Minor league contraction will have lasting impact on the future of the game

As I get older, a lot of memories start to become “generic.” By that, I mean that I remember attending assemblies in elementary school, but not necessarily specific ones. But one I do remember sparked a life-long love affair with minor league baseball.

We had just watched a Phillies “season in review” film in the “All-Purpose Room” — part cafeteria, part assembly hall with stage, part gym — when the “Sillie Phillie” emerged from behind the screen. He was some sort of red, Phanatic-like creation that served as the mascot for the Reading Phillies. My relationship with the Sillie Phillie soured over the years until his retirement, but he gave me a gift that day I’ll never forget: complimentary tickets.

Google says it is about a 35-minute drive from the house I grew up in to Reading Municipal Stadium — that seems generous, I’d wager 45 minutes — but Dad went for it.

The stadium was a lot different in the 80s than it is today. No picnic area, no left field deck, certainly no right field swimming pool. Just bleachers, and old guy with a sound machine on the third base side and lucky numbers in your program redeemable at the souvenir stand. And, of course, the game.

By the time I could drive, my buddies and I would take in several a week. Along the way, I got to see some good players come through town. Juan Samuel. Marvin Freeman. Bruce Ruffin. Darren Daulton. Pat Burrell. Micky Morandini. Ricky Botalico. The legendary Steve Jeltz. So many of the names Phillies fans remember for ’93 and ‘08.

Big leaguers on rehab assignments, too. Gary Redus. Bo Diaz. Tom Foley. John Kruk. And some names you likely don’t know. Tommy Barrett (Marty’s brother). Mike Maddux (Greg’s brother — note a pattern?) Jimmy Olander. Steve DeAngelis. Rick Lundblade. Greg Legg. Francisco Melendez. Bruce Dostal. And far, far too many “can’t miss” prospects who, well… missed.

And they were all accessible. Kids could meet their heroes. Run the bases. Get an autograph. And the chance of snagging a foul ball was a lot better than at a 70,000-seat cookie-cutter stadium.

Through the years, stadium conditions improved. The “minor league experience” became a family affair, and that’s understandable. In my youth I could grab cheap tickets to see a big-league game at a moment’s notice. Today, a family of four can expect to conservatively spend $200 to attend a major league game. Minor league baseball is affordable entertainment, and it’s a lot easier to leave when the kids acted up by the fourth inning when it didn’t cost you half a paycheck to get there.

Since leaving southeastern Pennsylvania, I miss AA ball. It’s a great level to watch. Players are still hungry but haven’t been spoiled by too much success. But I’ve come around to A ball as well. Frederick always put on a nice experience. But the real gem, if you long for “old-time baseball,” was in Hagerstown. The Suns played in one of the oldest stadiums in the minors, and though modernized through the years, it still provided that game experience I remembered from so many years ago in Reading.

Even before the current economic crisis, the “Sword of Damocles” hung over the team on an annual basis as ownership tried to force the town into constructing new, fancy digs. So, I made it a point to always savor my experience there, watching the game the way it used to be. A time before mascot teams, elaborate contests every half inning and way too much disco fan dancing.

When word emerged last year that the end of the current agreement between MLB and MiLB would likely result in contraction of teams, even an eternal optimist would realize the end was nigh for baseball in Hagerstown.

The suits would argue the financial outlook was difficult before COVID-19 ash-canned the 2020 minor league season, and we are yet to know what happens this spring. But considering this plan was on the table pre-COVID, one has to wonder at some of the motivation behind those decisions.

Hagerstown is now gone, and Frederick is dropping from A ball to a draft prospect league. That makes the nearest pro minor league team roughly 60 miles away, ironically, a comparable distance to Baltimore or Washington. That seems a little convenient. After all, if you are going to travel that far, you might as well shell out for the major league experience, right?

What isn’t convenient is the cost and the ordeal a family has to go through to attend a major league game. The unfortunate truth is a lot of families are going to lose out on a great family experience and more kids are likely to miss out on live baseball.

I’m old enough that I still think of baseball as “the game.” I have great memories of sitting next to my Grandpop on the back stoop or at the kitchen table in Philadelphia, listening to Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn on the transistor radio, but it was those countless games sitting in Reading watching future Phils with my Dad and my friends that really cemented my love of baseball.

As baseball continues to struggle with its relevance with the younger generations who flock to basketball and football, I think it will look back on some of these decisions with regret.

I know I will.

Originally published at http://www.cdsix.com.

Newspaper refugee sharing original commentary at christophersix.substack.com and the best in journalism daily at paper.li/ChristopherSix#/

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