The idea of having some sort of Minor League Championship played at the Triple-A level is not a new one. When Tucson and Toledo square off in Tuesday's Bricktown Showdown, it will simply be the latest incarnation of a tradition that carries back for more than a century.
The Little World Series began shortly after the turn of last century with the Buffalo Bisons of the International League topping the Saint Paul Saints of the American Association in three games to get the whole thing started. The year was 1904, and Minor League Baseball was looking to pattern itself after the big leaguers, hoping to crown a champion of its own.
Interest and logistics, however, made participation sporadic, and it wasn't until the 1920s that the Little World Series was played on a consistent, annual basis. But by the time the Great Depression was in full swing, the Junior World Series, which the Little World Series had morphed into, had become a reality and would go on to be a staple in Minor League Baseball for the better part of the next four decades with the International League and American Association squaring off in an annual battle.
The Junior World Series was played through 1962, and then again from 1969 through 1975, before the event finally fell by the wayside. There have been several attempts since then to bring some sort of title game back, beginning in 1983 with the Triple-A World Series, a round-robin event among the International League, Pacific Coast League and American Association.
The Tidewater Tides, the Denver Bears and the Portland Beavers met that year in Louisville to crown a champion, with the representatives from the IL coming away with the title. The Tides posted a 3-1 mark in the round-robin affair, while Portland split its four games. Denver won only one of the four games it played to finish in third place. It marked the first and last time all three leagues would face each other in such a manner in the same season.
Crowning a true Triple-A champion became an easier prospect once the American Association folded. Las Vegas hosted The Triple-A World Series in 1998, the first of three consecutive years when a champion would be crowned at the Minor Leagues' highest level.
New Orleans (PCL) defeated Buffalo (IL) in four games to win the crown in '98, with future Astros' star Lance Berkman earning Most Valuable Player honors. Southpaw John Halama pitched a complete game in the opener as New Orleans dominated, 7-2. He struck out nine, while Daryle Ward hit a pair of homers to provide the offense.
Buffalo rallied in Game 2 behind James Betzold, Phil Hiatt and Jeff Manto, each of whom had a pair of RBIs in the 9-2 rout. But the Bisons' excitement was short lived. Ken Ramos and Marc Ronan hit back-to-back homers in the eighth inning of Game 3 to give the Zephyrs a 3-2 win and the series lead, setting the stage for Berkman's big finale.
Berkman had three homers, a single and six RBIs in a 12-6 Game 4 victory, giving New Orleans the crown. Berkman ended up hitting .467 in the series. Manto had three hits and three RBIs for Buffalo.
The Pacific Coast League won again in 1999, this time needing five games as the Vancouver Canadians outlasted the Charlotte Knights. The victory was Vancouver's swan song because the club left Canada and moved to California, where it became the Sacramento River Cats in 2000. But the Canadians went out on top, rallying to win the final two games of the series by a combined score of 25-4.
Mark Mulder pitched a complete game in the clincher, tossing a seven-hitter as Vancouver cruised, 16-2. Terrence Long drove in four runs and was named series MVP, hitting .429 with nine hits and 10 RBIs.
The International League gained a measure of revenge in 2000, winning what would be the final Triple-A World Series. Indianapolis topped Memphis in four games. Shortstop Santiago Perez earned MVP honors after hitting .462 with two homers, three RBIs and four runs scored. Horacio Estrada pitched eight strong innings in Game 4, which Indianapolis won easily, 9-2.
Lack of fan interest in Las Vegas and poor television ratings were just two of the factors that contributed to the competition's demise. There was talk of shortening the event to a three-game, weekend series as opposed to the weeklong five-game affair that had been taking place. Cooperstown, N.Y., site of the Hall of Fame, was discussed as a possible venue, as was rotating the series through the home parks of the participants.
In the end, all the kinks couldn't be worked out, leaving Triple-A Baseball without a final, ultimate winner. That is until now. The Bricktown Showdown, which will be played in Oklahoma City, is an event that both IL president Randy Mobley and PCL head man Branch Rickey hope will generate enough interest to keep the championship going for years to come, creating a new tradition in Triple-A postseason history.