For here we are on the cusp of Opening Day, when 120 teams across the nation begin their season (40 more will join them in June). Much has changed since the end of the 2012 campaign, and in this, the final edition of Minoring in Business, we'll take a look at the most significant occurrences of the offseason. Conscientious perusal of this article hopefully will result in a better understanding of the myriad groundbreakings, rebrandings, affiliation switches and, of course, new logos that were announced over the course of the past six months.
This article then is where the Minors are coming from. And Opening Day? We will be there soon enough.
The 2012 Minor League season officially ended on Sept. 18, when Reno defeated Pawtucket in the annual Triple-A Championship. But what can perhaps be described as the first piece of significant offseason news occurred four days prior, when after years of financial and legal challenges, the Charlotte Knights broke ground on a new stadium. The $54 million uptown Charlotte facility, since christened BB&T Ballpark, will open in 2014 and replace the team's current home of Knights Stadium (located across the state line in Fort Mill, S.C.)
One week later, Hillsboro's brand-new ballclub got in on the action with its stadium groundbreaking. This city-funded facility will open for business in June, hosting a brand new Northwest League franchise that was summarily named "The Hops" in honor of one of Oregon's most notable crops. The Hops, who relocated from Yakima, Wash., are filling a baseball void in the Portland-area market that had existed since the Pacific Coast League's Portland Beavers left town following the 2011 campaign. Their arrival is just one of many notable aspects of the 2013 Northwest League season, which will be overseen by new president Mike Ellis.
Quad Cities trail blazer
In groundbreaking news of a different sort, in February the Quad Cities River Bandits named Harold Craw as their new general manager. Craw, formerly an assistant general manager with the Charleston RiverDogs, is the first black GM in Midwest League history. Perhaps more significantly, he is the only black GM currently working in Minor League Baseball.
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"It's flattering, but at the same time it's unfortunate that there aren't more African-American general managers in Minor League Baseball," Craw said shortly after his hiring. "There are many qualified individuals who I feel could do a good job."
The affiliation shuffle
As you may recall, 2012 was an even-numbered year. And in the world of Minor League Baseball, that simple fact has a special significance: It's Player Development Contract season! Player Development Contracts, commonly referred to as PDCs, are the two- or four-year contracts that bind Minor League teams to Major League organizations. Throughout September, a number of new relationships were formed. The Midwest League featured the most upheaval in this regard, but the affiliation switch that got the most attention was the Buffalo Bisons' four-year agreement with the (relatively) nearby Toronto Blue Jays. This left the Bisons' previous parent club, the New York Mets, to strike up a less-than-ideal alliance with the distant Las Vegas 51s.
That's the way it goes. As a wise man once said, all's fair in love and war.
Every offseason is sure to bring a bevy of identity overhauls throughout the Minors, and this year was no exception. The award for "most thorough reinvention" goes to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, which after six seasons as the Yankees, became the "RailRiders" (a reference to Scranton's claim to fame as birthplace as the electric streetcar). The RailRiders rebrand is in conjunction with a near-total stadium renovation project that should make the team's PNC Field one of the best in all of Minor League Baseball. (Also of note on the renovation front: In the course of doing construction on Spokane's Avista Stadium, workers found a vintage floor safe.)
Another Northeastern-based reinvention of note came courtesy of Reading. After 45 years as the Phillies, the club changed its name to the "Fightin Phils." This change to the moniker, while relatively minor, was part of a rebranding effort that included an array of new logos and uniforms highlighted by the ornery ostrich that serves as the primary logo. Such an irreverent approach caused some consternation in the tradition-minded Reading market, but longtime general manager Scott Hunsicker had confidence that the ostrich era would eventually be looked upon as a positive.
"There's a lot of fun to be had with a large flightless bird," he said. "It's the sort of thing that can get families excited and kids excited, with the goal being to get more kids to fall in love with baseball."
But that, of course, is not all. Some other new looks of note:
Lexington Legends -- The royal blue, kelly green and cream color scheme was a bit unorthodox, but nowhere near as unorthodox as the team's decision to have the road cap feature a mustache and nothing else.
Erie SeaWolves -- The SeaWolves made sure to make their team name as literal as possible -- nautical components abound, with the primary logo remaining an eyepatch-wearing wolf. A SeaWolf, as it were.
Buffalo Bisons -- Buffalo looked to the past for inspiration, adopting a red-and-white color scheme and returning to a primary logo that features Buster the Bison getting ready to bash a home run.
Greeneville Astros -- The Houston Astros changed their look this offseason so Greeneville, being the dutiful affiliate that it is, did the same.
Hudson Valley Renegades -- Rascal the Raccoon gets an update for the 21st century, with the team adopting a blue, silver and black color scheme.
Aberdeen IronBirds -- The IronBirds apparently felt that their cartoonish old logo was, well, too cartoonish. Now they look like lean, mean avian machines.
Eugene Emeralds -- Why yes, that is a rampaging neon green Sasquatch brandishing a tree in a threatening manner!
St. Lucie Mets -- A Flushing favorite gets Florida-ized, because even Mr. Met needs to go on vacation once in a while.
And what goes for individual teams goes for the industry. A major component of Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner's Opening Session speech at the Baseball Winter Meetings was the "Project Brand" initiative, an industry-wide effort to promote Minor League Baseball as a creative and compelling national brand.
"Our future is at its brightest this very moment," O'Conner stated. "But we have to learn from our past and realize we are better as one -- one unit, one organization and one force that harnesses its resources and lifts even the weakest teams to greater heights."
For posterity's sake, let it be known that this was the offseason of the "Harlem Shake." More than two dozen teams took part in this short-lived but intensely popular Internet dance craze, the most authoritative rundown of which can be found here.