04/04/2007 10:00 AM ET
Class A boasts new names, familiar faces
2007 brings new Tampa Bay affiliate, Lester's comeback from cancer
By Michael Echan / MLB.com
Finally, the chains of another cold, dreary winter have been broken and spring is upon us. The South Atlantic League and the Midwest League both produced fantastic players like Justin Upton, Andrew McCutchen and Jay Bruce while giving fans incredible moments, such as the Philadelphia Phillies starting to develop a Big Three rotation of their own.
But sometimes winter's cabin fever can dull even the most vivid memories. This offseason was also one of great
change within the Minor Leagues, so those who weren't paying attention might be caught off-guard when they go to the ballpark this year and find out their team changed affiliations, names, or maybe even the entire stadium.
Here are 10 things every fan should know to stay up to date with what's going on in Class A ball.
1. Defending the crown
As the 2007 season gears up for Opening Day, two squads will prepare to defend their 2006 championships. The Lakewood BlueClaws rode the arms of Carlos Carrasco, Josh Outman and Matt Maloney for their first ever championship, beating the Augusta GreenJackets three games to one. The West Michigan Whitecaps were crowned kings of the Midwest League after they outlasted the Kane County Cougars, three games to one, as well, after finishing a league-best 89-48.
2. Out with the old and in with the "Loon"
2006 was the final season in the long and storied history of the Southwest Michigan Devil Rays. OK, so it wasn't so long and not really storied, but the franchise picked up and moved nearly 140 miles north from Battle Creek to Midland. Now, the Great Lakes Loons will serve as the Los Angeles Dodgers' Class A affiliate.
They also have some new digs, too. The HOK-designed Dow Diamond will be the first brand new stadium in the Midwest League since Cedar Rapids' Veterans Memorial Stadium and Peoria's O'Brien Field opened their doors in 2002. The Loons open their new nest on April 13 when they take on the Lansing Lugnuts.
3. New looks and...
While Great Lakes did a complete makeover of their franchise, other teams made more subtle adjustments to their looks. The Burlington Bees overhauled their logo, which changed the colors from a bright yellow and blue scheme to shades of amber and navy, and showcases a hovering hornet, wielding a bat and wearing a white jersey.
Augusta went along a similar path as they redesigned their logo, too. Augusta's main logo looks more like an official seal, with the team's name inside a green circle and a green jacket-wearing bee leaning on a bat inside of that circle.
4. New names
Other than the Loons, no other Class A team changed their name or stadiums, but the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers slightly altered their stadium's name. The Timber Rattlers announced on March 9 that their home field, formerly called Fox Cities Stadium, will now be called Time Warner Cable Field at Fox Cities Stadium. That just rolls off the tongue, doesn't it?
The partnership will last until 2016 and will include perks like TWC being able to broadcast live or taped games and Sundays at the ballpark becoming Time Warner Cable Customer Appreciation Day. TWC customers that come to the stadium with their monthly bill will receive half-priced reserve seat tickets.
5. Familiar faces
The vast majority of the players in both the Midwest and South Atlantic Leagues are between 20 and 22, barely old enough to have seen some of their current managers starring in the Major Leagues. In the SAL, former Yankees and Reds outfielder Roberto Kelly is now at the helm of the
GreenJackets, instructing the youngsters on the finer points of outfield defense and base running.
Over in the MWL, Great Lakes is led by former eight-time All-Star catcher Lance "Big Wheel" Parrish. The most familiar face of the Peoria Chiefs won't be some hot-shot prospect, though. The Cubs' Class A affiliate is managed by Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg.
6. Change is in the air
The offseason saw dozens of Minor League franchises change their affiliations, ending partnerships with Major League clubs that had lasted many decades. The SAL was no exception, with Columbus (Dodgers to Devil Rays), Hagerstown (Mets to Nationals) and Savannah (Nationals to Mets) all switching parent clubs. The only exception to this wave of change was the MWL, which saw only one team, Great Lakes, change their affiliation from Tampa Bay to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
7. What in the world?
One of the biggest reasons why millions of people come to Minor League ballparks -- other than the games -- are all the unusual sights and characters you'd never see in the Majors. The Dayton Dragons have Roofman, a caped crusader who lives on the roof of Fifth Third Field and throws out autographed softee balls to the crowd.
Peoria, Ill. might be as far away from a tropical paradise as you can get, but don't tell that to the Chiefs fans there. Situated on the left-field berm at O'Brien Field are nine wavy palm trees, which act like a magnet to fans during the sweltering summer months.
8. Seeing stars
A month before the big leaguers head to San Francisco for their All-Star Game, both Class A leagues hold their mid-summer classic, or should it be the early summer classic? On June 19, both the SAL and the MWL hold their All-Star games at State Mutual Stadium in Rome, Ga. and Elfstrom Stadium in Geneva, Ill., respectively. Last year, the East beat the West, 7-1, in the MWL contest with Dayton's Jay Bruce winning MVP honors. In the SAL, the North blanked the South, 4-0, as West Virginia's Mat Gamel won the MVP award.
9. The road to recovery
Cancer is something that is not supposed to affect young people in the prime of their lives, but that is exactly what happened last year when Boston Red Sox left-hander Jon Lester was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in his back. Thankfully, the cancer was caught early enough that doctors were able to effectively treat Lester.
Now with the cancer in remission, a healthy Lester's comeback trail starts in Greenville, S.C. with the Greenville Drive. The environs should be somewhat familiar to Lester, as West End Field was built with the exact dimensions of Fenway Park, right down to the Green Monster and the Bermuda Triangle in center field.
10. An end of an era
When most people think of a "baseball lifer," they think of some coach or general manager in his early 70s who started playing as a teenager and has been enjoying the big-league lifestyle for many decades. Rarely will people imagine being involved in the Minor Leagues for 60 years, especially in just one league, which is exactly what South Atlantic League president John H. Moss has done.
Moss has been involved in Minor League Baseball since 1947 when he became the youngest league president ever for the Western Carolina League. 2007 will now be Moss' last at the helm for the SAL, which he turned from a semi-pro circuit to a professional league in 1959. His last day in office will be Dec. 31.
Michael Echan is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.