Image credit: Joe Maddon (Photo by Bill Mitchell)
PHOENIX—No one knows the minor leagues quite like Joe Maddon.?
The 66-year-old Angels manager has been around baseball all his life, and for much of it, he’s been surrounded by affiliated Minor League Baseball. Between playing four seasons in the minors and coaching them for several years, Maddon knows nearly everything about the journey to the big leagues.?
That’s why MLB’s minor league contraction proposal hit so close to home.
“I am a minor league grunt, and that’s where I grew up,” Maddon said. “The minor leagues were the most fascinating and most dramatic place I’ve ever worked.”
In November, MLB floated a plan to eliminate 42 minor league affiliates across several different levels. This plan would remove 26 percent of minor league teams and fully terminate the MiLB’s four Rookie leagues in the United States, with hopes of saving money and improving wellness for minor leaguers.?
The Rookie leagues, which include the Pioneer League, Appalachian League, Arizona League and Gulf Coast League, are where many prospects begin their professional baseball journeys. Most of these teams are based in small communities, such as Ogden, Utah; Pulaski, Va., and Princeton, W.Va.?
Former MLB catcher and current Chicago Cubs manager David Ross, who played in low Class A ball in Yakima, Wash., emphasized how special playing in a small town was in the early stages of his career.
“I value my minor league career, for sure, and the towns and the people and my host family,” Ross said. “Like some of these places I played, I still keep in touch with. That was really valuable.”
In addition to the lower levels helping groom a young prospect, baseball provides these towns with much-needed activity in otherwise desolate areas.
“That’s kind of all they have to look forward to, you could say, for some of those cities,” Athletics top prospect Jesus Luzardo said. “It’ll definitely kind of take a blow for the minor league.”
A’s outfielder Ramon Laureano agreed with his teammate’s sentiment.
“It will impact those communities at some levels,” Laureano said. “For my experience, I had a really good time playing in those small towns and being loved by them. They wait the whole year for that moment.”
In leagues like the Pioneer League, clubs are spaced so far apart that road games often require 12-hour bus trips. During this lag time, players have a few options—sleep, play cards, converse with teammates or find creative ways to expedite a lengthy bus trip.
One of the components of MLB’s proposal is to improve travel for minor leaguers by cutting down on these extensive treks. But these tedious rides on the freeway are a vital aspect of the game and part of a prospect’s development, according to Maddon.?
“To make it easier on a young player by saying that’s not beneficial, I disagree with that,” Maddon said. “I think it’s very beneficial. To have to be crammed in a bus for that time with a foam-covered headset, listening to your cassette player or reading a book, playing cards or just talking to your buddies.”
Another facet of this proposal is to lower the number of prospects stuck in the minor leagues who never reach the MLB. While MLB is certainly baseball’s grandest stage, Maddon knows firsthand the glory of grinding in the minor leagues.?
“Even if a guy doesn’t make it to the major leagues, the fact that he’s able to chase his dreams somewhat, it kind of fulfills a part of you that needs to be fulfilled,” Maddon said.?
Additionally, it’s hard to find a rhythm from the jump in the minor leagues. Because they have elevated competition and use a different bat (wood) than high school or college, players often begin their minor league careers on cold streaks.?
And with a smaller number of minor leaguers, a bad start could effectively end a prospect’s career.?
“Opportunity is key, especially if you get drafted and have a bad year,” A’s righthander Lou Trivino said. “Well now that there could potentially be less spots, it just makes it that much harder. I understand business wise, but it kind of sucks from a player’s eyes not to have as many opportunities as possible.”
For the majority of players and coaches, the time spent in the minor leagues is valuable and seen as a much-needed development stage. This makes Manfred’s idea polarizing to many people who have come up through the minor leagues.
Even so, Kansas City Royals manager Mike Matheny trusts Manfred and other MLB officials’ judgment on how this plan could help what is euphemistically called the “child’s game.”
“I’m trusting the fact that there’s a large group of very intelligent people trying to help make these decisions that are best for the game,” Matheny said. “And trust that’s what they’re doing. It’s really nice, knowing that these are unilateral decisions.
“I’ve been able to watch a little bit of the process of how they go about vetting all the ideas and how they believe in the end they could make a better product and, in the end, maybe take care of the minor-league players a little better.”
A decision on the proposal likely won’t come any time soon. With the season suspended indefinitely because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the league has greater issues to deal with.?
But the topic has already garnered negative reactions from several prominent figures, such as 2020 presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg. And in January, a Congressional task force created a plan to “save Minor League Baseball.”
If the public continues showing its disdain for this proposal, the opposition against Manfred will only grow. At least Maddon—the quintessential minor league grunt—hopes so.?
“I’ve lived that life, so I love the minor leagues,” Maddon said. “I don’t just like them, I love them.”