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Futures Game becomes midyear must

by Will Lingo
July 2, 2004

One of the best things about reaching a milestone like midseason is that it prompts you to take a look at everything that has gone on so far. Beyond the endless parade of box score lines every day, it's a chance to look at the body of work a player has put together through half a season in the minor leagues.

Another great thing about midseason in the minors now is the Futures Game, which will celebrate its fifth anniversary on the Sunday (July 11) before the All-Star Game in Houston. The seven-inning game, pitting 50 of the best prospects in the game, divided into teams representing the United States and the World, begins at 4 p.m. Eastern and will be televised live on ESPN2.

Baseball America, of course, has been proud to be part of the game from the beginning. The dawn of the Futures Game nicely bisects my days at BA, and over the first five of those years I was lucky enough to travel to the Double-A and Triple-A all-star games each year. Those games were enjoyable enough, though they led to some unusual flights: Raleigh-Durham to Shreveport, La., to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and back is not one of the most popular routes in air travel.

The other shortcomings of the games were that they drew from relatively small player pools, and the selections were driven more by a player's performance than his potential.

It's natural; an all-star game is designed to honor players who are having great seasons. But in Triple-A in particular, with leagues filled with veteran players, it's not the greatest place to see prospects, which is what we're all about.

The Double-A game usually had a bigger collection of prospects, but the game never built a strong following and died a couple of years ago when no team stepped forward to host it.

From Dream To Reality

We wanted more. We clamored for a game that brought together players from throughout the minor leagues, regardless of classification. And we clamored for a game that drew the best players, even if they were being outperformed by players who were years older.

Unfortunately, we did not have the wherewithal to make it happen. Fortunately, Major League Baseball did. Stuck into a corner of a renewal of the Professional Baseball Agreement was a provision that allowed MLB to stage such a game, and by 1999 they did it.

"I started out in baseball working in the minor leagues," said Jimmie Lee Solomon, senior vice president of baseball operations for MLB. "I'd see these players every night of the week. The genesis for the idea of the Futures Game came from knowing that this would play on a national level."

And it has. BA has worked with MLB closely in selecting the players for the game, and the track record already speaks for itself. Even before this year's all-star rosters were announced, the game had 12 alumni who had moved on to the big league All-Star Game, and 93 players who had participated in past Futures Games were on big league rosters.

Making A Name For Itself

The game's growing stature is also clear from a review of the baseball press. Where in the first years you had to explain to people what the game was, now an online search of newspapers reveals hundreds of references to the Futures Game in the days after rosters were announced. Granted, most of them were cursory mentions of the players from a particular team that were going to the game. But they were there, as people begin to recognize the game as a place to check out soon-to-be big leaguers.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer even used a reference to the game in a jab at how poorly the Mariners' season is going, saying the Mariners were invited to play in the "No Futures Game" on all-star weekend.

And perhaps most importantly, the players have embraced the game. Their agents start calling us early in the season to find out who's being considered, perhaps the best indication of the game's stature.

"It's exciting," said Chris Burke, the Astros second-base prospect who will be going to his second Futures Game this year. "The atmosphere's so much different than you get on an everyday basis in the minor leagues. The neat part, too, is being at the same hotel where the big league all-stars are. So that Sunday night, when they all start arriving from their different cities, just sitting in the lobby watching them come in, you get awestruck."

Burke, who's at Triple-A New Orleans, will also get to play at Minute Maid Park for the first time. "It was neat to play in a big league stadium (last year), so I'm looking forward to this year, especially being that it's in Houston."

It's the first time on a big league field for most of the players in the Futures Game, but we know it won't be the last. And that's what makes the game great.

Peter Barrouquere of The New Orleans Times-Picayune contributed to this story.

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