Minor League Opening Day

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While Opening Day for the major leagues has come and gone, minor league baseball has yet to begin. Players today will board buses and head to their facilities to start the next step in their journey toward the majors. Brandon Magee lets us know all we need to know about minor league opening day.

When does the baseball season begin? That question has many answers. For many New Englanders, the answer is “Truck Day”, a harbinger of baseball to come much as Punxsutawney Phil is a precursor to Spring. “Pitchers and Catchers” has its adherents as does the “Full Squad” reporting day. First exhibition game against a local college?  First games of the grapefruit and cactus leagues? Of course, there is the popular answer, “MLB Opening Day” – now stretched over two days for maximum media exposure.

However, my answer is different – the baseball season begins today. For today, minor-league baseball begins anew. Earlier this week, a mere 30 major-league clubs in two leagues starring only 750 players started their slate. Today, ten leagues begin play. 120 teams – 3000 players (give or take). All battling to move to the next rung on the ladder, hoping to be one of the 750.

MLB, like most professional leagues in the United States, is based in population centers. This is logical, of course, as it would hardly make sense if the Cincinnati Reds were based in Phil, Kentucky, or the Atlanta Braves called Garfield, Georgia, home. However, this reality means that large swaths of the nation have no tangible connection to the teams they root for. Take a look at the following map, which shows just how much of the country lies far, far away from any MLB team.

Do Idahoans really want to root for the Mariners? Do Dakotans have no choice but to root for the Twins? Do Carolinians need to learn “the chop” by birthright? Is New England “Red Sox Nation” by default? If not for the expansion of teams to Colorado and Arizona, the Rocky Mountains would be without Major League Baseball. Talk about your Coastal Bias!

Minor League Baseball, on the other hand, embraces the void. Carolinians have a dozen teams they can root for starting today – from Asheville to Winston-Salem in the North, from Charleston to Myrtle Beach in the South. Mainers get to cheer for the Sea Dogs, Granite Staters can call on the Fisher Cats, Rhode Islanders can go to PawSox games and Nutmeggers can enjoy the twitter feed of the Wandering Yard Goats as they wait for Hartford to finish the stadium. Only Vermonters have to wait for their team as the Lake Monsters – of the short-season New York-Penn League – don’t start up until June. Although Idahoans will also have to wait until June, when the short-season Pioneer League begins, they will have multiple teams to choose from – the Boise Hawks or the Idaho Falls Chukars.

In fact, just six states will be without either MLB or MiLB teams during the heat of the summer. Hawaiians will have to be content to live in a tropical paradise. Alaskans will have to settle for some of the premier college players coming to their state. Kansans can take pride that their state’s name is part of the World Series Champions, even though the Royals reside in Missouri. Dakotans will have to make do with the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks and the Sioux Falls Canaries of the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball – teams unaffiliated with MLB. Wyomingites have been without minor league baseball, affiliated or independent, since the Casper Ghosts escaped to haunt Grand Junction, Colorado. How these Wyomingites make it through baseball season, I can not fathom.

Talking about names, MLB is downright boring. Four teams were initially identified by the color of their hosiery – Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds (Red Legs) and, before they went ornithological, the St. Louis Cardinals. The New York Yankees had a much better name when they were the Highlanders. The Tampa Bay Rays were far more interesting when named after the devilish fish than a thousand points of light. And have the citizens of Los Angeles ever had to dodge a trolley? (They have? It still doesn’t excuse the Lakers.)

Only in Minor League Baseball can you find teams named after food – the Montgomery Biscuits, the Modesto Nuts, the Cedar Rapid Kernels, and the Hillsboro Hops. Teams named after pop culture – The Simpsons-inspired Albuquerque Isotopes, the Kannapolis Intimidators tribute to Dale Earnhardt, the Augusta GreenJackets incorporation of the hometown golf tournament and the Rocky-and-Bullwinkle nod of the Richmond Flying Squirrels. Insects are the most populous animals on earth, but they get no love in the majors. Yet in the minors, we have Fireflies in Columbia, SC – who were the Sand Gnats in Savannah–  Bees in Salt Lake and Burlington, and Grasshoppers in Greensboro. Miami may have the Marlins, but the minors spread the love of ocean creatures from Mudcats (Carolina), Manatees (Brevard County) and Snappers (Beloit), to Crawdads (Hickory), Tortugas (Daytona), and Stone Crabs (Charlotte). Inanimate objects? Sure, the Colorado Rockies are named after the mountain range, but the Tacoma Rainiers existed eons prior to the Rockies. The minors also bring us TinCaps (Fort Wayne), Blue Rocks (Wilmington), Spikes (State College), Lugnuts (Lansing), and Emeralds (Eugene). And then there are names so perfect, so quintessential, there could never have been any alternative. Could Reno be anything other than the Aces? Could the Missions reside outside of San Antonio? What can be said of the Winston-Salem Dash – it is perfection in nuance.

We haven’t even talked about getting people in the park via promotional events. Ever since the utter failures of ten-cent beer night in Cleveland and Disco Demolition in Chicago, promotions in the majors have run more towards giveaways – bobbleheads, calendars, baseballs. And even some of those have turned dangerous. On-field events for customers during game time never happen… besides time constraints, the dangers to players are deemed to high. Not so in the minors. Dizzy Bat races, Mascot runs, Frisbee Dogs, Zooperstars, and Cornhole tournaments are just some of the on-field entertainments that could happen at a ballpark near you. Theme nights? Certainly. The Fresno Grizzlies will become the Fresno Tacos every Tuesday home game this season. The New Hampshire Fisher Cats will remember their few days as the Primaries with a Half Red/Half Blue uniform on opening day. And Fireworks are going off somewhere nearly everyday.

And Food? The Lowell Spinners will be giving away money, up to $100, with a hot dog purchase on $1000 Dog Night on August 17. The Isotopes have a pair of 50 cent hot dog nights during the year, halving the popular Dollar Dog Nights of Louisville, Asheville, Memphis, Wisconsin, and numerous others. Teams also give free food to the youngsters, though, with Memphis giving away 2500 ice cream treats at every Sunday home game to those 12 and under while Louisville has Kids Eat Free Days, where those 12 and under get a hot dog, soda, and nachos free of charge. Interested in something different from the hot dogs and hamburgers, chips and nachos that are typical at the ballpark? The minor leagues have that too, from crab cakes and lobster rolls, to pulled pork parfaits and pulled pork sandwiches. Even dessert gets redone with fried oreo sundaes to deep fried moonpies; a trip to the concession stand need not be boring.

From the Aces to the Zephyrs (New Orleans), from Arkansas to West Virginia, baseball begins today. Go out and support your local team. Just remember, the players you see in your journey to the local yard are also the players who may turn into the next major-league superstars, the next great players for your MLB team, or your next favorite one-year major league wonder. Even if none of that comes to pass, you get to watch a baseball game. And there is nothing better than that.

Brandon Magee is our minor league expert; he has written about minor league travel, ranking prospects, a first round draft pick, and the MLB First-Year Player Draft.

Follow Brandon on Twitter @cuzittt.

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Brandon has worked the graveyard shift for a decade and, like any good vampire, is averse to the sun. His love of the Red Sox is so deep, he follows eight teams on a daily basis. He lives in Norwich, CT where he often goes to Dodd Stadium to watch minor league baseball with his best friend, his wife Dawn.

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