Many years ago, in the mid-70’s, there was a short-lived movement afoot to bring all MLB player development activities into the “complex mode” at the various spring training sites, thus eliminating the need for an elaborate network of farm clubs scattered across the country.
The thinking was that teams could better control the development of their prospects right in their own complexes. Team executives and scouts could see multiple players and ballclubs every day. Movement of players between levels (i.e. demoting a player from class AA to class A, or promoting a player in the other direction) could be done merely by changing his nameplate on a roster board in the office. No paperwork required, no transporting the guy from the class AA city to the class A location. Heck, he wouldn’t even necessarily have to change his locker in the clubhouse since the entire minor league system uses the one giant locker room in the middle of the complex!
Coaches at all levels could freely communicate with one another on a daily or even minute-by-minute basis. Roving instructors would merely walk between fields to observe the progress of their charges. No travel costs for these guys moving about the country all summer. Better also for the coaches and instructors as they could simply make the city in which the team trains their home. Scheduling would be a breeze, as teams would merely travel a few minutes to the complex of another MLB organization as they were already doing during spring training, extended spring and fall instructional ball. Team travel, as we know it, would be eliminated and transportation, meal money and hotel costs would be minimized.
In a twist of irony, the whole idea was the brainchild of a Houston Astros executive who today finds himself deeply immersed in the antithesis of player development, independent league baseball. (More on that statement another day.)
As we all know, it never happened. Today, MiLB is thriving all across the land. Dozens of beautiful new ballparks have been built to accommodate teams at all levels of minor league baseball, and the trend continues. Beautiful facilities have been built recently in places like Pensacola, FL, Birmingham, AL, Columbus, OH, Omaha, NE, and Reno NV to name a few. New downtown ballparks for MiLB teams will open this coming season in El Paso, TX and Charlotte, NC.
Why is this a good thing? Because minor league baseball is about more than just developing individual player skill sets. It is about more than just “product development.” For one thing, baseball players are human beings, not just “products.” In order to build a winning team, it takes more than just mechanical skill development. It takes the development of a winning mentality. Players must not only hone their swing or their pitching mechanics, but also they must learn what it takes to win at the game’s highest levels.
For a time, many major league player development execs and some scouts would encourage players simply to “put up numbers” all along the way. There was a “don’t worry about the wins and losses, just have good at-bats or pitch good innings” mentality. Sadly, that mind-set still exists in some corners. It is especially prevalent among player representatives (agents) who see good individual statistics as $$ signs.
But gradually, a “light bulb” has been lit in the heads of many with regard to the development of a winning team at the top. Many baseball people now think that it is just as important to teach players how to WIN as it is to fine tune their swing and their mechanics. In other words, an emphasis on winning at every level of their development will create a level of confidence and competitive drive that will carry over when they reach the major leagues. Further, players who play on minor league teams that emphasize winning will learn how to work together and do the little things, the fundamentals that are so well executed by winning teams. The fundamentals are habits that must be developed from the get-go and not just brought to light once a player reaches the top rungs.
All this brings us back to the reason that minor league baseball is good for the people who play the game. It is hard to foster a competitive spirit, a drive to perform and will to win if the games are being played in a complex with a smattering of family and a bunch of scouts and executives in the audience. That environment produces a selfish desire to focus on individual performance only. But when the games are played in ballparks in cities where fans really care about the team and there are hundreds or thousands of cheering fans in the stands, games broadcast on radio, tv and internet, meaningful pennant races and championship celebrations, that’s when players learn to play to win!
Count this writer as one who firmly believes that winning is an institutional habit. That’s a major reason (although not the only reason) why some organizations continue to win year in and year out, while others can never seem to find the keys to the car!
But that’s not the most important reason that minor league baseball really matters. There is one much bigger reason… THE FANS! Last season, MiLB, Independent and Collegiate Summer League baseball was played in some 390 cities and towns across the land. According to statistics, some 51.6 MILLION fans attended games at these ballparks. That is over 50 MILLION people who would have been denied their constitutional right to the pursuit of happiness if we did not have these teams!
Seriously, can you imagine the reduction in interest in the game on a national level if professional baseball were not presented to over 50 MILLION people in nearly 400 cities and towns across North America? Major League Baseball not only needs a healthy and thriving minor league system, it also needs the independent leagues, the summer collegiate leagues, college baseball, high school baseball, youth baseball for all ages and baseball played on sandlots in every town!
Pro baseball scouts are, indeed, the backbone of baseball. Big league executives must keep in mind that without the minors, the colleges, high schools and youth baseball, there would be no talent to scout. If I may take liberties with a portion of “Casey at the Bat” by Ernest Lawrence Thayer, if our grand game is going to continue to thrive, it is vital that the cry of “PLAY BALL” rumble through the valley and rattle in the dell!
John Dittrich is a veteran of 40 years as an executive at all levels of professional baseball, including both affiliated and independent teams. He has been a leader in the development and launch of successful venues and professional baseball franchises around the country. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org follow him on twitter @johndittrich.