Minor League Baseball's 160 teams are divided into 14 leagues, 13 of which use buses as the primary mode of road trip transportation. And then there's the Pacific Coast League, which, more often than not, flies the friendly skies.
When the Pacific Coast League was founded at the turn of the century, its moniker was an accurate one as the teams included therein operated at points along the West Coast. But the circuit has expanded throughout the years -- particularly after the dismantling of the Triple-A American Association following the 1997 campaign -- and it now includes teams scattered throughout 12 states and three time zones.
No Minor League circuit is as geographically disparate as the PCL footprint currently extends as far north as Tacoma, as far east as Nashville and as far south as El Paso (a new addition for 2014). Minor League Baseball rules stipulate that trips over 500 miles in length must be traveled by air, and since private jets are far outside Triple-A operating budgets, this means teams spend much of the season traversing the country via commercial airlines.
That's a whole lot of frequent flyer miles, and it's the task of each Pacific Coast League front office to sort out all of the logistics.
To get a sense of how PCL teams create order out of the seeming chaos of the schedule, I spoke with Reno Aces communications manager Shannon Siders. While her job title might not convey the responsibility, Siders is in her second season of coordinating the Triple-A D-backs affiliate's travel arrangements. Therefore, one of her major offseason tasks is to book the itineraries for each of the team's 12 road trips (half of which involve multiple destinations). To accomplish this, she works closely with local travel agent Candace Spiers and trainer Joe Metz, who travels with the team and is therefore a great source of city-specific information (such as the check-in times at team hotels across the league).
Spiers is currently assembling potential itineraries, and sometime in early 2014, Siders will review the options and book flights for the entire season. Early flights are the rule rather than the exception. When traveling on game days, league policy dictates that teams must take the first option available in order to best ensure that they will make it to the stadium on schedule.
Some cities are more difficult to travel to than others, of course, with Nashville being particularly burdensome from the Aces' geographical perspective.
"It's easier for [the Nashville Sounds] to come here because of the time difference," said Siders. "We're likely to have a couple stops along the way, so you just leave as early as you can and pray that everything goes according to plan. Even if it does, we're still lucky to get there within a few hours of game time."
And while Major League teams average roughly one off day per week, in the PCL they are far less common. Outside of the three day All-Star break, there are just five scheduled off days sprinkled throughout the Aces' 144-game schedule.
"It makes a big difference to have an off day at the beginning or end of a trip, but you don't always have that to work with," said Siders. "For example, we have a game in Nashville on [Monday, July 9] but can't fly out the day before because we have a Sunday game, and after that ends, it will be too late. So we have to fly out the next morning, and then [after playing the Sounds] take a bus to Memphis [to play the Redbirds] before flying back to Reno."
And, perhaps inevitably, there will be no time for rest upon arriving in Reno. The very next day marks the start of an eight-game homestand.
Southwest is the Aces' go-to airline due to their "bags fly free" policy, which comes in handy when you're dealing with a traveling party of 32 (give or take) who must pack bags for both personal and professional use.
"Bags fly free, that's really big, but sometimes you just don't have an airline option," said Sider. "Getting to Tacoma is basically always Alaska Air, sometimes Delta."
Comparatively obscure itineraries such as Reno to Tacoma are generally serviced by smaller aircraft, which sometimes can't accommodate all of the luggage that a traveling baseball team requires. Siders remarked that "we work with the airports to make sure that the equipment bags are on first. If the personal bags don't make it then that's something we can deal with later."
But even so, the occasional snafu is bound to occur. Last season, for example, a game in Fresno between the Aces and the Grizzlies was delayed because the Grizzlies' luggage had yet to arrive.
Hassles like these, combined with perpetually early departure times, sometimes make the bus (much maligned in Minor League circles) seem like the preferable option. The Aces are able to travel via this time-honored method to Fresno and Sacramento, and may expand to other locales in 2014.
"There are rules regarding how far the bus can take us, not over 500 miles, and we're close with both Salt Lake and Las Vegas," said Siders. "We've thrown around the idea of possibly busing to Salt Lake, where we could hit the road after a night game and get to the hotel by early morning."
There are no ideal options and even after the Aces have booked the entirety of their 2014 travel schedule, the work has just begun. Come Opening Day, Sider will be responsible for coordinating shuttles to and from the airport for both the Aces and visiting clubs while also working with a moving company that handles the large amounts of luggage involved. She and a seasonal assistant also play a "meet-and-greet" role at the airport every time teams arrive, solving problems as they arise.
"It's just to have a friendly face, to have someone who can help out," she said. "We're making sure that the bus is there, and that everyone is finding their luggage okay. If they have to wait for it, they can get a ride with us, or we can arrange something for them."
The logistics never end, in other words, but it's all part of the job.
"I enjoy it, working with all of the different parties involved to make sure that everything is executed perfectly," said Siders, before reconsidering her words. "Well, it's not always enjoyable if something goes wrong."