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How the minors fit in

by Will Lingo
March 15, 2004

When comparing all the sports, as we have in the preceding pages, it's hard to figure out what to make of minor league baseball.

As we, and many people who responded to our survey for these stories pointed out, college basketball and football are much more effective feeder systems for their sports in many ways. They generate national interest in the sports and in the players, and they do it at virtually no cost to the professional leagues.

Like those college games, minor league baseball does provide major league-ready talent (or close to it) for its sport's highest level. But minor league baseball does so at a significant cost to Major League Baseball, which at one time subsidized virtually the entire cost of operating the minor leagues. Minor league teams are now financially viable (and even lucrative in some cases), so they have taken on more of the expense of doing business, but MLB still spends millions on player development.

Minor league baseball also does not generate widespread, national interest in either its games or its players. The occasional minor leaguer gets national attention, but nothing to compare to the likes of Eli Manning, for example, a potential No. 1 pick in this year's NFL draft.

And while millions of people attend minor league games each year, most of them do it for the spectacle and the experience of going to a baseball game, not that particular baseball game. If you spoke to a casual fan after a minor league game, you might be hard-pressed to get the name of the winning team, much less one of the significant players.

But is this really a problem? In our minds and the minds of most of our readers, no. Minor league baseball is what it is. Efforts to make it a national game, such as ESPN2's national minor league game of the week a few years ago, have consistently failed. Like most of you, we appreciate minor league baseball what it is, not what it isn't.

Subtle Nuances

Combing through the responses from our readers when looking at baseball in comparison with other sports, it was remarkable to see how deeply you love the game, from the majors to the lowest levels. While you see the game's faults as clearly as anyone, you also find strengths that many people might miss.

Minor league baseball, for example, is cheaper than major league and many college sporting events. "The minors are more like the family outing now," according to Cory Moore of Columbia, S.C. "MLB has taken its prices to a new level, which means a lot of us just have to read about it or see it on 'SportsCenter'."

One reader, Don Hayes of San Diego, even cited the minor leagues as a reason he prefers baseball to the NFL.

"To be able to keep track of your favorite team's young players as they advance to the major league level is a big plus for young and old fans," he wrote. "It gives every fan a chance to glimpse into the team's future. The NFL has the European league, which really doesn't compare."

That's a great point and one that is easily overlooked. While everyone knows who Manning is, no NFL fan can be sure he'll end up on his favorite team until the draft. For Twins fans following Joe Mauer through the minors, they can be pretty confident he'll end up helping them in Minneapolis.

"The minor leagues only make baseball that much more interesting," wrote Will Fletcher of Port Orchard, Wash. "It would be as if the Carolina Panthers owned Notre Dame, and could directly promote from there. That's why baseball is so incredible."

Team Building

Many readers noted their love of tracking prospects from high school or college to the big leagues, noting it as another fascinating intricacy of baseball that doesn't exist in other sports. It probably won't surprise you to find out that such nuances and depth give baseball more appeal to BA readers.

"Young talent stays where it needs to be, in the minor leagues," wrote Brandon Walker of Long Beach. "Baseball does display its young talent, but not at the expense of watering down the league like the NBA."

Ultimately, that's another clear theme of our reader responses. Yes, many people seem to want faster-paced, violent action these days, and baseball can't deliver that. And that's all right.

"I love the slower development of the players compared to other sports," Rob Miller of San Jose wrote. "It shows how subtle the difference can be between being an all-star and just being an everyday player."

Perhaps more than any other sport, baseball engenders an almost familial connection with its most avid fans. Sure your loved ones might have flaws, but you don't abandon them for someone flashier. The relationship runs much deeper than that. And for baseball fans, the minor leagues are an integral part of the relationship.

"Baseball is so great because there are so many different ways to win and build a team," wrote Blair Evans of Long Beach. "Building a team through the farm system is unlike any other sport."

And you say those differences are a strength, not a weakness. We couldn't agree more.

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