So the 2006 Minor League season has come to an end. It's hard to imagine six months have come and gone so quickly and it would be virtually impossible -- though I may try at a later date -- to encapsulate all that's happened in the year that was into one column.
Instead, I'll focus on the bookend I just attended in Oklahoma City. The first Bricktown Showdown, the Triple-A Championship Game, was supposed to serve as the final act for the season. As International League president Randy Mobley put it on Tuesday, it's a "pinnacle not just for the Triple-A season, but for the Minor League Baseball season. It's the sendoff as everyone heads to winter."
By every indication and measurement, this first crack at a Triple-A Championship since the World Series died in Vegas six years ago was a big success. Even if the 12,572 announced as the attendance was a tad generous, the most skeptical still had to admit there were at least 10,000 fans in attendance in a park whose normal home team wasn't involved in the game. Score one for the organizers or for the ownership group of the RedHawks for bringing the game to Bricktown. One can only assume or at least hope that as all the parties involved get better at this, it will attract even more attention.
The game was also carried on national TV -- ESPN2 -- and spread throughout the country on radio, courtesy of Westwood One. We even did our part here, streaming both the video and audio of the game. It got plenty of love, not just on MiLB.com, but on the homepages of the parent clubs -- the Diamondbacks and Tigers -- and on MLB.com's home page itself. From a spreading the word about the joys of Minor League Baseball perspective, again the game was a huge success.
The RedHawks have the right to this game for two more seasons and there's every indication they made a worthwhile investment to secure those rights. I have no idea what the ratings were or how many people clicked onto the game on our site, but it clearly dwarfed any audience the RedHawks and, more importantly, Bricktown Ballpark ever had. There's been an on-going effort to make Oklahoma City more of a sports town, beyond the local -- yet huge -- college scene, a place people will come to have their events at a neutral site. The Showdown fits in perfectly along with things like the Big 12 Tournament, this time showcasing the wonderful facilities, and the surrounding revitalized downtown, to a large audience.
The game itself may not live on in the annals of great contests, but the Tucson Sidewinders and Toledo Mud Hens got some national attention, its players and organizations getting well-deserved kudos for winning their respective league championships.
So all of this seemingly adds up to a huge whopper of a victory for everyone. But there's been a feeling I've had since I arrived in Oklahoma City. It's a sensation that's been hard to verbalize, so I hesitated before writing about it. But who am I to let that keep me from trying?
In the end, the Bricktown Showdown was missing something. Even with the big crowd, the big coverage, even the big entertainment (Zooperstars, baby!), there was something missing at Bricktown Ballpark. It's something I felt when I was there in May for that Big 12 tourney. It took me a while, but I figured out finally what it was.
Buzz. Electricity. Excitement.
It's not that the crowd, mostly made up of neutral observers, wasn't into the game. They even made some noise later on and stuck around for the entire game (fireworks didn't hurt). Maybe it's because this concept is new, something even the teams involved didn't totally know how to get behind; maybe the one-game format made it seem more like an exhibition, a spectacle, than an actual championship game; maybe because of both of these things it seemed a touch anticlimactic for both teams. Whatever the reason, I must admit that as nice an event as it was, it left me feeling a little flat.
By no means do I think the idea should be scrapped. Who knows, maybe it just needs a few years to settle in as a mainstay. After a couple of years, perhaps the International and Pacific Coast league champions will truly be looking forward to coming to Oklahoma City -- or anyplace else after the RedHawks' rights run out following the 2008 season. Maybe the folks in Oklahoma will really get jazzed about this game as an annual event worth going to and not just for the snow tubing beyond the right-field fence.
If that's true, that shouldn't keep the organizers from tweaking things a bit. I'm the helpful sort, so I've come up with a few suggestions to make the Bricktown Showdown more exciting and create more of that buzz I felt it lacked.
1. More advanced pub. Clearly, something was done right considering the crowd that showed up. But I was surprised that on the day before the event, there wasn't a word of editorial content in the local paper about it. Now that one of these is in the books, both leagues and the RedHawks should get some of the participants from this year's game to talk up the 2007 version, both locally and nationally. Many of these players will be in the big leagues next year, so it would carry extra weight if MVP Scott Hairston hit the airwaves and the papers talking up what a good time he had. Or if winning pitcher Micah Owings, no stranger to large college baseball events as his Tulane team went to Omaha just over a year ago, raved about the local support and how future Showdown participants would love coming to Oklahoma City. Almost every player there spoke about how they felt the site was among the best in all of Triple-A baseball. More of that would not only get local fans excited (and puffed up with civic pride), it would get Triple-A players revved up to make the trip in the first place.
2. Make it a bigger party. In full disclosure, I didn't make it to the gala in Bricktown the night before the game. But from what I heard, it was a nice little gathering near the stadium. Not good enough. This thing needs to be blown out. Think All-Star Game or Super Bowl, albeit on a smaller scale. Bricktown is a fantastic area with wonderful restaurants and bars lining a canal/river. They even have gondala-like boats you can ride. Why not use it all? Shut it down, get all of the local establishments involved, turn the place into a huge street/river festival. Create a carnival-like atmosphere.
At the same time, in the days leading up to the game, there should be some kind of Minor League FanFest, with games, merchandise, exhibits, the works. All of this, of course, would bring in more media and help create, that's right, a greater buzz. If the Bricktown Showdown becomes a four-day event, imagine the foot traffic that would come downtown to check it out and get pumped up about the game each year.
3. The one-game format. I've been struggling with this one. A majority of the players said they'd be more into the Showdown if it were a true series, best-of-3 or best-of-5. That way, a true Triple-A Champion could be crowned. Even Mobley said at first the International League was against the idea of a one-game deal because that wasn't traditional baseball.
At the same time, there are a few things to consider, financial and otherwise. The cost of putting on several games might take away from what could be gained. And as it was, there were players who were heading to the big leagues who had to wait a few extra days to get there in order to play in that game. I'm not sure it'd be fair to ask them to wait longer to get that experience. Of course if the Showdown grows, players hopefully will eventually want to stick around for it.
But here's one for the suggestion box. Make it a best-of-3, complete with the FanFest, gala, carnival atmosphere throughout the entire span of the series. Sprinkle in some other games, from community-based Little League games to some pie-in-the-sky thinking: More Minor League championships. That's right, taking from an idea colleague Kevin Czerwinski floated a while back when the Showdown was first announced, bring in some other league champions and make this a true Tournament of Champions. How about bringing in the Eastern League, Texas League and Southern League winners in a round-robin kind of deal? Use those game as a precursor to daily doubleheaders finished with the Showdown series.
OK, maybe I've lost sight of reality here at the end. But someone needs to keep thinking out of the box. Kudos to the International and Pacific Coast leagues for doing so to get this thing off the ground. Some may look at Tuesday night's event and say, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
But I've always been more of a "strike while the iron is hot" kind of guy. So Mobley and Pacific Coast League counterpart Branch Rickey, feel free to print this puppy out and use it in all brainstorming meetings moving forward.
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.