The image is so common among baseball fans as to border cliche. The freshly cut grass, the watered down infield, the crack of the bat, and evenings spent with parents and grandparents. An autographed ball is a treasure, a moment spent with a player a lifelong memory.
Talk to most baseball fans and their love of the game started with some combination of those elements.
And it goes far beyond the fans in the stands. Ask the average MLB’er or front office staffer and they’ll talk about going to the ballpark and being excited to go home and practice harder, try out the things they’ve seen. How seeing the pros do it inspired them to one day reach that level or otherwise stay around the game.
For countless fans, those nights at the ballpark are of the minor league variety. But those memories, that lifelong love, is just as real, perhaps even more real, than in the big league parks. In the minors, it is the fan experience that matters, not wins and losses. And that fan experience breeds fans for life.
“Minor league baseball is the grass roots of developing the young baseball fan,” says Kim Parker, General Manager of the Burlington Bees. “This is the place where they have the opportunity to chase down a foul ball in the grassy area along the first base line. The chance to give Jahmai Jones a high five as they run the bases after Sunday’s game (he stood on the foul line after every Sunday home game and gave every kid that ran the bases a high five.”
Parker’s Bees are one of 42 clubs on the chopping block in MLB’s attempt to streamline the minor leagues and curb costs. However, in this case, the true costs might not be measured strictly by the bottom line. For a sport that continues to struggle attracting both new fans and athletes, cutting off memories such as a high five could have much larger costs than meet the eye.
“I grew up going to games in eastern Iowa,” remembers Minor League Baseball’s Director of Communications Jeff Lantz. “And as soon as I got my drivers license my buddies and I would hop in the car and we’d drive 45 minutes away to watch a game in Quad Cities or Clinton or Burlington, maybe Cedar Rapids.”
He continues, “Personally it breaks my heart seeing three of those teams on the list because I know what a great time it was growing up. Whether my dad was taking me or I was hopping in the car with my buddies, I fell in love with baseball going to those ballparks. When it came time to go to college, I knew I wanted to work in professional baseball.”
For the cities that host minor league baseball, having a team brings about a sense of civic pride and a chance to truly join in America’s pastime. There are summer jobs to be had, 4th of July fireworks, and promotions that can run from routine to zany but bring fans to the game.
“Some of these ballparks become like the front porch of these communities, the gathering spot,” says Lantz.
Longtime Orem Owlz fan Belva Parr would agree. She took her children to minor league games and is now taking her grandchildren. She loves the family atmosphere, the small ballpark and crowds, and sees the way a night at the ballpark inspires youth baseball in the area.
“As you come in there’s three players who sit and sign autographs at at table and they’ll talk to the kids,” she explains. “Players line up, the kids line up, I get my grandkids balls every year. Its wonderful to see these kids play as Owlz and then to watch them come back a year or two later as Bees is incredible.”
The player to fan connection is at the core of the fan experience. Countless fans remember hunting for a favorite player’s baseball card or hanging his poster on their wall. And all remember why that player became their favorite. But to be a young kid and meet a player, that often makes him a favorite.
“The young fan wants a connection to the player who in exchange becomes their hero,” says Parker. “They don’t put value on whether he is slated to be the next best short stop, they care about the personal connection.”
The Burlington Bees do a tremendous job of cultivating that connection. “We have 70 home games for the young fan to meet their hero,” Parker continues. “We have additional events that give them more chances to connect, from meet the team karaoke night to multiple instructional clinics.”
As great as they are at cultivating the next generation of fans, the minor leagues exist to create the next generation of players. As a lifelong fan of the game, Parr fears that eliminating minor league teams will greatly hamper the amount of talent entering the game; a fear she first realized when the Orem team was rumored to be moving to Pueblo, Colorado.
“There’s a lot of baseball that is played in Utah County and when they were going to take this away it was frustrating to me because these kids who are playing high school ball, if they want to go on, they can see what can happen when the kids become Owlz,” say Parr. “They see what can happen to them. And then they come back as Bees and then go to the Angels. What great motivation for them.”
The business side of baseball requires talent as well, and minor league baseball both inspires and grooms the next wave of front offices.
“It’s the days and nights I spent going to minor league baseball that made me want to work and be part of the game. It’s really hard for me to sit here and see this potentially be taken away from a lot of those markets. To take away the opportunity for all of those kids to fall in love with baseball,” reflects Jeff Lantz.
The thing about small towns is they remain small because so many people leave. They go to college, get a job, get married, and generally move to larger markets. But that love of baseball moves with them.
Belva Parr’s son now lives in Houston. When she visits him, guess what they do? That’s right, they catch an Astros game and enjoy another night at the ballpark. He’s carried his baseball fandom with him from the small field at Orem to the big league city and plunks down big league dollars for his tickets. Without those nights at the Orem ballpark, though, it is safe to wonder if he ever would have found a love for the game.
Major League rosters are dotted with kids from small towns just like front offices are stocked with people who cut their teeth in the minor leagues. Our own Victor Rojas got his start calling minor league games on the radio. The minor leagues are truly the talent pipeline for all of baseball, in all aspects, not just player personnel.
All in all, one has to wonder if the cost savings of eliminating 42 minor league teams, a pittance by MLB payroll standards, won’t cause more long term damage to the game than it is worth. If there aren’t factors that go far beyond the balance sheets of the next few years.
For his part, Jeff Lantz isn’t giving up without a fight and hopes to work with Major League Baseball to keep the minor league teams in place. He notes that minor league teams currently pay an 8% ticket tax to MLB which amounted to $20 million last year and suggests those funds be used to upgrade facilities. He’s also open to realignment to cut down on travel time and costs.
“We’ve worked with them before and we’re here to work with them again,” says Lantz.
As long as there is baseball in Burlington, Kim Parker and her team will be there grooming both the next generation of players and of fans. Perhaps, Kim will even work her way up the ladder to an MLB job.
“We pride ourselves on cultivating the young fan from our on field games to the play area,” says Parker. “Baseball is America’s pastime and we do what we can to cultivate that passion into each generation. “
Some times costs are obvious. Some times they are further reaching and less visible than they appear. When considering the amount of fans the minor leagues develop along with the players, the number of young boys who go to the ballpark and decide to dedicate themselves to the game, and the men and women learning the business at the minor league level, the true cost of eliminating 42 minor league teams is far greater than MLB is calculating.