NEW YORK – They’ve been waiting for Wahoos, standing on Sod Poodles, living their time for biscuits or garbage pandas.
After more than a year of uncertainty and empty ball parks, fans in smaller league cities are finally getting baseball back.
“Baseball in small town, it’s the drug in the United States,” said Brooklyn Cyclones CEO Ed Blankmeyer. “It’s a culture.”
Smaller league teams across the country will open the seasons on Tuesday, and returning baseball to communities denied the old national pastime during the coronavirus pandemic. Capacity will vary by jurisdiction, but for most it will be the first opportunity to see pro players in person since the entire 2020 season was canceled.
Of course, much has changed since the last affiliate matches were played in 2019. There are fewer teams and leagues and Major League Baseball has introduced plans to use minors as a test site for new rules that can improve playing pace or reduce player injuries. .
Much will remain the same. Family-friendly awards, offbeat gifts and outlandish team branding – more on the trash pandas below – remain the key pillars of a smaller league experience.
But for those who are wondering what will be different, here is a primer:
WHO GOES WHERE?
The biggest change, of course, is that MLB contracted minors from 160 affiliates to 120.
Commissioner Rob Manfred’s office took full control of minors after deciding this offseason not to renew the agreement with the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the body that ran the minor league ball.
It gave MLB room to transform minors, and it acted quickly. The short-season leagues were eliminated, as were several affiliations for the entire season, to take 40 clubs out of the equation.
What remains are four levels – Triple-A, Double-A, High-A and Low-A – each with regional names. No more Pacific Coast League, for example – it’s just Triple-A West. Several leagues with over 100 years of history, including the International League (established in 1884), the Texas League (1902) and the Florida State League (1919), are no more.
Three former independent franchises – the St. Paul Saints, Somerset Patriots and Sugar Land Skeeters – were brought into the affiliate ball, meaning 43 clubs lost touch with the pro ranks. Many of them were folded into new summer leagues for university players, drafts of hopeful or independent leagues, and held baseball in these communities in one form or another. Some, however, folded completely.
Several have also rebranded, and just like before the pandemic, they have done so with the signature creativity of minor league baseballs eye-catching creativity.
Mobile BayBears moved to Madison, Alabama, and became Rocket City Trash Pandas – Rocket City for the area’s ties to the space industry, and Trash Pandas as a nod to the area’s smart, mischievous raccoon.
Other clubs with new monikers: Kannapolis has transformed from Intimidators to Cannon Ballers, Wichita inherited a team from New Orleans and called it Wind Surge, and Fort Myers now goes by Mighty Mussels.
IN THE FIELD
Minors will be a test site for several regulatory experiments MLB is considering, including an automated strike zone, defensive positioning restrictions and larger bases.
An automatic ball-strike system will be used in some Low-A Southeast League matches, the highest level to date for the robo zone already tested in the independent Atlantic League and Arizona Fall League. The system has received mixed reviews from players, including complaints about how the system is considering breaking lanes into the zone.
On Double-A, markers must keep both feet on the field at the beginning of each game, although there will not yet be a ban on moving three or more markers to either side of the other base – MLB has not closed the door on banning the switch, though .
The bases on Triple-A will be expanded from 15 by 15 inches to 18 by 18, which MLB hopes will improve the player’s safety and modestly increase stolen bases and infield hits.
The most influential change may come at the lower levels, where MLB will limit the pitcher’s ability to keep base runners. On High-A, boxes will be required to detach completely from the rubber before being thrown to a base, under penalty. In Low-A, boxes only get two attempts per plate appearance. If they try a third and do not record one out, it is a bar.
The Low-A West League will also use timers that were previously used at other levels with additional rules to reduce the length of the game and improve the pace of play.
ON THE PENDANT
At least 1,000 playlists were eliminated when MLB got 40 clubs, but those who are left get at least a pay rise. Prior to the pandemic, the MLB decided to increase smaller league salaries between 38% and 72% – a bump introduced three years after the MLB successfully lobbyed Congress to exempt players from federal minimum wage laws.
Class A players will see their weekly minimum run raised from $ 290 to $ 500. Double-A will jump from $ 350 to $ 600, and Triple-A from $ 502 to $ 700.
For most, the opening day will be their first competitive game since the end of the 2019 season. More advanced players may have had representatives last season at alternative training sites, but most of the players reported for spring training at the end of March after rattling to stay sharp in 2020.
Their experiences varied, with the lucky few who maintained access to fitness facilities and other resources throughout the pandemic. Others got creative – powerlifting with truck parts, boxing on electrical devices, construction of temporary bullfights in the backyard.
At the other end of the spectrum, there were some Venezuelan players who could not return to their conflict-torn homeland locked in team housing and not able to go for several months, not even to the grocery store.
“If you have young boys who need to play baseball, they’re been invalid for almost two years now, they have to get out and play,” said Los Angeles Angels boss Joe Maddon. “This is a time when I really want to be aware of smaller series reports coming. I want to see and hear how our guys are doing. ”
The players say they expect pitchers to be a good deal sharper than hitting early, especially among those who did not go to alternative gyms. Boxes adapted during the closure, and use that time to build speed and develop new paths. Hitters, meanwhile, were hoarded without the chance to get regular bats against high-level pitching.
“Definitely, pitchers are a little ahead right now,” said Mets third baseman Brett Baty.
“I just asked the guys to strike,” said teammate and right-hander Matt Allan, who has told his other pitchers to challenge hitters early and often.
The players are understandably eager to return to the minor leagues, compete against other teams and play in front of the fans.
About the only thing they are not happy about?
“The nine- or ten-hour bus rides,” Allan joked.