniel Okrent, the man who basically invented fantasy sports. I love how he disses Hall of Famer Craig Biggio

 

 

 

 

 

 

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