The 2011 Minor League Baseball season is a mere six days away, and fans everywhere are focused on the future.
Understandably so, but let's not forget that the key to understanding the future is to understand the past. With that in mind, this final edition of "Minoring in Business" takes a look back at the offseason that was. Familiarization with the information contained therein will result in authoritative knowledge of the Minor League landscape -- just in time for the resumption of daily baseball action.
For your edification and enjoyment, the 2010-11 Minor League Baseball offseason roundup.
Comings and goings
The most noteworthy stories to emerge from the offseason generally involve team relocations, and this year was no exception.
In November, it was officially announced that the Pacific Coast League franchise formerly known as the Portland Beavers would be competing in Tucson as the Padres' Triple-A affiliate. But this move is not planned as a permanent one, with Tucson merely serving as a placeholder until the new ownership group (led by San Diego Padres owner Jeff Moorad) can secure funding for a stadium in Escondido, Calif. Political and fiscal realities have put this plan in limbo, however, making it likely that the club will compete in Tucson for two years and perhaps more.
The next month, an equally significant (and complex) relocation was announced, one that serves as a perfect summation of the term "domino effect." The Southern League's Carolina Mudcats will be relocating to Pensacola, Fla., for the 2012 campaign, but the Zebulon, N.C.-based franchise will live on in a slightly different incarnation. The Carolina League's Kinston Indians will relocate to Zebulon, taking on the familiar Mudcats moniker and ensuring no break in affiliated baseball action. This leaves Kinston as the odd man out, forcing the small but devoted North Carolina metropolis to search for a new professional baseball tenant in 2012.
Breakups, new relationships, renewal of vows
The conclusion of each even-numbered campaign is accompanied by the expiration of many Player Development Contracts, the agreements that bind Minor League clubs with Major League affiliates. Relationship analogies abound when talking about this time of year -- many teams renew harmonious pairings, others run into the arms of new suitors, while some are left to settle for all that's left available to them.
An overview of offseason PDC changes was covered in a previous "Minoring in Business" article, along with a story explaining the history of these important agreements. Some of the most notable:
The sale of the Texas Rangers to an ownership group led by Nolan Ryan and Chuck Greenberg was significant, as both individuals already had ownership ties to Minor League clubs. Therefore, the Rangers aligned themselves with Ryan's Triple-A Round Rock Express and Greenberg's Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach Pelicans. It remains to be seen how Greenberg's sudden exit from the Rangers' brass last month will affect the latter relationship.
The Toronto Blue Jays and Vancouver Canadians -- Canada's lone Major and Minor League franchise respectively -- announced a four-year PDC in mid-September. The Canadians will serve as Toronto's Class A Short-Season affiliate.
The Baltimore Orioles opted not to field a Rookie-level Appalachian League affiliate in 2011, thus ending their 53-year relationship with Bluefield -- the longest affiliation in all of professional agreement. Bluefield is still for the birds, however, as the Toronto Blue Jays swooped in to take Baltimore's place.
News of all kinds
And speaking of PDCs, one of the most significant developments of the offseason was the announcement that the Professional Baseball Agreement had been extended through 2020. This is the agreement that officially binds Major and Minor League Baseball, with its most crucial component being the guarantee of 160 PDCs. This guarantee helps to ensure industry stability.
Meanwhile, new innovations continued to emerge from Vero Beach Sports Village, the sports complex formerly known as "Dodgertown" and now owned by Minor League Baseball. In September, Dave Raymond (the original Phillie Phanatic) announced he would be conducting "Mascot Boot Camp" there. Four months later, the news emerged that the complex would host an all-inclusive Umpire School.
Other prominent developments included the announcement that the annual Triple-A National Championship Game would take place in Albuquerque in 2011, marking the first year of a rotating host format. And in the Land Down Under, the first season of a revamped Australia Baseball League got underway, proving that it's always baseball season somewhere. The Perth Heat won the championship in two straight over the Sydney Blue Sox.
They've got the (new) look
Appropriately enough, the '11 season will feature 11 teams sporting new or overhauled identities. This includes the aforementioned Tucson Padres, of course, who opted for a look based on retro San Diego duds. The Omaha Royals, who will be playing in brand-new Werner Park, changed their name to the Storm Chasers and created an identity based around this meteorological moniker. Meanwhile, the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx announced that they will henceforth be known as the Jackson Generals.
Another eight teams changed their style while keeping the name. The Altoona Curve "engineered" a new identity, while the Asheville Tourists are over the moon for theirs. The Fort Myers Miracle emphasized their tropical environs, the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers got reptilian, the Round Rock Express proved they're on the right track and the Lake County Captains got even more C-worthy. And, though 2011 will be the Kinston Indians' final season, the campaign will nonetheless be characterized by the dawn of a new "K."
Can't stop, won't stop
Contrary to popular belief, baseball is a year-round occupation. The most notable examples of this truism could be found in Tacoma, Reading and South Bend, as all three of these clubs underwent extensive multi-million dollar stadium renovations. Meanwhile, the Buffalo Bisons installed an 80-by-33-foot videoboard at Coca-Cola Field, the largest in Minor League Baseball.
But these are anomalous (not to mention costly) occurrences. More modest newsworthy innovations included the West Michigan Whitecaps delivering heart-shaped Fifth Third burgers, the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers offering free tickets to displaced Super Bowl fans, the Bowling Green Hot Rods launching a fully interactive Facebook Fans promotion and the Fort Wayne TinCaps leaping into the world of three-dimensional videoboard technology.
The world of Minor League Baseball lost several notable figures this offseason, individuals whose absence will certainly be felt at the ballpark. The International League was hit particularly hard, as Toledo Mud Hens broadcaster Frank Gilhooley, Pawtucket Red Sox owner Ben Mondor and Harold Cooper, a former league president, all passed on. The Pacific Coast League lost a pair of on-field legends in the form of shortstop Artie Wilson and slugger Gus Zernial. The former integrated the Oakland Oaks in 1949, and the latter went on to become a prominent supporter of the PCL's Fresno Grizzlies after his playing career ended.