Futures Game Keeps On Growing

The eighth annual All-Star Futures Game is a perfect example of the power of a good idea.

Minor league all-star games have long been popular as special events for individual teams and leagues, and Triple-A baseball has its own all-star game. But there had never been a minor league all-star game made up of the best prospects from across the minor leagues, regardless of their league or classification.

Enter the Futures Game, which debuted at Fenway Park in 1999. The game was a question mark for many at first, but the strong belief in the game from organizers at Major League Baseball and the quick rise of prospects like Alfonso Soriano quickly built credibility for the event.

There are 20 Futures Game alumni who have already appeared in the major league All-Star Game, part of the nearly 150 players who have gone from the Futures Game to the big leagues.

The game is now a significant event for ESPN, which is broadcasting the game live for the sixth year in a row, after the first game was shown on tape delay. And it will also be featured live on XM Satellite Radio, which has also come aboard as a sponsor of the game.

The stands have always been full of scouts for this game, though their numbers have increased year by year as they realize what a golden opportunity it is to see 50 premium players for the cost of one plane ticket. Major League Baseball sets off nearly an entire section behind the plate for scouts, and the stands are always full of executives and agents who also turn out to see the talent on display.

Even minor league executives, who have to see their best players disappear for a few days to play in the game, recognize what a great opportunity it is for the players and for the minors to sell one of their most powerful messages: This is where the stars of tomorrow are playing.

But perhaps the most powerful indicator of the Futures Games’ growing influence comes from agents, who now call people at Baseball America and Major League Baseball in hopes of helping their players get on the team. Baseball America, the industry’s most respected magazine and Website for passionate fans and those who work in the game, has worked with MLB to select the best possible prospects for the Futures Game since its inception in 1999.

“We now have agents call us regularly trying to pitch their players,” said Sylvia Lind, Major League Baseball’s senior manager of minor league operations. “We don’t bow to that kind of pressure, but it is becoming commonplace.”

Growing Appeal

Lind is one of those who has been part of the Futures Game from the beginning, watching it grow from curiosity to mainstay. The game was made possible by an agreement between the majors and minors in 1998, and MLB executive Jimmie Lee Solomon helped push it through to reality.

“I started out in baseball working in the minor leagues,” said Solomon, who is now MLB’s executive vice president for baseball operations. “I’d see these players every night of the week. The genesis for the idea came from knowing that this would play on a national level.”

And that’s exactly what has happened, as more and more people catch on every year. The format of the game has changed little in its six years, but the attention has grown significantly. From the beginning, the game has been structured in a United States vs. World team format, emphasizing the global nature of the game.

In a way, the success of the Futures Game helped pave the way for the World Baseball Classic, showing the talent that comes from countries besides the United States and the passion for baseball around the world.

MLB and its 30 clubs work with Baseball America to select 25-man rosters for each team, with each organization represented by at least one player and no organization having more than two players in the game. All players from full-season minor leagues who are approved by their parent clubs are eligible for selection, and organizers try to represent as many nations as is practical.

The game is a seven-inning affair that will end regardless of the score after the seventh, and it has been that way every year except 2000, when it was a nine-inning game.

It’s probably a good bet that few people remember who won any particular Futures Game, but the breakout prospects are becoming too numerous to mention. From Soriano to Jose Reyes to David Wright, the players have provided the game with plenty of memorable moments. And Futures Game batting practice may be one of the most enjoyable parts of the entire all-star celebration.

It was during BP in Seattle in 2001 that Adam Dunn drew his first widespread attention with bombs into the right-field restaurant at Safeco Field. And some of the groups in Houston in 2004, featuring players like Dallas McPherson bouncing balls off the back of Minute Maid Park, gave fans their money’s worth before the game ever started.

Working Behind The Scenes

It’s a long way from Boston in 1999, where everyone on the field wasn’t sure what to make of the new exhibition. Lind and Pat Scott, who is now coordinator of minor league operations for MLB, were about the only people working on the game full-time.

“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,” Lind said.

The first game in Boston also featured a lost prospect, which is never a good thing. The player, who shall remain nameless, was traded right before the Futures Game, but organizers figured he had gone over all the logistics of getting to his new organization after the game.

“So it was quite a surprise for us to get a call from the organization’s GM on Monday wondering where his guy was,” Lind said. “Turns out he had used his original return ticket to El Paso because he wanted to clean some stuff up.”

Since then, Lind and Scott have learned that logistical snafus are part of putting the game on every year. With experience and more manpower, they can handle just about anything now, from last-minute trades to finding foreign-born catchers in the South.

About 36 hours before the 2000 Futures Game in Atlanta, catcher Ramon Castro was injured while playing for Triple-A Calgary in the Marlins organization. Lind and Scott scrambled to find a replacement in the Phillies organization, only to find out Saturday night that he had missed his flight.

“At 7 a.m. Sunday, during our team breakfast, I was frantically on the phone with Frank Wren (then the assistant general manager of the Braves), begging him to send us a catcher born in another country,” Lind said. “Luckily the Braves affiliates were all very close, and in came Jean Boscan from Macon, arriving about an hour and a half before game time. I think we took Jackson Melian’s extra jersey because he was Venezuelan too, but if I remember correctly, we didn’t get the Reds patch off before the first pitch.”

The stories go on and on. There was the player who decided his flight on Saturday was too early and changed it without telling anyone, putting him in Houston 12 hours after everyone expected him. The countless delays and cancellations, the missing equipment, the last-second trades. And those are the stories they can talk about.

But Soriano’s two home runs in the first game gave organizers an instant success story. He was in New York at the end of the 1999 season and became established in the big leagues by the end of the 2000 season. And he has been followed by a long line of others, each adding to the lore of a game that has become a guaranteed way to see numerous future big leaguers.

“We were the typical example of the little known, but critically acclaimed event in the early years,” Lind said. “We were the best little game that nobody knew about.

“For some time after (the first game), I would give people a full explanation of what the Futures Game was before talking about it. Now I just mention it and people tell me about Alfonso Soriano or Adam Dunn.”

So watch closely, because in a few years you’ll be telling your friends about the players you saw today–assuming they all get here on time.