June 29, 2022

A Grey Area of Professional Baseball

June 22, 2022 by · Leave a Comment 

If you get a paycheck for performing a task, by definition you have lost your amateur status. Congratulations, you are a professional. But that status is not necessarily desirable.

It’s no secret that MLB players are high-status and minor league players less so. Minor league ball encompasses different strata of status. Some minor leagues rank higher than others. How far down does it go?

You might be familiar with the independent Frontier League. Starting with 8 teams in 1994, it is now composed of 16 teams in two divisions. It is not unusual to find former major leaguers in the independent Atlantic League, which is widely considered to have the highest talent level of any independent league. A cursory scan of the rosters of the teams in the Frontier League, however, will reveal precious few familiar names (e.g., Vin Mazzaro, a veteran of 8 MLB seasons, plays for the Sussex County Miners, and Dan Schliereth, a 4-year MLB veteran, manages the Joliet Slammers).

For the most part, Frontier League rosters are filled with undrafted college players or minor leaguers who washed out before they reached the major leagues. Some who perform well may be re-signed by an MLB team and assigned to an affiliated minor league. On a rare occasion, one of them just might be called up to the big club. By and large, however, at the lower echelons minor league ball-playing is not highly remunerated, high status work.

This is not to say that there are no valuable baseball experiences for fans in the Frontier League. If you were to attend an Evansville Otters game, you would be at Bosse Field, opened in 1915, and the oldest minor league park still in regular use. If you went to a New Jersey Jackals game in Little Falls, New Jersey, you could visit the Yogi Berra Museum at Yogi Berra Ballpark. Or you could go see the Empire State Greys at their stadium in…oh, wait a minute…they don’t have a ballpark. They are a travel team.

If you are not familiar with independent minor leagues, you may not be aware of the concept of a travel team. In MLB and the affiliated minor leagues, there is always an even number of teams. This is desirable since every game requires two teams. If a league has an odd number of teams, then one team will always be left twiddling its thumbs for days at a time. This might not be a big deal in high school ball, but in professional ball it means a loss of revenue.

This was the situation in the Frontier League when the Southern Illinois Miners ceased operations after the 2021 season. The league was left with 15 teams and no applicants to take the place of the Miners. (Curiously, the loss of the SI Miners ended the league’s distinction of having two teams with the same nickname. The Sussex County Miners of New Jersey now have the nickname all to themselves.)

Of course, a league cannot wave a magic wand and make e a team, a ballpark, front office employees, vendors, and a parking lot appear overnight. But they can employ a travel team. Think of such a team as a band of mercenaries. They are hired to do a job, no more, no less. As they have no home, they have no allegiance. Or, if you prefer, frame it as the league hiring a team of temps – but with no prospect of the team going from temporary to permanent.

The travel team is a team without a home. They play their entire schedule on the road. They provide competition but are not expected to be competitive. In truth, their won-loss records tend to be atrocious. A last place finish is all but assured. There is no such thing as a home field advantage. A travel team never bats last, so a walk-off is out of the question. Players never get to sleep in their own beds. They will never see themselves in a team card set. On the plus side, they don’t have to put up with inane questions from hometown sportswriters.

Perhaps the best known travel team is the Atlantic League’s Road Warriors, who have played seven seasons (2002, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2011, and 2018), and may play again in 2023 when the Hagerstown franchise opens for business. The Road Warriors’ records varied from 23-103 in 2004 to 43-83 in 2007.

The American Association has also employed travel teams. The Houston Apollos finished 17-83 in 2021, the Salina Stockade finished the 2017 season at 18-82. In effect, the league “borrowed” these teams, as they were preexisting franchises without a full-time league. Yes, teams can be free agents as well as individual players.

As one might expect, being on a travel team is not what most young men have in mind when they dream of becoming a professional ballplayer. On the other hand, if you have some experience as a ballplayer and you’re willing to put up with adverse working conditions…welcome to our tryout camp.

Before the Greys were homeless, they played in Tupper Lake, New York, as a member of the Empire League. The talent level of the Empire League is well below that of the Frontier League, so even if the Greys had a home field they would be at a disadvantage. Tupper Lake is a town of roughly 6,000 people so their former ballpark is much smaller than its Frontier League counterparts.

It takes a special sort of man to manage a team like the Greys. The man in charge of the Greys is Gil Rondon, who pitched briefly with the Astros (1976) and the White Sox (1979). He also has managed in the minors and served as a coach with team Puerto Rico in the 2006 World Baseball Classic . Surely, he was familiar with how travel teams operated and knew what he was getting himself into.

Even Rondon might not have been prepared for this season, however: literally a no-win situation. The Greys went 0 for May (0-16). Their woes continued through the first half of June. On June 15 they lost 18-8 to the Sussex County Miners, extending their record to 0-27. This sort of record would be unthinkable in MLB; the 1895 Cleveland Spiders, often cited as the worst team in MLB history, managed to win 20 games out of 154.

When the Greys lost to the Miners, they exceeded the MLB losing streak record of 26, set in 1889 by the Louisville Colonels. But they didn’t stop there. On June 19, they lost a double-header to the Trois-Rivieres Aigles to bring their losing streak to 31, which tied the record for the worst losing streak in all of professional baseball history (the 1875 Brooklyn Atlantics). The first game was a 5-4 squeaker (this was only the fifth one-run game for the Greys) but the nightcap was a 13-7 no-doubter. The Aigles scored four runs in the first inning and never looked back.

