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Futures Game becomes all grown up
by Will Lingo
HOUSTON—When Aaron Hill got late word that he had been invited to the Futures Game, he didn't have to be told what that meant.
"I was like, isn't that in three or four days?" said Hill, who went on to win the game's MVP award. "But it was a great honor and I'm really excited to be here."
Each of the 50 players invited to play at Minute Maid Park this year was excited to be there, and most of them knew what an honor it was to be selected for the game—even before they were picked.
The game is still growing, and it will always have to take a back seat to the All-Star Game and the home run derby that follow it, but it has become an event unto itself.
That's clear to anyone who was at the first game, in 1999 in Boston. The media contingent on hand included Peter Gammons and Baseball America, and that's about it. The game was carried on tape delay by ESPN, not live. The players thought it was cool to be in Fenway Park but weren't quite sure what the game was all about. Sylvia Lind, who has been doing Major League Baseball's legwork for the game since its inception, was working until the last minute to make sure everything came off well.
"The first Futures Game was tough all around—from making meaningful player substitutions to executing the game with just two members of our staff and some random volunteers to hoping the stands would stay full after the softball game," said Lind, MLB's senior manager of minor league operations. "We did have the full support of the major league clubs, but the public wasn't really well-informed. We were the typical example of 'little known but critically acclaimed,' the best little game that nobody knew about."
Event Unto Itself
With an alumni list that grows more impressive every day, people know about the game now. And All-Star Sunday, as the day featuring the Futures Game as well as the celebrity and legends softball game is known, has become a cohesive event with an identity.
The softball game now comes after the Futures Game, unlike the first couple of years. And while the softball will never be a favorite among us baseball purists, it does bring fans to the ballpark. And it has become a smooth, relatively quick exhibition, featuring a good number of notable former baseball players, and not just a collection of C-list celebrities running amok.
That's good, because it's the Futures Game we're here for. And with five games already in the books before the latest crop of prospects came to Houston, players are getting the idea that the Futures Game is a great event to be invited to.
"Oh, without a doubt," said Tom Brown, the pitching coach for the United States team at this year's game, and for Triple-A Portland in the Padres organization. "You have other people in the organization participate in the game, and the guys see that. Sean Burroughs was our poster child for a few years, and guys saw him make a name for himself in the game (he was MVP of the 2000 event in Atlanta).
"And the players know people aren't here by random choice. These picks are well researched, so they're picked for a reason."
Debut On A National Stage
Once players get to participate, they spread the word. And even though the obvious goal is the major leagues, prospects don't mind coming back for repeat visits.
"I saw Jose Reyes during spring training last year," Lind said. "Obviously, the kid had been touted as the second coming and everyone in New York was just watching the clock tick waiting for him to get here. He asked me if he could play in the Futures Game again. I told him in Spanish, 'Man, I think your future has already arrived!'"
Reyes was another Futures Game MVP, and as with Burroughs and Alfonso Soriano in 1999, that provided his first significant national publicity. And that's where the prospects of today started to pay attention. While many of this year's Future Gamers said they weren't aware of all the details of the game until they were selected for it, most of them were at least familiar with it. "I remember seeing it on TV a couple of times before I got drafted," Twins outfield prospect Jason Kubel said.
The magic moment for the prospects comes when they get a notice from Major League Baseball that they've been picked for the game, after MLB and Baseball America have selected the 25 players for the World and U.S. teams. That's when they realize they've been set apart from the crowd a bit, and when they get to a big league city and the red carpet rolls out it becomes even more impressive.
"Guys don't talk about it a lot until you get the notice," said Tony Beasley, the manager at Double-A Altoona in the Pirates system and a coach for the U.S. team. "But when they get the notice, they're thrilled.
"It's a great experience for me as a coach as well. It really is a special event. I'm just like the players—loving every minute of it."
You can contact Will Lingo by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.