BURLINGTON, N.C.—Cowbells clanged while the home crowd booed. A manager argued a play at home plate when the runner—trying to score the go-ahead run in the bottom of the eighth—slid too early and didn’t quite make it to the plate in time.
Yes, playoff baseball in the Rookie-level Appalachian League has a different feel to it than other baseball events I’ve attended this year. The semifinal series between visiting Princeton, a Rays affiliate, and the host Burlington Royals was a best-of-three set that came down to the final innings on a beautiful night for baseball to close out Labor Day.
The holiday signals the usual end of the minor league regular season for all leagues other than the Rookie-level Pioneer League. Minor league playoffs extend the season a bit, and I was able to catch my first Appy League game since 2012, when the center fielders in a playoff series between Burlington and Elizabethton were Bubba Starling and Byron Buxton.
Instructional league games don’t count in any standings; stats are kept but don’t count, and no championship is given. While the Appalachian League trophy doesn’t carry the heft of the World Series trophy, the effort to win is real, both from the players and the fans.
More than two dozen fans made the trip from Princeton to see their Rays take on the Royals on this Labor Day, a roughly 175-mile journey for a Rookie ball playoff game. What they witnessed, as their manager Danny Sheaffer put it to Bob Sutton of the Burlington (N.C.) Times-News, was, “A Rookie-league ballgame broke out.”
It ended with the hometown fans celebrating a wild ending, a 4-3 victory when Jonathan McCray missed third base but went back tagged the bag and scored ahead of the throw to score the winning run on Nicky Lopez’s double.
While it was the Royals advancing, both teams got in three extra games and some experience in a pennant race, which can only help prospects such as Princeton shortstop Adrian Rondon and outfielder Jesus Sanchez or Burlington lefthander Garrett Davila.
“These players,” Sheaffer told the Times-News, “are going to be much better professional players because they played meaningful games the last two weeks.”
Winning Isn’t The Only Thing?
Teams often take great pains to stress the importance of development over winning in the minor leagues, but that appears to be changing. Astros GM Jeff Luhnow stressed winning in the minors when he took over in the Houston to help develop a winning culture and mindset in players, and the organization went from ranking last three times in four years in minor league winning percentage to leading baseball in that category in 2015, following three straight top-15 seasons. That helped lead, in part, to a 2015 American League playoff berth for Houston.
The Mariners, who had three straight losing seasons on the farm, have followed their lead under new GM Jerry DiPoto and farm director Andy McKay. The Mariners won the Rookie-level Arizona League title, and every domestic affiliate made the playoffs as the organization posted a .590 cumulative winning percentage, far and away the best in the game.
“You develop winning players by teaching to win minor league championships,” McKay said in an August phone interview. “Learning how to win and valuing winning, we have to look at that different with today’s player and today’s amateur baseball. We have to be receptive to that.”
That said, the Mariners canceled instructional league in favor of four week-long programs during the offseason, with McKay saying, “Games are way down on my list of priorities in the offseason.”
Triple-A baseball plays the most games—the International League and Pacific Coast League each feature 144-game schedules. Their winners play in what is supposed to be the minors’ most meaningful game, the Triple-A National Championship. This year’s game is scheduled for Memphis, and the Triple-A game remains a challenge, as the best teams often get raided by September callups.
Big league teams want those spare relievers and other Triple-A callups to be fresher throughout the season, so major league farm directors have stopped giving the Triple-A leagues, plus the Double-A Eastern League, an exemption to go past the 140-game regular-season limit in the Professional Baseball Agreement, which governs the relationship between the majors and the minors.
The EL goes to 140 next season; the IL and PCL shrink to 142 next year and 140 for 2018.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has hinted at potentially trimming the big league schedule to 154 games to give players more rest, which should keep them healthier. That appears to be the motivation for this change as well, with more days off being built into the minor league schedule.
“Some organizations have perspectives that would favor 140 (games), but it could be others that might want more,” PCL president Branch Rickey III said in a phone interview. “MLB has been extraordinarily cooperative and understanding as a partner with the PCL clubs. But there are some clubs that . . . want their players to have more off-days.”
That will cost Triple-A operators money; they’ll lose two home dates come 2018. Those were good reasons they asked for a schedule waiver every year, a waiver they will no longer receive.
But at the lower levels, with cowbells clanging and the energy and mistakes of youth, more games make sense. Baseball is a game of repetition, and players need reps to learn the pro game and adapt to the grind of pro ball.
If those reps come in a playoff atmosphere like I experienced at Burlington Athletic Stadium, so much the better.