June 15, 2021

The Titanic Hits Bottom

May 17, 2021 by · 4 Comments 

We got on Amtrak yesterday, hoping to find out just how bad the Nationals minor league organization actually has become. Our destination: Wilmington, Delaware, home of the High-A Blue Rocks. Almost every outlet that judges minor league talent, deems Washington’s the worst in the game. After our trip to Wilmington, it is fair to say that the Titanic, resting at the bottom of the north Atlantic, looks better.

Numerous outlets, including Baseball American voted the Washington Nationals minor league organization the worst in baseball at the end of the 2020 season. Without minor league games being played, the assessment was an abstract. No one knew how bad bad could be. As a devoted fan, one who was seen minor league baseball played from sea to shining sea, I set out to discover what a bad organization looks like up close. I was ready to defend the home town nine. Like Joe Biden, I got two Amtrak tickets from Washington to Wilmington, Delaware, and went to see the Wilmington Blue Rocks play, searching with a friend for answers to life’s more vexing questions.

The 2021 minor league season is the first that will be played under the newly diminished minor league structure dictated by the MLB, Inc., as administered by Rob Manfred, the commissioner  Operating under the cloak of pandemic distress, Manfred has shrunk the footprint of minor league baseball by roughly twenty percent. There is no New York-Penn League any longer, no short season ball of any kind. That and other decisions mean dozens of small cities where baseball was a saving grace–where fathers could take their children to see the game played–are now bereft.

At a SABR meeting some years ago, the director of marketing for Minor League Baseball, made a presentation about who goes to see minor league games. There are far more women and children who attend minor league games. The average person at a minor league game cannot tell you the score when they exit the park. They are not there to keep score. They are there to see baseball, but only as a local source of cheap family entertainment–something that is disappearing as well. The reach of minor league baseball was deep and wide. It brought the game to far more places, and many more people watched it. Only a fool would think that getting rid of minor league baseball teams was a way to improve the financial health of the game long term.

That down-market brand of baseball was certainly in evidence in Wilmington. Small children were everywhere. They sported tiny baseball gloves, caps and jerseys that they proudly wore because they are learning the game, learning its importance to those close to them. I grew up watching minor league baseball as the only means of seeing professionals play. My trip to Wilmington, like all of those I have taken to minor league stadiums over the past fifty years, was one of remembrance, of loyalty to an ideal.

As a boy the star players I watched were Curt Flood, Donn Clendenon and Deacon Jones, all of whom began their careers at old Grayson Stadium in Savannah, Georgia. Visiting teams brought stars like Hank Aaron. If you can see the trend there, then you can appreciate the many things a young boy could learn about life in a minor league ball park in the 1950’s. When a court order forced Grayson Stadium to provide integrated seating in the early 1960’s, the city chose to close the stadium rather than comply. Baseball was a rich education, and minor league parks were an essential proving ground.

The new, re-invented minor league baseball product has lost some of that rich character and historic flavor. MLB, Inc has attempted to make it look as though the teams were cut out like paper dolls. Schedules are rigidly similar. There are almost no day games. Minor league ballparks were close and intimate affairs, especially the older parks. You could almost reach out and touch the players, and where that reality existed, there was no controversy or concern for the safety of the players.

Besides Grayson Stadium, one of my favorite parks was in Kissimmee, Florida, where the Houston Astros trained during the spring. I remember one day with remarkable clarity. The teams were warming up on the field, the players moving in and out of the clubhouses down the right field foul line. A group of Hispanic fans stood along a three foot high rail that defined the lower bowl seating, inches from the action, calling out in Spanish to Jose Cruz, then the Astros first base coach, and Cito Gaston, then a manager with the Toronto Blue Jays (who trained at the equally intimate field in Dunedin). Whatever was being said by the fans necessitated a defense from Gaston and Cruz. First Cruz and then Gaston came over. Soon, an entourage of players and fans was gathered, everyone laughing as they jousted about the game they love.

Watching the game in Wilmington, the height of the walls separating the fans from the players was almost uniformly seven feet or more off the playing surface. It made any real interaction between fans and players prohibitive. And yet, despite those distances and for all of the mask wearing and social distancing still in effect, the game was a delight to behold. New to Judy Johnson Field, at Frawley Stadium in Wilmington, we mistakenly entered the stadium via an elevator that was for press. Not knowing our error, we hit concourse level and began to ascend. A staff person got on at the first stop and asked my friend who we were. “He’s Maris; I’m Mantle,” he answered. The man laughed, and we talked about our 1961 season, then got off at the main concourse grinning widely. He told us we should wait until the stadium was officially open to ticket holders several minutes later, and so we stood chatting with other ballpark staff until they went to their stations for the gates to open.