The Greys’ next game was on June 21, the summer solstice, a time of neopagan revelry in some quarters, but in Little Falls, New Jersey, rain dampened the mood, and the contest between the Greys and the New Jersey Jackals didn’t get underway until darkness had fallen…an omen perhaps? Thanks to the weather, a mere 729 fans were on hand to see if the Greys could do it…or not do it, as the case may be. The venue was most appropriate, since Yogi Berra Stadium was named after the man who gave us the phrase, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

The situation was ripe for drama. The Jackals were not exactly a powerhouse, having a record of 12-18. Unfortunately, it was over early, as the Jackals scored 14 runs in the second inning. Final score: Jackals 16, Greys 9. Thus a new professional baseball record for futility was set: 32 losses in a row. Of course, this also sets a record for a losing streak to start a season.

As you might expect, the Greys’ exceptional season has been a team effort. The statistics show that their record is no fluke. Needless to say, no Grays players are on the leaderboards of hitters and pitchers. The Greys are last in the league in runs (110) and of course RBIs (93), hits (239), doubles (45), home runs (12), extra base hits (64), total bases (334), and stolen bases (17). Their collective slash line of .224/.302/.312 represents the bottom of the barrel in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage.

As for the pitching staff, the league is hitting .328 against the Greys. The team ERA is 9.65. The staff has yielded 188 walks, almost 6 per game.

Strange to say, there are a few bright spots on the team. Hiroki Itakura is hitting .328 but he has played in only 15 games. Liam McArthur is hitting .304 and is tied for the team lead in hits (with Jordan Holloman-Scott, who leads the team in RBIs with 17) with 28. Will Decker is hitting .294, and Trey Woolsey .286. Unfortunately, the five aforementioned hitters have just one home run (struck by Woolsey) among them.

The team leaders in home runs are Jordan Holloman-Scott, Tyler Hill, and Willie Estrada with two apiece. But what can you expect from a team with a shortstop named John Benevolent, hardly a name to strike fear in the hearts of Frontier League pitchers (appropriately enough, his hometown is Niceville, Florida). He’s hitting a mere .217 with more at-bats (115) than anyone else on the team. I think we can assume he earns his pay with his leather, not his lumber.

Obviously, since the Greys have not won a game, we can ignore the hurlers’ won-lost records. I don’t know if the Greys have a bonafide pitching rotation, but Connor Maguire has started the most games (6) and has an ERA of 7.27. Thomas Derer and Luis Pacheco have started five games each and have identical ERAs of 8.76. Remarkably, Jesus Rosario and Franklyn Hernandez appeared in nine games despite ERAs above 15.00.

As you might have figured, not all of the above players are still on the roster. To date, 54 players have appeared for the Greys.

There is one bright spot, however. Reliever Holden Bernhardt has a 0.64 ERA in 12 appearances. In 14 IP he has struck out 26. Sounds like a hard-core closer…but there’s nothing to close!

Since June is more than two-thirds over, the prospect of the Greys going 0 for June is not out of the question. The Frontier League season runs through Labor Day, so the worst case scenario is an 0-96 record.

Now I fully understand the dilemma of independent leagues when faced with an odd number of teams. Is it better to persevere with an odd number of teams or to serve up a homeless, sub-par team as a sacrificial lamb? The sad case of the Empire State Greys is an extreme example, but are there no alternatives?

There are any number of minor league ballparks that have been vacated over the years. Couldn’t one of them serve as a home field for a year? This is not a hypothetical situation. During the pandemic, the American Association had a problem franchise in the Winnipeg Goldeyes. Canadian Covid restrictions forbade attendance at sporting events at the start of the 2021 season. As I recall, foreign travel was restricted so American teams couldn’t get there anyway.

So the Goldeyes worked a deal at a former Double-A city (the franchise had been cut loose when MLB downsized its minor league operations), Jackson, Tennessee. Obviously, it was a short-term solution, but at least it gave the Goldeyes a place to call home till they could return to Winnipeg. I have to believe that given a choice, a prospective player would prefer this setup to a season of road games. More than likely, the prospect of being able to spend half the season in one place, even if it is a home away from home, would have a positive effect on the players’ performance and the team might even approach respectability.

In fact, MLB did the same thing in 2021when the Blue Jays played regular seasons games at their spring training park in Dunedin, Florida, and in Buffalo at Sahlin Field, the home of their Triple-A affiliate.

A one-season sojourn at a substitute ballpark at least buys the league some time. In fact, it would not be a bad way for an independent league to audition cities for future franchises.

That would take care of the home park problem, but what about the players? How could a roster be compiled? A travel team is in no position to scout and sign players. For that reason, the league should hold an expansion draft. Of course, the team would clearly be inferior but it would surely be better than the 2022 Empire State Greys. The 1962 New York Mets, long considered the worst expansion team in MLB history, at least won one game out of four. A record like that would look pretty good to the Greys right now.

Too late to help the 2022 Empire State Greys, however. Their service (I am tempted to type in “servitude”) is a form of self-sacrifice. Granted, it doesn’t rise to the level of a first responder running into a burning building to save a child, but the Frontier League and its 15 franchises owe the Greys more than they could ever repay. Attention should be paid…but aside from this article, it probably won’t be.

Maybe by the time you read this, the Empire State Grays will have won a game…or two…or three. It won’t be headline news in your local sports section or breaking news on ESPN, however.

Given the old “man bites dog” journalism maxim, maybe it should be.

astrosdaily.com
baseballreference.com
empirestategreys.com
frontierleague.com/information/History
greatest21days.com
statscrew.com/minorleaguebaseball/standings/I-AA
wikipedia.com

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