Futures Dream Becomes Great Reality
It's appropriate that we're celebrating another edition of the Futures Game in the 25th Anniversary edition of Baseball America.
Because as unlikely as the survival of BA for 25 years may have seemed in the early days of the magazine, the likelihood of anyone staging an all-prospect game in a major league ballpark seemed just as unlikely when I started working here 12 years ago.
I had the privilege of traveling to the Double-A and Triple-A all-star games each year in the beginning of my tenure at BA, and they were enjoyable events that allowed me to see some good players, nice ballparks and pleasant cities.
But they left me wanting more. The teams always had a few prospects, but why didn't the people picking the teams pick the best prospects available, rather than the old guys who were having the best seasons? League all-star games were even more pronounced, with even more emphasis on performance over prospect status and an even smaller pool of players to pick from.
So when the Professional Baseball Agreement, the document governing the relationship between the minors and majors, was renewed after the 1997 season, I could hardly believe it when I found a provision for a prospect all-star game.
Turns out Jimmie Lee Solomon, who is now Major League Baseball's executive vice president for baseball operations but then was responsible for overseeing the minor leagues, had long had the same desire for a prospect game. He started working at MLB in 1991 but the PBA wasn't up for renewal until '97, so that was the first opportunity to create a formal provision for the game.
Once it was in there, though, plans moved quickly. Solomon and others in his department made a pitch for the game to their bosses at MLB in the winter of 1998, and the game became a reality for the 1999 season.From Concept To Reality
Once that happened, the job of actually making the game a reality fell largely to Sylvia Lind, who then worked under Solomon and now is MLB's senior manager of minor league operations.
She remembers the run-up to the first game, at Fenway Park in Boston, as a blur. Negotiating roster construction was just the beginning. There was dealing with a thousand details, not to mention the bureaucracy of MLB's many different departments.
"We dealt regularly with major and minor league clubs in baseball operations, but we didn't regularly put together events," Lind said.
There was the frenzy of all the players arriving in Boston, after she and Pat Scott had worked out all the details of actually getting them there. Of course, one of the catchers selected for the game had to drop out at the last minute--"One lesson I've learned," Lind said, "is that we're always losing a catcher."--and so had to be replaced two days before the game.
And the way the first event was set up, the prospects took batting practice early in the afternoon, but then the celebrity event took place before the Futures Game. The Futures Game has always been accompanied by some sort of celebrity event, first a hitting contest and now a softball game, as MLB built an entire day at the ballpark around the game. The first hitting contest dragged on, and players sat in the clubhouses for hours, wondering what was going on.
"Once we got back onto the field and the game started, there was a little bit of relief," Lind said. "But I didn't believe it all really happened until we were back at the hotel after the game."Game Has Arrived
We at Baseball America could hardly believe it either. What made it even better was that we actually played an integral part of selecting the roster, working with MLB and the 30 clubs. We were so accustomed to being outsiders at the party that it took us a few years to grasp that we had been included in the process this time around.
And now that we've played seven of the games with another one on the way, it has become an integral part of every serious fan's season. The power of the Futures Game hit me when Barry Zito became a key player for the Athletics mere weeks after playing in the 2000 game in Atlanta.
For Lind, it happened even sooner. She remembers how cool it was to find out about the first player from the Futures Game to earn a big league callup. Do you know who it is? We'll give you three guesses, but chances are none of them would be Kyle Peterson, who played in the 1999 game and was called up by the Brewers about two weeks later. His promising career was derailed by injuries, and you probably know him better now as an ESPN commentator.
But she also remembers seeing Peter Gammons at the first game (and every subsequent game) and hearing how enthusiastically he spoke of it. "He was so into it and that was so exciting for me," she said. "I thought that was a great compliment for the game."
The ultimate compliment, however, comes from the ever-growing list of Futures Game alumni in the big leagues, showing us the reality of a prospect all-star game has been even sweeter than the dream.