As a vendor poured me a Sam Adams from a tap, he explained that many who work at the park are volunteers. The good cheer and friendly banter were remarkably different than what one encounters occasionally at some Major League parks. One goes through metal detectors because fans cannot be trusted. The dividing line between the major league experience and the minor league one, is the level of investment by the very wealthy. The ownership in Wilmington was visible in the free program. They did not look like billionaires, no disrespect intended. In Wilmington, unfortunately, the level of investment was all too apparent for an organization that has hit bottom–like the Titanic.

The Wilmington Blue Rocks are playing .500 baseball. They are the gem of the Nationals organization. The top four prospects–as determined by Baseball America–play in Wilmington. The fans who stayed until the final out were treated to a five-run rally that made the home team 7-6 winners. It does not get better than that. But it gets considerably worse.

The Fredericksburg Nationals, the organization’s low-A affiliate–playing just an hours drive from Nationals Park, have yet to win a game. They have played twelve and lost twelve. Triple-A Rochester is 2 and 10, Double-A Harrisburg is 4 and 8. Overall the organization sports a winning percentage of .250. In the Baseball America article assessing the Nationals minor league talent, they opine that only in 2007 has the team’s minor league affiliates been so bereft of top-tier talent. They are being kind.

In 2007 I was just getting started at Seamheads.com. I was eager to test the boundary between baseball blogger and baseball writer. The Harrisburg team allowed me in the dugout prior to a game to interview John Stearns, the former Mets catcher who was the manager at the time for the Harrisburg Senators. Playing for Stearns at the time were Roger Bernadina, John Lannan, and others who eventually enjoyed brief Major League careers. The current talent level at the minor league level for Washington is worse. Maybe not much worse, but it stings more for some reason. Those days of low expectations are gone.

The starting pitcher for the Blue Rocks was Joan Adon, ranked by BA as the 24th best player in the organization. No doubt that ranking is reflective of the 96-97 mph fastball that he flashed in the first inning. It was the only pitch he could get over the plate. He rarely threw a breaking ball and never for strikes. By the second inning the fastball was at 94-95 and headed south. He gave up six runs in five innings. Yasel Antuna is a Dominican shortstop whom the Nationals signed for $3.9 million in 2016. He is the fourth best prospect in the Nationals organization. FOURTH! He was widely regarded as a blue ribbon talent similar to Juan Soto. He is still playing High-A baseball five years after signing, and seems over-matched there. He struggled to make contact in every at bat and swung at everything the Jersey Blue Crabs’ pitcher served up. Antuna is hitting a lusty .029, and I had better strike zone judgement as an 11-year old. I rarely took a swing unless there were two strikes on me. I was working the count for a walk, my only hope of getting on base. Antuna might want to consider that approach.

Despite the uneven level of play, experiencing minor league baseball is still one of the game’s great rewards. Rob Manfred has been unable to stamp out the hospitality of small town America and it is unlikely he can. I am looking forward to another trip to see minor league baseball at the end of the month. The drive to Bowie, MD–where the Orioles Double-A affiliate plays–is less demanding, and the talent is better. I hope to see you there. Y’all come.

 

Comments

4 Responses to “The Titanic Hits Bottom”
  1. Jim Emery says:

    Nice article Ted.

    You really can’t blame the realignment on Manfred. He would not have done it unless the MLB clubs wanted it to happen.

    Let us know when you are going to Bowie.

  2. Peter D'Amour says:

    Nothing could beat the fan experience of watching the Frederick Keys play their first season at an old run down Babe Ruth Park in Frederick Md. ” Build us a new stadium or we will leave Frederick” so city did just that. That season we sat down the first or 3rd base line in folding chairs watching behind a short chain link fence. Caught 4 foul balls in a span of an hour by the beer tent where draft beer was a buck. David Segui, Luis Mercedes, Ben McDonald all made the show from that team and were very friendly guys emerging from a portable dressing trailer staged in outside the right field fence. Must have made 20 home games that first year. I coached youth ball all the way to High School Head Coach with my son in tow who played D-1 Baseball and now is head Coach in D-1. We both conclude that first season of the Keys beat any fan experience we ever had in any sport.

  3. Ted Leavengood says:

    Jim, MLB, Inc. just seems more aggressive under Manfred. True, the owners have the ultimate say, but… Maybe I just have a thing about management lawyers. Going to Bowie next Thursday. Love to meet you there or drive you around the Beltway from my house.

  4. Ted Leavengood says:

    Peter, it is interesting to know that background on Frederick. Certainly a disappointment to all of us in the DC metro area who love the game. I have spent many nights at Frederick, was willing to battle traffic on 270 to get there. I used to tell my wife she could bury me in that cemetery so I could hear the roar of the crowd. Guess I need a new directive. One of my favorite baseball stories was when Seamheads had podcasts back a decade ago. I interviewed Mike Derereaux, then the hitting coach, in the dugout for our podcast, “Outta the Parkway.” Devereux had a Great Dane that he kept in the dugout. Frigging dog was huge and we sat on stools while we talked. The dog had his face even with mine the whole time. It was impossible not to laugh.

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