Travails of Minor League Travel

Every minor leaguer’s dream is to be promoted to the majors, even if it is a brief callup. Between doubleheaders and bad food life in the minors can be tough, Brandon Magee takes a look at the past and present travails of minor league travel.

On Monday, May 11, the Carolina Mudcats finished a five game series against the Salem Red Sox in Salem, Virginia, winning the finale 3-1. After the game, the team; players, coaches, trainers and broadcasters – 33 in all – boarded a bus for their next stop, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where they were to begin a three game series against the Pelicans. The trip should have taken between five and six hours to cover the 300 miles:

At about 3:45 A.M., the driver of the bus lost control while driving through Columbus County, North Carolina. Seven players and one trainer were taking to a nearby hospital for treatment, but were all released later in the day. By noon, the team was back on its way to Myrtle Beach. However, the game scheduled for Tuesday was postponed until later in the season, a prudent decision given the circumstances.

Bus rides are the mode of travel most utilized for travel in the minor leagues. With the exception of the two AAA leagues, the cities of each league are largely in the same geographical area. Even so, the drive between cities could take twelve hours. For example, the drive between Portland, Maine and Richmond, Virginia, the teams furthest apart geographically (648 miles) in the Eastern League, takes upwards of twelve hours to traverse:

Everybody rides the bus. Michael Jordan, in his brief attempt at baseball, bought a bus for the Birmingham Barons, at a personal cost of $350,000. According to one minor-leaguer, all bus rides are the same: “You board the bus, you pick a seat, and you drive to your next game – it’s up to you how you want to spend those next two, five, eight, fourteen hours. Just hope you’re not next to the fat kid. Or the smelly kid. Or the loud kid. This is gonna be a long ride.”

Games are not always postponed after accidents. After defeating the Brooklyn Cyclones on August 2, 2011, the bus carrying the Williamsport Crosscutters got lost on the way back to team’s hotel. The bus crashed into an SUV and careened into a bridge guardrail, dangling over the Staten Island Expressway:

According to one eyewitness, “The bus ricocheted off the SUV and went up the guardrail, straddling the center of the guardrail. Two more feet to the left and it would have fallen down onto the Expressway. It was definitely their lucky day.” Infielder Cody Asche said “Traveling with baseball for the last five or six years, you never think something like that is going to happen. You know, something crazy can happen any day, so we’re lucky.” His teammate, Harold Martinez said “I thought for sure I was going down.” Although two players were treated and released after this accident, the game the following afternoon was played, resulting in a 3-2 Crosscutters loss.

Accidents involving players don’t always happen in-season or close to home. In December of 2013, five San Francisco Giants minor-leaguers were involved in an accident during a conditioning camp in Scottsdale, Arizona. As the team van was leaving the hotel’s driveway, it collided with a car. The five players all went to the hospital where they were treated and released.

Unfortunately, not all accidents end with only minor cuts and abrasions. On June 18, 2013, members of the Elizabethton Twins were involved in a fatal accident in Jacksonville, Florida, as the team traveled from extended spring training in Fort Myers, Florida to their home base in Elizabethton, Tennessee. At approximately 4:30 am, a car traveling south in a northbound lane on I-295 ran head-on into the bus. The driver of the car was pronounced dead at the scene. No one on the bus was injured, and the team continued their travels to Elizabethton a few hours later.

Two accidents in the 1940s highlight the worst-case scenario. On June 24, 1946, a bus carrying the Spokane Indians was traveling through the Snoqualmie Pass in the Cascade Mountains. The bus swerved to avoid a car on a rain-slickened highway but was unable to stay on the road and plummeted down an embankment. An eyewitness described the crash: “There was a drizzle of rain and I glanced at the rearview mirror after meeting the bus. When I looked back, I saw the rear end of the bus going over the cliff. I stopped quick. I ran to the place where I watched it still rolling down the hill. It was on fire. It came to a stop at the bottom of the ravine with a sickening crash.”

Nine players died due to the crash and six more were seriously injured. The team resumed play on July 4th with a roster supplemented by players loaned from other teams in the Western International League. It would eventually finish the season in seventh place in the eight-team league.

Two years later, on July 24, 1948, the team bus for the Duluth Dukes was involved in a head-on collision with a truck near St. Paul, Minnesota at 11:20A.M.. Four players and manager George Treadwell, who was driving the bus, perished in the crash. Thirteen other players were injured. The only uninjured player left on the team, pitcher Sam Hunter, was not on the bus that day.

Bernie Gerl, one of the survivors of the wreck, remembers the accident: “You try to put it all together of how it happened. I remember on the bus radio Spike Jones was playing ‘Beetle Bomb’ and one of the pitchers, Sam Paitich, was telling me how he lived just a couple of blocks down the street from where we were passing by. Then all of a sudden, I woke up in a hospital. I had been unconscious for two or three days.” The Dukes completed the season with a new roster provided by their major league affiliate, the St. Louis Cardinals, as well as players loaned from other members of the league.

Major League Baseball has a disaster plan in section 29 of the official major league rule book. The plan includes the possibility of restocking a club via a special draft, or simply ending the season early. The disaster plan, however, is for an incident with a major league club. The official rules do not indicate what relief would be given to a team in the minors.

Given the amount of traveling done by all professional baseball clubs, the number of major travel accidents has been (fortunately) miniscule. However, the possibility of a tragedy always lurks, especially in the minor leagues, as teams travel late at night into the early morning. While no one wants to think of the worst scenarios, the possibility of fatalities in a bus crash is very real. We can only hope that any disaster plans in place are adequate enough to deal with the horrifying loss for players and their family.

On top of keeping us up to date on the minor league teams, Brandon Magee reminds us just how far our shared love of a team can go, analyzes a slugger’s increased power, and introduces us to the Red Sox new pitching coach.

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